Hungry for a kinder regime

My following book review appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

Tom Keneally
Knopf, 324pp, $49.95

History is littered with catastrophic examples of government-induced disasters. A new book by the University of Hong Kong’s Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine, claims that 45 million people were killed between 1958 and 1962. Mao achieved this by “collectivising everybody” and forcing “famished people” to work as slave labour.
Today, according to the United Nations, roughly 25,000 people die daily of hunger or hunger-related causes. The recent meeting in New York to assess the Millennium Development Goals found global poverty had reduced but nearly a billion people still were experiencing extreme poverty.

Tom Keneally’s latest work is a detailed examination of how societies should not function. He explains why millions died in Ireland, Bengal and Ethiopia and how “mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than the initiating blights, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or of the grain named teff”.

The book opens with a graphic description of the effect of hunger on the body – swelling stomachs, the “self-devouring state”, heart damage and profound depression – that is largely unseen in the West. Keneally chastises “disaster tourism” and wonders what it will take to force Westerners to see the issue as a phenomenon of the present, not just the past. His well-crafted historical narrative echoes with modern relevance, as there are famines today in various parts of Africa and beyond, mostly away from journalists and bloggers.

In the disasters covered by Three Famines we learn about the necessity of families to economise on the amount eaten daily and the inevitable reduction in healthy food for the body, bringing immune systems to collapse. People in Ethiopia and Bengal were forced to sell bicycles, radios, pots, pans, furniture, jewellery and anything else that would buy needed grain.

Keneally documents the social breakdown in countries where living communally was the only way. For example, the role of landlords in feudal states caused families to be both heavily indebted to men of influence and desperate to find ways to get money when they no longer had land as an insurance policy.

Tragically, religious beliefs often meant life or death. In Bengal, Muslims were unable to eat pigs and turtles and Hindus could not consume cattle: “Many Brahmin women, the members of the intellectual and priestly caste, rather than lower themselves to hunt for food, wasted to death in their homes because they could not bring themselves to eat gruel prepared by either lower-caste or Muslim hands.”

Fear, greed and delusion drove the politics that ultimately sealed the fate of millions. In Ireland, between 1845 and 1852, about a million people died not only from disease but also from government incompetence and an unquestioning belief in the magic of the market to rectify the issues. Lower, middle and upper class resistance was inevitable and Keneally praises a “brave speech” by the leader of Young Ireland, William Smith O’Brien, for going on strike and being imprisoned due to his belief that only mass uprising could solve the nation’s problems. If only revolution had occurred years earlier.

In Bengal in the early 1940s, about 3 million died due to malnutrition and Keneally wonders about the culpability of Winston Churchill; the British prime minister doesn’t escape blame. Readers of a new book by Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire, will be under no illusion about Churchill’s profound racism towards the subcontinent.
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” he said. He blamed the Bengalis for “breeding like rabbits” and didn’t offer any aid for months as hundreds of thousands perished. Bengal suffered as Britain focused on saving white men from Nazi aggression.

Ethiopia also resonates with colonial pain. Keneally details the brutal civil war under the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, a Cold War warrior whose army operated with virtual impunity, destroying lives. An Ethiopian refugee explains there was no hunger before the military went on constant rampages. The Live Aid movement was born at this time and publicly claimed to save millions of starving people. But according to a BBC investigation this year, untold amounts of money were spent on buying weapons and not food for the huddled masses. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s.

Three Famines is a brave attempt at humanising a complex problem that can so easily drown in overwhelming numbers. Keneally warns of new challenges, not least AIDS and climate change. He rightly argues that more Western aid, while not always the panacea, remains essential. The colonial legacy in Africa has barely been acknowledged in the West and famine is its bastard child.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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