Spinach soup and starving children in Africa

Like many fortunate baby boomers in the so-called "First World", I grew up without any first-hand experience of poverty. No one could have called us poor. We certainly weren't exceptionally rich either, at least not by western, middle-class standards, and there was always food on the table.

My sister and I were not allowed to be picky eaters. We also learned early on not to be "food foolish". Refusing to eat food we had never tasted before was something our mother would not tolerate. Still, there were some things I strongly disliked. Spinach soup was one. 

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I loathed the way it was served in a big rapidly cooling lake of dark green, bitter-tasting mush. It had a slimy texture that seemed to stay stuck to the roof of my palate. And the half boiled egg (as per Swedish cooking traditions) bobbing in the middle of all that greenness and refusing to cooperate when I tried to cut it with the edge of my soup spoon never failed to turn my stomach. 

In case you wonder, the above photo was taken today, at lunch. My taste buds have changed and these days, I relish the taste of nutrient-filled spinach soup. (So does my husband.) Maybe you'd like the recipe? I'll add it at the end of this post.

Back to my childhood. I don't know how many times I was admonished, "Eat up your food. Don't you know there are starving children in Africa?" If talking back hadn't been such a serious juvenile crime, I would have said that I wasn't ignorant. I knew my father, who worked for UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund), in the procurement department, was trying to help them and their mothers. He organized shipments of dried milk, and vials of penicillin. And there were kits too, for when babies where born. All that, I knew, was important work (although the details of conception became somewhat of a mystery after overhearing  my parents refer to a lady whose baby had been an "accident", a term that didn't jive with a frank "birds and bees" lesson). 

I felt genuinely sorry for starving African children. I've had a vivid imagination from a very young age onward and easily pictured myself in someone else's shoes. Being really, really hungry was clearly a terrible plight. But how did eating up my spinach in the kitchen of a house in the suburbs of Paris really benefit a child in Africa? Could I somehow donate my spinach? That, apparently, was not possible. End of parent-child discussion. Eventually, I always ate up my spinach.

My sister and I both ended up meeting starving children. In India, not Africa. I was ten when our father was posted to New Delhi and we setttled into our new home in Defence Colony; my sister thirteen. Impressionable ages. "Don't you think your children are too young to go to India?" my parents were asked. "Wouldn't it be better to put them in boarding school?" I'm grateful my parents decided we would move as a family or not at all and didn't shelter us from the truth.

Poverty stared us in the face wherever we went in New Delhi and elsewhere in India. Almost every day (on my way to the morning-only classroom organized for those children who followed French-language correspondence courses) I saw beggars. One haunted me for years. I would wake up in the middle of the night and see him again. A man. Bald. Old-looking. A whitish dhoti (traditional male garb, worn around the waist), covered part of his legs. The rest of him was skin and bones, with stick-thin arms and legs. He sat cross-legged on a mat, in the middle of an open-air courtyard (where stairs led to our family dentist). And from his frail-looking neck hung a glass-framed photograph (large enough to cover most but not all of his protruding rib cage). On that photo, another bald-headed, skin-and-bones man was portrayed in black and white. Who was that? Looking back, I suspect it was Ghandi (1869-1948).

I also remember one particular girl. I'm pretty sure I could sketch her from memory. Ten years old, or thereabouts. Brooding eyes, a sad mouth, unkempt hair, bare feet, worn clothes. And a pot-bellied toddler (her younger brother, I assumed) on her hip. "He has a swollen stomach because he's not eating properly," my mother explained. "And no," she added, "you're not allowed to give her your pocket money."

I hated that rule. Absolutely hated it with all the passion a ten-year-old can muster. I protested and tried to argue. Cried and ran to my room, slamming the door behind me. Pouted and sulked. All to no effect. The rule was iron-clad, no exceptions. I thought my parents were mean. It wasn't fair that those children had nothing when I had so much. It was my pocket money, and I had always been told I could use it as I pleased. So why couldn't I give it away, all of it, every week, if that is what I wanted? My parents did their best to justify their position. If I gave money to one child, a dozen others, if not more, would appear. (I knew that was true; I'd seen it myself.)

My weekly allowance would not be enough for all of the equally-deserving children. They would fight, wanting to know why only some got a gift and not others. This kind of charity, however well meant, was not helpful. The solution, I was told, lay in the kind of work my father (and countless others like him) did, setting up emergency feeding programs, such as the large scale one in 1966-67, when a particularly harsh drought hit the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Working with CARE, UNICEF began a school feeding program based on a daily allocation of 1 oz (28.3 grams) of powdered milk, and 2 oz (56.7 grams) of grain, for each expectant and lactating mother, and each child aged 11 and under. From my father's personal diaries, I know the suffering he witnessed weighed heavy on his heart as long as he lived. 

Even if I didn't fully understand my father's responsibilites, I was proud that he worked for the United Nations. I generally don't go for flag waving (with its implicit "my country is better than yours"). But I believe in the UN and I treasure the small flag (5.7 x 3.9 in or 14.5 x 10 cm) my father received after 20 years of service (11 more years followed before his retirement). If you look closely at the first photo in my previous post ("May I invite you into my office?"), you'll see the flag, next to a small globe of the world. Here is a close-up view:  

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My father's UN career and the two years in India undoubtedly shaped my life, awakening in me a fierce determination to do my little bit to improve conditions in developing countries. One of the best decisions I made was to become a United Nations Volunteer in Botswana, Africa. That's another topic for another post.

It's time to wrap up this post, by getting back to its main topic, child malnutrition in Africa. Early on, I decided that I didn't want this blog to be quote-filled, nor statistics-heavy. But please allow me to quote one reliable source, the Africa Progres Panel, chaired by Koffi Anan:

I'm not trying to lay a guilt trip on you. Guilt is not a good motivator. Neither for raising a child, nor encouraging involvement in any cause. At least, that's what I believe. Powerful multiplier effects can come from compassion and empathy. And I believe in encouraging those two positive traits early in a childs' life. By now, you know I have a soft spot in my heart for UNICEF. Do you buy holiday cards? UNICEF has lovely ones (and all-occasion ones too, as well as corporate cards). I've always valued the multingual greetings inside the cards.

But the holidays are a long way off. Hallowe'en will come first. As a parent, that always meant making sure our daughter had her orange "Trick-Or-Treat for UNICEF" box. She was so proud when she took it back to school, full of coins. I was sad to learn recently that this program stopped in Canada in 2006 (for "safety and administrative reasons" although fundraising online has been introduced). I'm glad to hear it continues in the U.S., and that kind-hearted volunteers are still willing to roll up all those pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The boxes in the U.S. are no longer orange; they've been redesigned to look like characters. In 2012, there was a "Create-A-Character Contest". Now that's a neat idea, isn't it? Maybe the contest will run again in 2013 (last year, entries could be submitted from September 1 to October 26). I am getting ahead of myself. It is only March. And I need to put in some time on the novel I'm currently working on. 

Thanks for reading this post. I hope you'll come back to read my next one.

Oops! I nearly forgot. I said I would add my recipe for spinach soup, didn't I? Here it is. (Hope it turns out for you; please don't blame me if your kids don't like it!)

Final spinach soup recipe

Take good care. 

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