By Julia Kurnia
It was Thanksgiving Day, 2008 and I was in Niger, a vast famine-stricken wasteland in the middle of the African continent.
An idealistic twenty-four-year-old, I’d been hired out of graduate school to manage overseas grants on behalf of the US government. This was my second year on the job and I already had a reputation as a maverick. Much to the discomfort of my colleagues, I refused to stay at the expensive hotel normally reserved for US government visitors and settled instead on a cheap hostel. The hotel cost more per day than many Nigeriens earned in a year, and I couldn’t stand the disparity.
I made a holiday phone call to my family in America, and we exchanged the usual Thanksgiving banter about turkey and second pieces of pie. Then I went out to the marketplace to buy dinner. I ordered a Nigerien staple – a big bowl of millet porridge with sauce made from baobab lives – for about ten cents and waited my turn for a spoon.
By that time, I was surrounded by kids, some as young as three years old, barefoot and jostling each other to get closer to me. I assumed they were just curious to see a foreigner, and finished my bowl of porridge as best I could under their stares. But they had more at stake than curiosity. When I set the bowl back on the table, the largest of them, a wiry six-year-old, pounced on it and polished off the leftovers, while the others looked on hungrily. These children were locked already in a grim contest for survival.