Hunger: The ugly truth about the world’s oldest problem

Book review: Martín Caparrós examines the stories and data behind undernourishment

The number of hungry people is again rising while the world produces enough food to feed itself one-and-a-half times over. Photograph:  Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images

The number of hungry people is again rising while the world produces enough food to feed itself one-and-a-half times over. Photograph: Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images

Three women gathered around a hospital cot – a grandmother, a mother, and an aunt. The aunt leans over it and raises a baby boy. She holds him up in the air, looks at him with a strange expression on her face, as if puzzled, and then places him on his mother’s back – his chest pressed against it, his arms and legs spread. And then the mother ties him on with another cloth. And the child stays in place, ready to return home – dead.

This incident, which opens Martín Caparrós’s Hunger, occurred “a few years ago” in Niger. And both the mother, her name was Kadi, and the hunger that stole her child are familiar to historians of Ireland. They are familiar because Caparrós traces hunger in contemporary Niger, at least in part, to historical “plunder”, the crippling distortions of colonialism. And because mothers bearing dead children on their backs were in the years of Ireland’s Great Famine frequently described, often in great detail, in newspapers and the correspondence of those trying to secure relief for the hungry – so often, in fact, that a woman bearing her lost offspring became almost a type, her appearance in a locality an indicator of how bad things had become.

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