American Martyrs parishioners learn about hunger in Africa from one who lived it.Why is Africa always hungry? Why can’t we “get hold” of it and really do something about it? Why are African children still dying from hunger in the 21st century?

These questions were on the minds and lips of American Martyrs parishioners --- most of them JustFaith graduates and members of the parish’s Matthew 25 ministry --- at a recent gathering with a Catholic Relief Services official, who has first-hand experience with the situation.

“Unfortunately, today is no different than a half a century ago,” Kenyan native Peter Kimeu, CRS regional technical advisor for partnership, solidarity and justice for East Africa, told the audience at American Martyrs, part of his tour of parishes and schools in California and other states.

Born in a rural area stricken by drought and famine every three years, Kimeu knows how it feels to go day after day with no food on the table. “Hunger hits in different ways,” he admitted.

The national cross-country athlete recalled how he liked running home to and from elementary school in the 1960s. Arriving home, he would collect firewood to prepare the “stove” for the food he fantasized his mother would bring home. He would put water to boil and waited (anxiously) for his parents together with his three younger sisters.

But when his mother arrived, the hopes vanished. She was empty-handed, but encouraged the kids to keep hoping; maybe their father would bring food. Hours later, hope would disappear again, as the head of the family also arrived empty-handed.

“We would go to sleep hungry and with zero hopes to eat breakfast the next morning,” he told American Martyrs parishioners.

His mother, he recalled, would always tell her children to suck their finger before going to sleep in order to generate enough acid fluids that would help reduce their hunger. Eating chewed-up sugar cane that someone else had spat on the road was nothing uncommon for little Peter and his sisters, as a way to calm their starvation.

Despite their poverty, his mother never lost focus on her children’s education, although she and her husband never attended school. Once he graduated from secondary school, Kimeu attended a seminary for two years, and then discerned he wanted to have his own family. After working as deputy principal and principal at public high schools, he joined CRS 32 years ago.

‘Impossible to ignore’

His testimony --- which included an appeal to support Operation Rice Bowl, CRS’ Lenten program to support poor countries --- impacted the attentive audience of the Manhattan Beach parish.

“It’s impossible to ignore something so catastrophic and help if we have the means to help them,” said Katie Sindelar, a history and political science specialist. She said she has a special interest in showing her solidarity to Africans and in the future would like to visit on a mission. 

About 13 million people are currently in dire need of humanitarian aid in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa. They are, said Kimeu, suffering the “worst drought in decades,” especially in Somalia, where conflict and chaos have prevented the kind of water resource and agriculture development that has taken place in Kenya and Ethiopia, according to CRS reports.

Many families in these areas have been placed in the Dadaab refugee camp, where between 1,300 and 1,500 refugees arrive on a daily basis. CRS is assisting about 350,000 people at Dadaab, and aiding surrounding communities impacted by the influx of refugees; in Somalia, it has helped 65,000 people in the stricken areas and assisted displaced families with basic necessities.

In Ethiopia, CRS heads a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, distributing food to more than one million people together with nine other humanitarian organizations. CRS will provide families with emergency water filtration systems while helping repair broken water systems. 

The organization also helps stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among children. Forecasts show that by 2015 about 15 million children will incur the disease in Africa.

‘An unforgivable disease’

“Hunger is an unforgivable disease because it is the easiest one to cure,” Kimeu wrote in “Remembering a Hungry Childhood,” an essay published last September in The New York Times. “It is devastating to wake up in the morning and look East, West, South and North and see that there is nothing green that you can chew.”

During his local tour, Kimeu spoke to juniors and sophomores at Chaminade College Preparatory in West Hills, where --- as students built cardboard collection boxes into bowls --- he explained how both recipients and donors benefit from the annual Operation Rice Bowl.

“It takes about $150 to feed an African child per year,” he said, noting that millions of Catholics in the U.S. have made Operation Rice Bowl a Lenten tradition that provides an in-home reminder to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving in the family setting by considering those in need overseas and at home.

The Rice Bowl cartons and a 2012 Lenten Calendar are being distributed in parishes. The calendar --- that runs from Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22) through Easter Sunday (April 8) --- contains a Lenten Prayer, food recipes from different countries, daily reflections and information about six countries where CRS has made a difference in the life of the less fortunate living in rural areas.

“Discuss the calendar’s content with your parents,” Kimeu advised Chaminade students. “Discuss if this is practical and is something you can do.”

The Chaminade and American Martyrs audiences --- many from relatively well-off homes --- appreciated Kimeu’s words.

“We want to raise awareness beyond borders,” said Tom Hoffarth, leader of the Matthew 25 social justice ministry. He said they want their members and CRS donors to learn firsthand where their money goes.

 “We’re part of the problem,” said Anselm Vadim, a longtime advocate of missionary work in Africa and CRS supporter. “Let’s just be touched, get connected and realize we’re one human family,” added the retired engineer who lived in Malawi for a year doing missionary work with his wife Pia.

Information is important, he told the young students and suggested that people need to change the approach regarding how to use the family savings and finances to support countries in need.

“We are very fortunate here in this country,” said Chaminade student Clare Kim, 16. “It’s very different when you see everything from his [Peter Kimeu’s] perspective. It touches the heart more.”

For more information about Catholic Relief Services, visit To learn more about Operation Rice Bowl, visit

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