By Kathryn Cawdrey
DES MOINES, Iowa — Roger Thurow released The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children-and the World, a new book that delves into the stories of new mothers and their babies in Uganda, India, Guatemala and Chicago.
The book focuses on the first 1,000 days of an infant starting at the mother’s pregnancy and reveals how severe malnutrition of newborn babies influences the child’s capabilities to learn well, grow without stunting and work later in life.
Among the mothers Thurow follows, one is Jessica Saldana, a high school student in a violence-scarred Chicago neighborhood. Others include Esther Okwir in rural Uganda, where the infant mortality rate is among the highest in the world; Shyamkali, the mother of four girls in a low-caste village in India; and Maria Estella, in Guatemala’s western highlands, where most people are riddled with parasites and moms can rarely afford the fresh vegetables they farm,
Thurow spent 1,000 days following these mothers to tell their story. A feat rendered not-so-daunting after he spent a year in rural Africa with smallholder farmers to “raise the clamor” for his 2012 book, The Last Hunger Season: A year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.
Thurow believes that in order to grab the world’s attention on the issue of hunger, and now malnutrition, he needed to spend time on the ground following the people he writes about. For The Last Hunger Season, it was four families of smallholder farmers. This experience helped pave the way for his newest book.
As a foreign correspondent, Thurow worked at the Wall Street Journal for 30 years, and found a special interest in “hungry farmers,” a phrase he believes is “obscene, a shameful oxymoron, and the cruelest irony in Africa.”
The hunger season is the time of year, usually in May and June, that farmers do not have any food for themselves or their families and must wait until the next harvest. In some cases, the hunger season starts as early as January, when families run out of food, or have to sell their remaining supply for education or other expenses.
Seeking to shed light on the hunger season and make it more understandable to readers in the U.S., Thurow picked western Kenya because its farming seasons are similar and corn, the main crop, is familiar to people in the U.S. Thurow approached the non-profit organization One Acre Fund, which supports farmers in the region, to help him find smallholder families.
Thurow found that the farmers he met were very engaging, and says the four families were “willing to put up with [him] over the year.”
Thurow followed a mantra for this project: “outrage and inspire.” Outrage is represented by the statistics and data that depict the severity of hunger and poverty, and his goal is to inspire with the stories of these four farming families.
“Hopefully as readers come to care about the individuals in the book, they will come to care about the issues,” Thurow says. “As a journalist, if I can do nothing else, I can at least raise the clamor.”
Thurow says his year in Kenya was the most difficult reporting he has ever done. Not physically, as his time as a foreign correspondent put him in more dangerous cities and situations, but because he couldn’t help. And, it was difficult for the African families, as their cultural traditions dictate they should offer hospitality and food to guests.
Thurow believed that to best tell this story, he could not intervene. Instead, he had to simply observe and tell the story as it unfolded.
So he stayed in a town about 20 minutes from Malaria, the village he wrote about. He knew that if he stayed with the families, he would force someone out of their bed, and pressure his hosts to provide meals.
Thurow witnessed a common dilemma for smallholder farmers: feed the family or give their children an education. Thurow hopes to show readers how difficult these decisions actually are.
“We laughed together, we cried together, we antagonized over decisions together,” Thurow says. He and Leonida, a farmer in his book, discussed food rationing and school costs. But he also participated in communal meetings and oral storytelling.
“There were difficult times,” Thurow says. “But there were also times of joy and laughter and warmth that made it an enriching experience.”
Thurow hopes to visit the farmers again in the near future to follow up with a video series on how their lives have changed. He continues to pursue long-term projects in order to get to the root of issues around the world.