By Tanya Connor
“God is good,” Peter Kimeu’s mother told him when he went to bed hungry as a child. “He has given you 10 fingers. You need one. Stick it in your mouth and suck it.”
Mr. Kimeu told of this remedy for starvation in a talk at Anna Maria College Monday. He lives in Kenya, where he is Regional Technical Advisor for Catholic Relief Services. Currently he is giving talks around the United States. Campus ministry at Anna Maria sponsored one of those talks.
Father Manuel A. Clavijo, chaplain and campus ministry director at Anna Maria and a global fellow for CRS, prayed for Africa, said he saw how dehumanizing poverty and hunger in Ethiopia, but brought hope through CRS.
Anna Maria President Jack P. Calareso noted that Cardinal Seán O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, “called us to action” in a talk at the college last week. Sounding a theme of the cardinal’s, the president told listeners it’s important to go out from the college and spread the Gospel, and Mr. Kimeu would show them a way to do it.
“Tonight when you went to dinner, how much food got thrown away?” he asked. “This is not an evening about some continent far away. This is about our brothers and sisters.”
Mr. Kimeu told how he fed his sisters when food was scarce – with a banana peel or an already chewed piece of sugar cane he found.
When your stomach is completely empty, your saliva becomes bitter, you can’t swallow and that kills you, Mr. Kimeu told The Catholic Free Press. His mother knew you could create new saliva by sucking on your finger, he said.
“There is hope for the hungry and thirsty because Jesus gives life in abundance,” Mr. Kimeu said of a prayer that also asked for renewed friendship with Jesus, rediscovery of his love, and love that overflows with justice and charity.
On a large screen he showed photos of nature in Kenya and called Africa a wonderful continent.
But he said 13 million suffered from hunger because of last year’s drought, and resources are still needed for 8 million people. Forty-nine percent of what is needed has been donated, he said.
He showed a photo of a thatched roof mud hut, where he lived as a child with several family members, goats, etc. He said it was a warm, nice house full of laughter – until the drought.
When he grew up he went to seminary, where he couldn’t eat, as he recalled his family’s hunger, he said.
“After the seminary I became a teacher and I got married,” he said. “Today I’m a proud father of five, all of them university educated,” serving in various parts of the world. “There is hope in Africa.”
But hungry children are still sucking their fingers, he said. Charity (direct service) and justice (social change) are needed, and CRS is doing both.
He told of an open well where a girl drowned, and a new, closed well CRS helped build. He said now people don’t drown, deadly leeches cannot breed there, and hauling water takes less time, enabling girls to attend school and mothers to go to Savings and Internal Lending Communities which provide micro financing.
A man who joined SILC, started with less than $2, bought a rabbit and today has 300 rabbits, he said.
Even in the Kambioos refugee camp run by CRS in Dadaab, Kenya, the women don’t just sit and say things are hopeless, Mr. Kimeu said, showing photos of baskets they weave to sell. There a 6-year-old teaches peers and adults how to clean their hands, which he said is essential for survival in a large camp.
When politically instigated war broke out in Kenya, pitting Muslims and Christians against each other, CRS worked with the Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, thereby helping to bring peace in less than a month, Mr. Kimeu said. He called for giving food, water and shelter to those who need it, but at the same time negotiating with the government.
CRS doesn’t challenge governments directly; it would be expelled, he said. But it supports local people in doing so. He said CRS also got people to pray for a peaceful referendum for the separation of North and South Sudan.
Father Clavijo said he found it fascinating that the allievation of hunger is not just about bringing food; sanitation, micro loans and freedom are also needed.
“It’s not just about encouraging people in the first world to be more generous,” he said.
“This is a Catholic college,” responded Mr. Kimeu. “Many of you might be looking at Catholic social teaching,” which can involve much to remember. He offered a formula to aid the memory: CORDSSSS. The letters stand for principles of Catholic social teaching: common good, option for the poor, rights and responsibilities, dignity and equality (“seeing the other as me”), social nature of human beings, subsidiarity, stewardship and standing in solidarity with the poor.
Catholic social teaching is CRS’s main guide, Mr. Kimeu told The Catholic Free Press. It’s important to help employees take Catholic social teaching to heart even if they’re not Catholic, he said.
A listener asked how to change self-centered people’s attitudes.
Shelagh Foley O’Brien, CRS regional representative for Massachusetts, who accompanied Mr. Kimeu, told listeners they have much power as voters. She encouraged students to sign up for “Catholics Confront Global Poverty,” CRS e-mail alerts to contact legislators when important votes are due. She also said they can do advocacy at their parish or on campus.
Mr. Kimeu said it’s important to challenge – the Church calls it being prophetic.
“You need to face the facts, even sometimes challenging yourself,” he said. “Then transformation begins with me, before I go to the rest of the world.”