To get cell phone reception in my Smalltown, USA, I have to hang out the window with my right ear pointed north, my left foot pointed south, and my head tilted in alignment with the axis of the earth. So imagine my surprise when I had five full bars on my phone in the middle of the African desert.
I had been invited- or should I say weaseled my way into an invitation – with Ambassador Tony Hall of the Alliance to End huger in D.C. to visit the world largest refugee camp in Dedaab, Kenya. Being a professional photographer, it’s pretty easy to get invited on trips because the people going want the trip documented. I called his assistant to see if he needed a photographer; it just so happened he did. Plus, I was an Alliance Member so it made sense for me to observe their international work.
I met Tony a few years earlier and invited him as the keynote speaker at the Kansas Hunger Dialogue. He kicked it off with grand style by announcing he was going on a hunger strike to get Congress to pay attention to hunger issues. He’d done it before with great success and had hundreds of thousands join him. He is a legendary figure in the hunger space. But you’d never know it by being around him. He is gentle, soft-spoken, kind and a man of deep faith.
We rumbled into the refugee camp during the famine in the Horn of Africa. I learned on that trip the difference between a drought and a famine: a drought is caused by nature; bad governments cause a famine.
We traveled there with the WFP –a.k.a. Word Food Programme- the largest humanitarian food agency in the world. WFP was started in 1963 by Sen. George McGovern as a way to get the member nations of the UN actively engaged to solve hunger.
Tony has written a book, Changing the Face of Hunger, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 3 different times. Tony was a Congressman from Ohio for 28 years and, in 1993 when Congress was going to abolish the Select Committee on Hunger, went on a 22-day hunger strike to get the attention of Congress. Hundreds of thousands of caring Americans and members of Congress joined him. One of the marvelous accomplishments from that hunger strike was his founding of the Congressional Hunger Center.
I have seen a lot of desperate people in my life, but nothing compares to refugees who walk 3 months to find food. Many of them didn’t make it. I asked Tony what had changed in the last 30 years since the Ethiopian famines when thousands of people died of starvation. During that time, Tony watched hundreds of people die and held innumerable children as they breathed their last breath, dying of starvation. He once watched 27 people die in 15 minutes.
He said the infrastructure of the camps was so much better because of technology to processes 1,500 refugees arriving each day. But with a look of exasperation, he turned to me and said, “But the international community doesn’t seem to care. We have to change the way we’re talking about hunger!”
Tony is a mesmerizing storyteller. His favorite stories are of Mother Teresa who, upon meeting him for the first time, took each of the digits on his hand and counted back to him, “To-the-least-of-these,” which is a biblical admonition for serving the hungry. Tony knows some of the greatest people in the word, but none he reveres as much as Mother Teresa. He often quotes the other mantra from her, “do what’s in front of you to do.”
As I’ve become engaged in the hunger space, I find that the balance between advancing an organization and advancing a cause are sometimes two different things. Sometimes organizations, and the people who lead them, become so concerned about the organization and its growth that they lose the reason why they began. Tony is one of those rare people who puts the cause above the organization yet positions the organization to serve the cause.
As Tony says, you really get to know a person when you travel with them, especially on arduous journeys. When we were in the camp at Dedaab, Tony visited with families who retold the horrors of their journey. As we flew back to Nairobi, Tony was deeply saddened. I asked him what his thoughts were about the experience, and he said, “You never feel like you’ve done enough.” I suppose it’s what keeps him going, engaging in the fight, still willing at 71 years of age to go on a long hunger fast to get someone to care.
As I now travel the world of the hunger space, I’ve observed Tony’s reputation as an advocate for the hungry. The South Korean Ambassador once said there were only 3 people that South Korea trusted: Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham, and Tony Hall! Tony is a living legend.
However, he’s not concerned or consumed with being a legend. He is, however, very interested in leaving a legacy of people who will engage in the fight against hunger. A few moments with Tony, whether it’s in an audience listening to one of his great speeches or speeding across the African desert in a guarded convoy, will inspire you to engage in the fight against hunger with him.
Tony gave me one of the greatest honors in my life and invited me to serve as Treasurer on the Executive Board for the Alliance to End Hunger in Washington, D.C. He then asked me to serve as Chairman of a newly formed Advocacy Committee for the Alliance.
I am in D.C. this week and I stopped by the Alliance’s Headquarters yesterday. I got to see my friend –and hero- Tony, on the same day that the House voted to cut SNAP benefits by $39 billion. It was not a good day for a hunger fighter like Tony, but he is resolute that hunger can be solved so he continues in the fight. He saw me, called me his friend, and gave me a hug.
When it comes to passion,I’ve read there are five kinds of people in your life;
- People who give you passion
- People who share your passion
- People who receive your passion
- People who enjoy your passion
- People who give you passion.
Tony gives me passion.
My heroes are people I can hug. Sometime I’d like you to meet Tony. He would give you a hug, too. Then tell you to do what’s in front of you to do.
Note: Parts of this essay were taken from my book, Hunger Bites: Bite Size Stories of Inspiration.