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Interview with Leonie Joubert

Leonie Joubert – author The Hungry Season (Picador Africa)
Congratulations on the good work. How long did it take to write the book?
Hi Don. Thanks for the opportunity. The book took about 18 months to research, and nine months to write. It was a long, challenging and deeply rewarding process.
It is written like a series of news features. Each Chapter could easily stand on its own and be syndicated to great effect. Was this the idea?
This is how my style has evolved over the years. I tackled the very first book, Scorched, in this way – taking one person or species or landscapes, and using that story as the hook to lead into a single issue on some aspect of the broader topic of climate change. This style seemed to apply to The Hungry Season, as well. I find it easier to string together a series of stand-alone chapters based in individual people’s narratives like this, than to try and write one long story arc.
The oft-asked ‘Are you hungry?’ can elicit a number of responses, each telling the story of the respondent. There’s the other side of the nonchalant “yes, let’s go grab a bite” that we all take for granted. What is on this other side of the [hunger] coin?
This is the astonishing thing, Don. The other side of the hunger coin doesn’t look the way you’d think it should. In that moment when your stomach is empty, when your blood sugar is low and your body’s feeling edgy because you are hungry – it’s very easy to go out and satisfy that nagging feeling by filling up on any kind of food, even cheap food that has little nutritional value. So you can drive away the immediate feeling of hunger but you’re not necessarily giving it the food that your body needs to stay fit and healthy.
This is particularly significant for the poor, who are often forced due to a shortage of cash, to buy cheap, high energy, foods that are just “empty” calories. The result is that people are getting fat at the same time as they’re staying malnourished. But you don’t see the hunger because the person may look plump and well, and yet they aren’t getting the right nutrients.
Shockingly, it’s everywhere in the city. We think, because food is so ubiquitous in the cityscape, that we should be well fed and nourished. This isn’t the case, particularly not for the poor.
It can’t be easy to write about people starving and then go out to a buffet dinner. Has this book altered your eating habits? 
Phew. That’s a tough question. It hasn’t changed how I eat – I really try to eat healthily and, sadly, healthy food often costs more than junk food; but I don’t eat out that often. It has made me think about food wastage though. I was shocked to discover that a third of all the food produced around the world for human consumption, gets thrown away at some point between farmer and fork. The United States throws away as much food as Africa produces each year. And since we’re all shopping in a global market place, that kind of waste in the States has ripple effects in the food prices we pay here. So I cannot stomach the sight of good, safe food being thrown out.
I’m more aware, now, than ever, of what the disparity between rich and poor means, in terms of the food on our plates. Of the gap between my middle class life and someone who is really poor. An espresso coffee at my local sidewalk café will set us back R16 a cup. That’s more than some really poor people spend on food in a day. It’s terribly sobering.
The Hungry Season says southern Africa is a world of two distinct nations food-wise – those who can buy and afford the luxury of leftovers on the one hand, and, on the other hand, those who have to scavenge and finish every morsel. How do we narrow the gap outside the scope of food aid and feeding schemes?
Well, the issue is really about poverty. People in the city who have money have better access to food. That means they either need a job, or a small business, or have access to a social grant or the kind of social welfare that you talk about, namely feeding schemes. So job creation is important, fostering entrepreneurialism and keeping (particularly women) on the grant system is key.
Unfortunately, though, having money isn’t necessarily a ticket to eating healthily. People often still choose to spend their money – even when they’re on a limited budget – on junk food because it tastes good and often has a high status value.
 When a man is unable to provide for his family – like the Swazi man whose children are forced to go play on half empty stomachs – this surely takes away a bit of his manhood. Take us through the helplessness of such a ‘provider’.
That’s a really tough one to answer. Try to imagine this scene: A Swazi man in his early 50s wakes up on a Monday morning. He doesn’t have a job – and believe me, he’s tried to find one over the years – so there’s no real reason to get out of bed. It’s ten in the morning. There’s a knock on the door. There’s a white woman standing there with a note pad under her arm and a big friendly smile. And his kids are next to him at the dining room table, eating breakfast that was donated by the local soup kitchen: white bread floating in sugar water.
Even though he understands why this stranger is visiting his home, how does he explain to her, this strange woman who may as well be from another planet, what it’s like to live, day after day, without a single scrap of food in the house. There wasn’t anything in the cupboards when I visited him.
He showed me how he used to pick food out of the local rubbish dump. Now he makes a few Rand a week collecting glass bottles and tin cans for recycling.
How do you ask this man what it feels like to be so unable to provide for his family? You don’t. You can’t possibly. But it’s written all over his face.
After reading this book, I am thinking bulimia should be criminalised?
If we have moral outrage, it should rather be towards gluttony and conspicuous consumption, rather than something like bulimia which is a behaviour linked to a complicated psychological and emotional state of mind which needs to be treated as a disease.
There are a lot more greedy people than there are bulimic people. The former should be expected to restrain themselves, the latter need gentle medical support.
If we’re going to put any energy into tackling the food disparity and related health issues that aggressively, I’d say let’s put our legislative muscle behind restricting the fast food industry which has benefited from open access to an addicted market. If we’re going to be angry with anyone, let’s get angry at them.
One word I did not find in the book – kwashiorkor. Are you saying it does not exist in areas covered by The Hungry Season?
Nope, it’s there alright. I just didn’t choose to focus on that aspect of malnutrition. Rather I chose to focus on the long-term implications of malnutrition on children – that if a child doesn’t get the right nutrition before the age of two, he or she will have a permanently stunted brain; will arrive at school with a lower IQ; will perform more poorly in school; will emerge with a poor education; and will be less employable as an adult. The World Bank estimates that this kind of malnutrition can shave as much as 10% off a person’s earning potential through the course of their life.
In SA, malnutrition is estimated to cost the economy about R7 billion a year, and yet a solid nutritional intervention would cost about R300 million.
Kwashiorkor is there, and it’s serious, but it’s a short term form of protein deficiency, a form of macro nutrient deficiency. Stunting from micro nutrient deficiency - if it goes on for long enough - leaves a permanently damaged body.
Will we ever get to the point where fast food packaging carries health warnings?
Yes, I believe we are well on the way toward that step. And we will see the fast food industry fighting back as hard as the tobacco industry did. And if there is one recommendation I could make to people who are concerned about their health and want to start changing their diets, I’d say start with this: stop (or at least cut back on) drinking calories. Sugary drinks are loaded up with dangerous amounts of sugar, which increasingly is beginning to look like it’s very toxic for us. Retrain your palate to drink water, or try tea and coffee with much less sugar. Get rid of the Coke and Red Bull and Fanta. Even fruit juice isn’t good for you, because it puts too much sugar into the body too fast.
You have done yourself a huge disfavour with this book – the standard is very high. Your next [book] project has to be a literary miracle in order to surpass The Hungry Season.
Don, I’m moved by your statement. Thank you. Keeping southern Africans well fed and well nourished should not be as challenging as it appears to be. We have a huge job to do to ensure that our population gets the food it needs.  
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