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The many kinds of hunger

Seeing the hunger and poverty around her, Levinia Pienaar reflects on her own experience of poverty. She recognises that hunger is often about more than food. The need for acceptance, freedom, and dignity are just as important as putting food on the table.

When I was very young, I remember waking up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and I would find my mother on her knees praying and crying. I never asked her why she was crying and pretended that I didn’t see or hear anything. But I remember her prayer: “Lord how am I going to feed my children tomorrow and where will the food come from?” My older brothers would wake up and pray with our mother, or just be awake with her. I remember how they eventually left school to keep the pot cooking and the bread on the table.

I remember how we would have maize porridge in the week and oats porridge on a Sunday, because it was the “better” pap. On Sundays, people would come to our house just before lunch time, and Mamma would hide the porridge pot in the oven – the signs of the oats dripping on the outside very visible. The kitchen would be clean with no dishes in sight; because that was the only meal we had for the day after Church. People would ask: “When are you cooking for your children?” My mother would say that we ate early because her children had a lot of homework to get done before school on Monday.

People wondered how none of us never “lost the road” or went astray because of poverty. Family members and people at church would say that to my mother’s face.

We were not always hungry for food, but for other things as well.

We were not always hungry for food, but for other things as well. I was hungry to play with other kids. Our mother just said that there were enough of us, so there was no need to play with other kids. This was her way of keeping us way from bad company.

School was my “get-away” for many reasons. Swapping my “choker” peanut butter bread with a friend who had cheese and tomato on her bread was a special treat. Putting on my best (and only) Sunday dress to go with that same friend once a year on Ramadan to her family and friends’ home to receive 5c and some goodies was a highlight of my year. 

A few years later, I became hungry for other things. Food and what people said about us, or how I looked did not trigger a hunger for me anymore. I hungered for whatever “normality” was. I hungered to have a father who was present in our lives, and not just in my imagination when talking to friends at school or the kids at Church. I hungered to have a mother who didn’t need to clean and cook so we could have food on the table. I hungered to find a refuge in my books or other means of sanctity. I hungered for anything happening at Church – perhaps for all the wrong reasons – but looking back, it was probably a very good thing!

I was also hungry to make my dreams a reality.  Hungry for a better life especially at school where things were not great – and school was my “nice to go” place.  The 80s were challenging years – and our circumstances became increasingly difficult.

Now, as an adult, I experience hunger all around me. I see myself through the eyes and expressions of the children I interact with. They are hungry for food. They are hungry to learn, but more than anything else, they are hungry to be accepted. They are hungry to be treated for who they are and not what society says they are because they are poor.

I see women around me hungry to be freed from domestic violence, abuse, humiliation, neglect and hunger because they have no food for their children.

Today I feed other girls and women with things that can make them better girls and women to others and themselves. I see women around me hungry to be freed from domestic violence, abuse, humiliation, neglect and hunger because they have no food for their children, just like my mother had no food for us. I see people hungry to be recognized as individuals with hopes and dreams despite living in a gang-stricken area. In them, I see myself hungry all over again.

Today, I am hungry to be recognized for who I am and my abilities. I am hungry to be accepted as a woman loving another woman without prejudice. And as August 2020 draws to an end during the enduring lockdown, I am hungry to be with my friends to enjoy lots of wine with them and talk about the good old days and our current situations. Today, I am hungry for normality again, almost like I hungered for a different normality as a kid.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Levinia Pienaar
Levinia Pienaar worked for the South African Police for 27 years, leaving as a captain in 2017. She has worked extensively to prevent violence against women and children and served as a UN peacekeeper in Sudan and South Sudan. She is a gender activist, photographer, filmmaker and is currently documenting the stories of women living in the rural Western Cape. She describes herself as a feminist.

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