Learning about Hunger

embera woman carrying bananas
Embera indigenous people have been displaced to Catrú, Chocó, because of armed con icts between National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Organization, a neo-paramilitary group.


by Julieta Lemaitre

It is difficult for a middle-class professor to think at length about displaced people’s hunger. The fact itself is pretty straightforward: after displacement, people are hungry. But its implications for research are hazy—how should I react to the likelihood that the people I am interviewing are hungry? Is this relevant for my research on their use of law, or not? Buying food for them seems like an appropriate response, especially ensuring interviews and workshops are always accompanied with an abundance of food. But what about the persistence of hunger?

Between 2010 and 2013 a group of graduate students and I interviewed more than a hundred internally displaced women, attempting to understand their uses of law. We also met them in dozens of participatory spaces set up by the Colombian government and by NGOs, and worked with two distinct groups and three small NGOs in extended case studies. During this period of time I grew increasingly conscious of the presence of hunger, of the way it disappears for a few months only to creep back when family fortunes take a dip, of the way it presses against everyday life with an undeniable urgency, of the comprehension gap it creates between poor women and middle-class researchers, public officials and NGO workers who have never been hungry.

It is hard to see everyday hunger when people don’t seem emaciated. I first saw it in the work meetings that involve poor people and are generally called “workshops.” Our work, the government’s work and the NGO’s work seemed to consistently involve workshops, and these workshops, food. Consistently I saw the women we worked with carefully take the leftovers home in the large white styrofoam boxes that are a staple of workshops with poor people across the country. How to think through the fact that these women are taking home the leftovers to feed their families? What could I say about the groups of small children that sometimes hover around the workshop, playing by themselves until it is time to approach the hot food in the styrofoam containers? How to think through the disciplined sharing of the spoon between a small boy and girl as their mother looks on, and waits?

Hunger can be counted, however, and often is. Between 2010 and 2013 I led an in-depth study of displaced women’s legal mobilization in Colombia. The research included several case studies, including one of the notable Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (League of Displaced Women) on the northern coast. With the Liga we did a collaborative household survey, using both general questions we could use to compare their situation to IDP (internally displaced persons) across Colombia, and specific questions the leadership was interested in, such as the levels of participation. The biggest surprise of the survey was widespread hunger. More than 70% answered yes to the three “hunger questions” included in IDP surveys in Colombia: have you or any one in your family complained of being hungry in the last week? Have you or any one in your family skipped a meal because there wasn’t enough food to eat? Have you or any one in your family eaten less than you would have wanted because you could not afford more food? Yes. Yes. Yes.

It is harder to represent hunger in interpretive studies, especially this kind of hunger that isn’t famine leading to death, but rather an uncomfortable presence. It is particularly hard to represent hunger in a study about displaced people in the framework of human rights violations and transitional justice. Hunger pales in comparison to the harrowing tales of catastrophic events that led to displacement, and these make everyday challenges of poverty seem pedestrian.



In the field, however, women’s description of displacement is heavy with tales of food and its absence.  As they fled the remote areas of the country where peasant women lived the war, they arrived to the poorest slums of midsize and large cities only to discover that the poverty that awaited them was devastating in unexpected ways. After finding refuge, food becomes the most pressing and urgent concern. Loss of home was usually also loss of the homemaking utensils they had accumulated over a lifetime: beds, chairs, tables, blenders, sheets, towels. All must be rebuilt. The poorest of the poor have nothing; “una mano adelante y otra atras” was the way one woman described it, alluding to the feeling of arriving naked covering genitals with their bare hands. Others more fortunate arrive with some furniture, some linen, perhaps cash. All brought with them memories of a previous life where hunger was not a constant companion, and feeding children not an impossible task. Ana Luz Ortega, a displaced woman in the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas, described women’s special responsibility to feed their children as “the heaviest burden”:

We carry the heaviest burden when we arrive, because men get “aburridos”[bored] and leave or go look for work somewhere else but we have… (pause) we stay. We struggle, we wash, we iron, we stomp the earth. We do what it takes. Because (pause) even if it is living off trash we are here and we do out best because we have children here that every day say Mami (pause) I’m hungry (pause). We are strong because our children say “we are hungry” (pause). We find the way to bring them aguapanela [sweetened water], bread. But men, they can just say “where am I going to get food?” But we can’t. With patience we find (food.) We don’t eat, no, perhaps a bite and then no more, and say I will take food home because my daughter, my son is there, and… (I will bring it home) even if my own stomach is empty.”

In the cash economy of the slums, there is a direct link between hunger and the lack of income. In terms of income, according to the last survey of the displaced that reports a significant improvement, 63.8% of IDP still live below the poverty line and, not surprisingly 60.5% report severe food insecurity. Even those who have successfully acceded to subsidies for simple houses, health-care and school, and microloans for entrepreneurship, are still income-poor, which translates into hunger. One very successful leader said it succinctly when I was admiring her Mocoa settlement: “you see us and we seem to be fine but you open the cupboard and there’s nothing there.”

Cash is scarce and mostly found through selling merchandise, often food, in the streets and from their homes, grueling work that involves their children’s help and facing police violence.  But formal jobs are not to be had. In addition to a general dearth of formal employment in Colombia, displaced people are generally perceived as unemployable for various reasons: the urban wage market has little if any use for adult and middle-aged peasants with rudimentary literacy skills, not to mention women with many dependents that need constant in-house care.

Awa girl
Portrait of an Awa Indian in a shelter after threats by armed men following a massacre in El Diviso, Nariño. Photo by Stephen Ferry.


After the loss of loved ones, hunger haunts the memories of displacement, coupled with the memory of a past where food was plenty. Some women described with relish the food they used to eat, remembered the piles of rice, shaped them in the air with their hands, smacked their lips remembering the fried fish, the stewed chicken. Others listed their crops, described planting and harvesting with detailed recollections of the types of crops and seasons of harvest.  They described sharing crops with neighbors in exchange for work, and exchanging crops and work in the collaborative work tradition known by indigenous people as minga. These stories always end with losing that land of plenty, and ensuing hunger. Ana Luz also described the feeling of not being able to provide three meals for her children: “and that is there (emphasis) all the time. Knowing this is harming my daughters. Knowing they are at a stage where (pause) they need to eat well, they are in school. (long pause.)”

As different women described their community organizing, they sometimes reflected on the ways the words, gestures and modes of being were embedded in a collective ideal of the good life, where food occupied a central place. Displaced to Buenaventura, Luz Dary Santiesteban worked in two community organizations: in Madres por la Vida (Mothers for Life), she helped support families through mourning and finding loved ones lost to war and violence; in La Glorita, the other organization, she was part of cooperative that farmed nearby land. Describing La Glorita she said with satisfaction:

When we think of another person’s hunger, we are thinking as a community. That’s why we have the food project at La Glorita. We are 23 women and only 5 men, we have a fish farm, chickens, egg-laying hens, plantain, Chinese potatoes. All that one could need, we have, and we still need some 5 or 6 more people to go and help work the farm.

The description of La Glorita was embedded in her idealized memory of the land they left when they were forcibly displaced:

You always long for your river, your land, your ocean. You know why? Because the land is our pantry. As is the river. And the ocean. Collective farming is more than survival (in Spanish:pancoger). It’s where you give me the plantain and I give you the rice, you give me the fish I give you the bread. It’s the minga of the good life that we lost.

Embera indigenous people have been displaced from their communities.


Food is central to collective action among poor people, and as Luz Dary aptly phrases, thinking as a community is thinking of the other person’s hunger; responding to it is part of a minga of the good life. In my current work I reflect more on her description, and on IDP moral images of life after the war. Minga was used originally in the southern region of the Colombian Andes to denote collective work done either for the community, or for others in the community. Luz Dary’ minga of the good life is not only a description of actual or idealized practices. It is also the articulation of an image of what life could be and, more pressingly, of what life should be. It is a mode of thinking through the aftermath of war in ethical terms as a period when it is possible to transition to a good life defined as a life of plenty and of collaboration.

By paying attention to hunger, I have given my work on displaced women a new direction. I am now convinced that the persistent tales of food were teaching me about the centrality of women’s aspirations for a better life after displacement, changing the story I initially thought I would tell, about displacement, and about engagement with courts and women’s rights. I now believe that this idea of the good life represented in stories about food reflects the cultural reality of women’s multiple responsibilities as mothers, and the way these responsibilities are confirmed by deeply held beliefs and shared moral values, grounding a sense of self. Their roles in the community neatly dovetail cultural responsibilities of women, which I define as the stewardship of life: feeding families, caring for the ill and the infirm, and keeping homes clean and safe, keeping children off the street, keeping boys out of gangs, and keeping girls out of pregnancy, leading them to secure adulthoods.These responsibilities are linked to the material and symbolic presence of sufficient food, an imperative that makes women’s roles feasible and relates as well to cherished forms of community. At least this is what I am working on now, as I try to think through displaced peoples’ hunger and its significance for reconstruction after the war.




Julieta Lemaitre is associate professor at Universidad de los Andes’ Law School in Bogotá, Colombia. She writes about the intersection of law, social movements and violence from a feminist standpoint.