Huddled in a soft blanket on a sophomore year snow day, I read a haunting article in the New York Times that made my heart stop. The article was Jeffrey Gettleman’s documentation of famine in the world’s youngest country – War Consumes South Sudan, a Young National Cracking Apart. As I read of children eating water lilies for survival, babies being thrown into rivers and women striving to uplift communities amidst starvation, I remember being too paralyzed to cry. Powerful as the article was, it left me feeling powerless and privileged.
In South Sudan, there’s a high school girl like me – with more committed compassion than I could have. Except she’s running from the ghost of genocide, whereas I’m running from imperceptible “schoolyear struggles.” I don’t know why that is her life and this is mine. But if my first read for my World Food Prize Youth Institute paper taught me one thing, it’s that my so-called passion for learning wouldn’t mean anything if I didn’t strive to open a window of love for someone like her.
Weeks went by, weeks that turned to months, and almost a year until the same emotion stabbed my heart. It was John Deere’s CEO, Mr. Samuel Allen, who exposed a gaping epiphany that stirred within me at the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute. Mr. Allen told a piercingly emotional story of Rajasthani farmer Sita Kumawat, who spent hours in fields striving to harness water and food for her family. But this time, the story did not leave me transfixed – it left me transformed. I knew that I needed to participate in this fight against hunger. Even if it was changing the world by just changing one person’s world, I wanted to be part of this – through storytelling and service.
The Global Youth Institute inspired me to reach across the aisle to agricultural entrepreneurs – to tell their stories of shared struggles and mutual understanding that often escape the spotlight. From Sonya Kendrick, the late army veteran and passionate Feed Iowa First creator, to Saumya, the Indian investment banker turned agricultural empowerment star, women in agriculture breathe with affection. Not only do they have the sense of “rise and stride” to plant hope, they do it without expecting immediate results in return. The path is fraught with risk and steeped in sacrifice.
But perhaps when my heart truly opened was when I sensed the productive struggle firsthand during my Borlaug-Ruan International Internship at EARTH University in Costa Rica. This summer, I met girls who had given up lives of consistency to fight for food. I worked with them in the fields – tasting barely a millionth of the sacrifice they’d committed their lives to. Karen, who gave up a night job at a local call center in Ecuador to fight the Fusarium Wilt Disease in the Banana plant. Mary-Clare, who chases Sigatoka Disease prevention to plant seeds of hope in the post-genocide era of her country, Rwanda. Marcela, the dancer striving to uplift her family of artists through a career in plant science. Karen, Mary-Clare, and Marcela – among innumerable others – hold stories of risk that have hope and give it. Sharing a small slice of their journey, I was transformed in the simplest yet sophisticated ways. Once an intruder on my plate, the banana is now a sunshine fruit filled with stories of resilience because I saw firsthand its economic power to fuel education. I experienced firsthand the evaluation of Sigatoka disease and how it wreaks havoc on this beloved fruit. I inhaled first-hand the impact of agriculture in feeding hearts and minds.
Today there is immense hype behind women in politics, technology, healthcare and finance. This is vital to shaping the voice of the world – to having authentic narratives of action that propel humanity forward. But what we must not forget are our women in agriculture who spend tedious hours in the fields, whose journeys are no glide to glory either. There are no crisp blazers, no fancy laptops, no gleaming white coats or air-conditioned offices in the agricultural world. It’s hours of physical work amidst the elements – blazing sun, downpours and more – working towards the greatest challenge that faces humanity: hunger. Thank you, World Food Prize, for planting this message in my heart.
Passionate about the confluence of life sciences and literature, Sibani Ram is a freshman at Duke University. Originally from Dubuque, Iowa, she is driven by the stories of people who turn challenges into opportunities. Sibani is an alum of the World Food Prize’s Iowa Youth Institute (IYI) & Global Youth Institute (GYI) programs. A 2019 Borlaug-Ruan Intern at EARTH University in Limón, Costa Rica, Sibani is specifically interested in implementing scientific change to empower social change – specifically in the realm of biological sciences. In her free time, she enjoys delving into various books/articles, advocating for youth education funding and of course, writing.