What is it like to live without food or water? Chronicles of life in Africa

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ July 1st, 2010. Updated on July 2nd, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Africa - the missing years » Discover World Culture.

I spent over two years living and working in Africa. I’ve not written much about it here; as at the time lack of electricity and the internet made it a near impossibility. I have everything written in hand journals.

Many people have written to me asking for more about my time there and, I was planning to write an excerpt. However, something happened recently that ticked me off a little. I wasn’t going to write about it here, but the two things merged.

Here’s what happened …

(please take note, if you are easily offended, or don’t like graphic descriptions don’t read any more)

Village African girl standing by a corner

Africa can make or break you, either way, it will live with you (click to enlarge)

Why am I writing a one-off entry about Africa now?

Recently I sent a message out on twitter. Here’s what I wrote:

“Having known what it’s really like to go hungry & without water myself, I recommend this well put together site http://bit.ly/c5nEpH

The link is to a site called Starved for Attention. It’s a non-profit site run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and VII Photo. All they ask is for you to sign a petition to get governments to supply aid food that meet the minimum standards. They don’t ask for money, or anything like that.

I found the site to be well put together, and the videos impressive. So, like many other sites or articles I sent the link out via twitter.

Little did I know that “someone” who I presume likes my tweets, or my journey well enough to follow me; took great offence to this!

Their story:

I am not going to copy their whole email to me, as in part, I understand where they are coming from. The main area they were upset with were my words Having known what it’s really like to go hungry & without water myself

-“How could you possibly fathom what it’s like to be a starving child, or a mother trying to feed her infant” was repeated several times in the email.

I did reply back, in far greater detail than in this article here today, about my background and experience.

I will also admit to you, the reader of my regular journals, that this subject and the way it was put to me, makes me a little “impassioned” to put it mildly.

Hence the person in question got a fairly blunt reply back as well.

Sharing a bowl of beans in Africa

We all eat the same when we are hungry ... and if we have the food to hand

My side of the story:

No, I am not a mother trying to feed a starving child. Have I been a starving child?  Not to the extent nor circumstances that many of these people are going through.

Have I gone hungry as a child? Yes, for many years. Not starved, but I had to fend for myself at a single digit age onwards. I’ve eaten many a dry meal of pasta before I knew how to cook it, if indeed the cooker was working.

As a teenager near to living on the streets I ate the same meal everyday for a year so I could save to get out.

Still not the same? Okay …

When I was in Africa I lived on below $4 a day. My transport to work was $2.50 +.

My water supply came from a city pipe, that I had to collect from the road at 4am, bring to my room before boiling and filtering it for drinking.

When the Government stopped supplying water on a regular basis (they were busy demolishing people’s houses in the area), I had to ration my water.

I stored my water in two large containers in a bathroom. I used it for cooking, drinking and washing clothes.

During the increased rationing I would have a bucket bath within another bucket and use the run off water to wash my clothes. The rinsed off water from that, I would then use to flush my toilet.

I also used the left over water from cooking to soak beans in overnight.

Unfortunately, this didn’t work out so well on one occasion. And, I got very sick. 2 days of 24 hour vomiting mixed with 4 days of 30 minute intervals of running to the toilet. Feeling as if  my rectum was trying to tear itself outwards by passing something akin to the agony of razor blades.

I couldn’t afford the scarce water to bucket flush the toilet after the first 6 hours of this. I used an old t-shirt to clean myself. It was not a pretty scene.

I became seriously dehydrated and was not doing so well at all. During all this I still had to collect my water. But by now the street water only came every third or fourth day. I was also seriously weak at this stage.

Sad to say, but during the worst of it, I slept in past 4am one day and missed the water pipe being turned on.

Facing mortality:

Near empty water container in Africa

My near empty water container, a most terrifying sight if you've ever been in this situation

Going into my bathroom to get water to boil &  filter for drinking I opened my dwindling bucket only to see a mere two inches of green stagnant water left.

I can promise you that in all my travels, and life, I have not felt the sheer panic, need, nor gravity that this feeling brings.

“It’s like staring at something that gives life; only to see it’s no longer there.”

Once I was better, the water shortages continued on for the rest of the year. The following year things were a bit better. That was 3 years ago. I still have huge hangups about water as I travel. I always check.

And, today, my point:

Believe me when I say, I know what it’s like to be thirsty, and, not have anything to drink. It’s a terrifying feeling. Perhaps more so when you are alone, and have no one around to help you.

In my life I have gone to bed many a time hungry. And, it’s another thing compared to that other feeling of not being able to afford to eat while others around you are. There is a difference. And, it’s not nice.

Am I starving now, no. Am I thirsty now, no. Have I been in the past … in my own circumstances, yes.

Twitter is what it is. 140 characters cannot give the whole picture. I certainly believe in free speech, and free opinions.

However, if a person is going to comment on something that they personally take offense to, I would perhaps suggest that they read up a little on the person before sending an accusing email to them. Least such an approach is needed in the first place.

Something that’s not hard to do if you send an email via my website in the first place.

We are all born into different circumstances, we can’t do anything about this.

While a malnourished mother trying to feed her child in a country might not relate to me, nor I to her exact extent, we’ve all experienced things relevant to ourselves that have been devastating. Or, life changing.

Some closer than others.

The result:

The person who emailed did reply. It was short & minutely apologetic. I consider the issue closed now.

Starved for Attention banner


Point of note:

In regards to the site Starved for Attention. I do actually think it’s a good thing to sign. If governments are not supplying aid food that meet basic nutritional requirements. People should let their voices be heard.

Is it a means to an end to world starvation and food shortages? Personally I believe it’s only a small fraction. Supplying endless amounts of aid is not something I agree with at all.

Sustainability, education and proper governance are in my view the key.

Regulating NGO’s, removing for profit organisations, and requiring accounting transparency for all levels of said organisations is a must.

International Aid Organisations should not be allowed to push their own cultural ways, politics, bureaucracy nor will upon a local community. There needs to be a middle ground, otherwise it does not work. The modern history of development work shows this.

This is not just a problem that can be fixed in a year nor decade, it’s become endemic within regions of the world. Long term action needs to occur within the society in need; itself.

However sometimes even when there is a world tragedy it’s ignored.

There’s an oil spill along the coast of the U.S.A. right now generating a lot of publicity. What doesn’t get publicity, or is actually blatantly ignored by the U.S.A. and Europe are the 7,000+ oil spills that have occurred along the coast of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. And that’s not including the last ten years.

Here the local people who protest and ask for compensation are beaten by private security firms. Many oil companies, including the Shell in partnership with Nigerian government produce billions of dollars. Yet this still hasn’t helped this a state like Bayelsa get connected to the national electrical grid! Here’s an article by the Guardian

End Note:

I might get some criticism for writing about this here, and / or my views. Or, I might not. This is however my travel journal from the past and present. Documenting my life’s journey, and this is a part of it.

In regards to Africa, and my journals. As much as I would like to write them here. No one pays me for anything I write about here. The frankness of it is this, to transcribe two years of journals to online content is not feasible at the moment.

For now, there’s a portion of this part of my journey in my book. When that get’s published, is another days work …

Chronicles of a Life in Africa: I will try & write another entry at some stage from the past over the coming months. But for now, it’s back to the journey on hand.

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36 Great responses to What is it like to live without food or water? Chronicles of life in Africa

  1. Rose says:

    I have been reading for some time. This person that emailed you sounded passionate too. But I do not think they thought it through enough. Touching on peoples lives can sometimes backfire. Your life is one that fills me with a sense of passion that I rarely feel.

    You speak from the heart, and have a logic that puts honesty above all else. Thank you for this.

  2. Bill says:

    Oil is a curse, and greed is worse. Great read.

  3. ciki says:

    v touching. thank u 4sharing. That bucket of water, or lack of was really grim! I cannot imagine thirst like that.. hunger maybe, but never thirst. Well, what don’t kill u only make u stronger right? Great post Dave.

  4. Renny says:

    I don’t ever want to be like that. Ever! I can’t imagine. I will sign the petition too.

  5. Ivy says:

    Yes, great post, really. :) When is your book gonna be ready?

  6. Abi says:

    This is one of the most compelling posts I have read in a long time. Passionate yet restrained, informative yet balanced. Thank you.

  7. Nellie says:

    Thanks for sharing as well. My experience in Tanzania was nothing like what you experienced – would definitely love to hear more stories on your time there. Looking forward to reading more.

  8. Amanda says:

    Dear Longest Way Home: I cannot wait to someday read your book…

  9. jessiev says:

    i echo so many here – such a thoughtful, important post. and unless you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, you can’t even begin to judge. BRAVO. i signed, thank you for pointing it out to me.

  10. Emişor says:

    This blog is absolutely fantastic. I’m :O. Great job!

  11. GotPassport says:

    This is the direct result of making assumptions based on 140 characters on twitter not getting to know the real person.

    I’ve never been to Africa though we hope to go one day. I’ve only started to follow your blog recently. After reading this post, I’m curious to read more – in time!

    Compelling post! Keep writing. Keep being you.

    • -Rose- Yes they did, but I do think that one should research a little about the person before sending such a mail. Especially if you go to the trouble of visiting their website first! But both cases, and some more are above. Thanks for kind words!

      -Bill- It’s the greed behind the oil alright.

      -ciki- Thank you Mei. Thirst and being without water in a situation like that brings a fear I can only describe as life threatening.

      -Renny- I hope you don’t either!

      -Ivy- The feedback I have on the book so far is that they want changes to storyline. Hmmm, it’s a commercial venture for them. To me it’s my story. And so the two worlds collide until we can come up with an agreement that doesn’t make it look like another generic paperback! :)

      -Abi- Thank you for taking the time to read & comment. I appreciate it, and am glad it read as balanced.

      -Nellie- Nice to see you here. Africa is big and diverse, so I think we all come back with different experiences. Even more so depending on what we were doing there.

      -Amanda- I’d like to read it in paper format too! :)

      -jessiev- Thank you for that Jessie. It just takes a few minutes to read an about/africa page. Anyway, this article will be in there now!

      -Emişor- Glad you like it, keep reading! :)

      -GotPassport- Totally agree with you about twitter. I like it, but you have to take it for what it is. Ditto for facebook.

      Africa is huge and diverse. So it’s not all like this by any means! Just where I was at the time.

      Glad to see you here, and yes I’ll keep being me. Thanks for stopping by

  12. Mona says:

    I was wondering what compelled you to stay in such harsh conditions for such an extended period of time? Why didn’t you move on?

    • -Mona- That’s a really good question. I am presuming you mean why did I stay in the African harsh conditions and not the childhood ones? No choice in the latter, which I am sure some would say is an arguable point. Both take some answering. The book should cover it. But to give an outline on Africa.

      If I commit to something, I am 100%. If I were on the initial stages of what took a lifetime of work and sacrifice to get to, then I was. If I had just left an opportunity to be with someone and a possible future that we both wanted, then I had also done that. If people told me I wouldn’t survive e.g. leave quickly, then, they did. Now add in a few more things, and such is life.

      While looking at no water maybe one of the most terrifying things one can confront. You don’t realize it until you’re there.

      -John- Quite true about the lottery ticket! I agree, sometimes it takes knowing someone, or experiencing something yourself to pick up a feeling for it. I’ve explaining the above water situations to a few people. But it never seems to sink in. It’s very different to be thirsty, and to be thirsty with no water available. Water is our life source, I’m glad you’re supporting it.

      -David @ Malaysia Asia- Thanks David. Yes, somehow so am I.

  13. John says:

    Hunger and thirst are big issues. There are probably very few people posting on the internet who have experienced it. So the odds your e-mailer’s being correct in saying that you had not experienced thirst or hunger were stacked in their favour. If I were them I wouldn’t bother buying a lottery ticket!
    There is also a perception that many of the posters on the internet, aren’t who they say they are. But, there are also very many people with strong convictions who are the real thing.
    But, to get back to the subject I know a lot of people who have worked for MSF or in fact still do. My girlfriend has worked for them in the past. I feel they do good work. I have signed their petition, but must admit that most of my donations to NGO’s goes to the UK based WaterAid. Therefore your story struck a chord with me.

  14. Great write Dave. I can only imagine what you went through from the read. And I am so very thankful of what I have today.


  15. yee says:

    Very compelling story, thanks for sharing.

    While you have your point to be upset, I believe that lady has her own reasons too; but yes, she has to make sure about something before accusing like that. Internet/Social Network can be a very misleading place esp. Twitter with it’s 140char. limits.

    I’m really sorry for what you have been through during childhood and your times in Africa. Life itself has not been easy for many people. While I feel bad for you, I still consider you’re lucky to be where you are at this point. You still have choices and can choose what you want to do. You can travel around to find your desired place to be called ‘Home’, lots of people can’t even get out from their suffering.

    Facing Mortality is not something everyone has ever experienced; I understand how it felt though not to your kind of extent. One thing scarier is if you’re faced with becoming paralyzed. Imagine you have to spend the rest of your life can’t move your body. The point is, always be grateful with what you have at this moment of life and never takes anything/anyone for granted!

    Checked the Starved for Attention, it seems a very good site, thanks again for sharing :)

    • -yee- Thanks for taking the time to input your thoughts.

      Everyone has a right to make their point. This website or blog is such a place, agree or disagree with my travels, points of view and so on, you are free to let it be known. Likewise via email. In this case the person didn’t think to even read a little first. I would suggest a little research or tact before sending an accusing email. They didn’t. I did in return :)

      Twitter is what it is, 140 character, indicative of our times no doubt.

      In regards to being more lucky than others? I never like such statements. As I mention in the article, it’s relative to one’s circumstances. I might not know what it’s like to be a mother with a starving child, but likewise the mother may not know what it’s like to have had my childhood. It’s not easy to say who’s worse or not. That is not my point, nor is it a sob story. I’ve fought with everything I’ve have and then some to get where I am today.

      There are millions of others doing the same. I get emails from people across the globe saying they are looking for ways to escape their lives to something better, and how can they do it. I don’t have individual answers. I can only tell them my story. And, that’s part of this website.

      I completely agree with your thoughts on Paralysis. But again, I reiterate the relativity of it all. For many people the worst thing is blindness, cancer, loosing a loved one or partner, and so on …

      Thanks again for your kind words, and for your support :)

  16. Earl says:

    It is hard for people to avoid the stereotypes and assumptions that are so ingrained in our lives, making it possible to understand how a quick judgment could lead to such a response to your twitter message. However, in the end, this is the point of sharing our life stories with others, to hopefully enable them to learn from our experiences while being able to learn from their experiences as well. And that clearly happened here.

    • -Earl- It’s a good point about things being ingrained in our lives. I know that I battle with this everyday in terms of social integration. Like you say, hopefully by sharing experiences cultures and people in general will one day accept this as a learning tool.

      -Mauritius- Hi there. Yes, there are many people fighting to survive around the world. A lot of which does not make the headlines.

  17. Mauritius says:

    It’s sad when learning about this facts. Why some people are living in a luxury life, others are fighting to have a living. It’s so hard…very touchy indeed.

  18. Jody says:

    Amusing post. I am an old Irishman (I left Ireland as a very young man) who has lived in many countries over the years. I lived for about ten years in Africa (four of them in Nigeria after the Civil War). Your description of razor blades passing through your rectum made me laugh out loud. Yep, a very accurate metaphor indeed. I vividly my first impressions of Africa, driving up from Lagos to Kaduna with my Lebanese boss, an operations guy from Jackson, Mississippi and a driver and being absolutely stunned by the poverty. I had found hell on earth.



    • -Jody- Thanks for the comment. It’s a welcome one from someone who knows the feeling. Not many do these days. There are many versions of hello on earth, Nigeria contains many of them I am afraid. Must have been interesting times there after the civil war.

  19. I read this some time ago, but did not have the proper set up to comment easily, so here goes:

    This is one of the most honest pieces of writing that I have read in a long time, you really lay life out there for the hoards to pick apart and ponder. It was great to read about this segment of your travels, it really shows a window into your character that is often easy to block up and safe guard with the written word. You open doors here, this is what good writing should do.

    It is easy to view the life of Westerners, by default, as being easy and without struggle. While this may be true for some, it is not for the many. The struggle for life happens everywhere, and it builds as well as breaks character.

    It is good to have this perspective on where you come from, it really gives the rest of the articles in here more depth.

    • Thanks Wade, it means a lot to hear your words.

      I firmly believe that on the streets of all “great” cities there are untold stories of struggle, failure and success that can provide inspiration to many people. It’s not all about the cure village kids in Cambodia. I am sure there are some foreigners struggling there too. But, will anyone want to read about their stories …

  20. carmel says:

    ive read some of your recent posts but this is the best post ive read so far =)

  21. JP Yu says:

    Wow… you write very well.. This post is very intense. I can almost feel the hardship u experienced in Nigeria. I thought being in the slums of Nairobi was hard, but after reading this, I am humbled.
    Keep doing your thing Dave… will track you on your long journey to find home… Keep the faith and continue to inspire the wanderlust in each of us…

    • Thanks JP. There’s a difference in traveling through a place, and living long term in a place. With travel we can always move on, so psychologically and physiologically we manage a lot better!

      Thanks again for the kind words, will do my best

  22. Jon says:

    this was very good to hear. i’ve been reading articles about people who manage to live with out much water, but this so far i one of the most hard hitting. its much different when you hear someone’s firsthand account about their experiences, and i really appreciate that. i could never had imagined what it was like, and it’s hard to believe that millions of people live exactly like you. Thank so much for sharing your personal times, it really made me think differently.

    • Hello Jon, thank you for you comment. I just write things as they happened, and how I took it. Sometimes people can relate, or have been through something similar. Other times they can’t relate and will disagree. Either way, it’s what happened to me. We are all individuals, and that’s what makes the world go around. Glad you found the article.

  23. “Home is where your heart is.” (Warm hugs)

  24. sebastian says:

    I am the better for reading your blog. I hope God uses you to change the world. I am a Christian and I honestly feel like vomiting when I hear of Christian organisations spending loads of money entertaining themselves by having forums and international meets on poverty. They should just sit at home, watch travel and living and give all the money they can to the poor.
    I wish they would go live like the poor instead of pretending to be concerned.

  25. Janardan says:

    I have never experienced such life… but really you are doing gud job..hats of to u..

  26. Mark says:

    Reading this from where you are now is simply inspiring, revealing and mesmerizing.

    To sit and read more would be riveting. I for one hope you will one day have the time and finances to make this happen. What you have to say and how you write it is a rarity in the world today.

  27. Daire says:

    No. No criticism. Being in Africa was an experience of what its like to have no food or water. And I agree about the ignorance of oil spills in America. Some people are this ignorant about people starving in the world too. But you don’t sound at all ignorant about this. So id be insane to criticise you. Which is why im not criticising (: I hate the fact that people donate to the Les fortunate starving people. And a percentage of the money doesn’t go to them