11/05/2011 10:53 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2012

Creating a Strong African-American Voice for Africa

A recent doctor's appointment with my 2-year-old son, Emil, got me thinking: What a privilege it is to have access to nutritious food, doctors, and medicine to ensure the good health and well-being of our children. In the United States we often take such "everyday" privileges for granted, but on a trip to Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania last month, I quickly realized that for many people, these privileges are not normal at all.

Zambia was the first of three stops on a visit I took with several colleagues to learn more about the work being done there and in Malawi and Tanzania to address maternal and child nutrition issues. Simply put, without addressing malnutrition, we don't have any hope of ending hunger. Talking about the nutritional needs of mothers and children is a great way to put a face on the importance of poverty-focused development assistance.

I learned that 45 percent of Zambian children under 5 suffer from stunted growth because they have limited access to nutritious food and medicines. Almost 21 percent are severely stunted, according to the World Health Organization's standards. These statistics are startling, especially since malnutrition is irreversible. In addition, HIV-positive mothers who give birth to HIV-negative children are often confronted with an impossible dilemma when it comes to feeding their infants. Because baby formula often depends on access to clean and safe drinking water -- which can be hard to find -- the only viable option for these mothers is to breastfeed them, knowing there is a 30 percent chance their babies may contract HIV. What a decision to have to make!

In Malawi, we had an opportunity to visit the Jombo and Biliati villages in the southern Chickwawa district to get a closer look at maternal and child nutrition programs aimed at meeting the critical needs of many impoverished families there. While I was excited to travel to this remote location because I had heard so much about life in African villages, the abject poverty we witnessed at both sites left us in disbelief. Many of the villages' homes were made of mud bricks that would literally melt away with too much rain. Children were clad in tattered clothes and didn't have shoes to wear. Many school-aged children were not in school -- speaking to the need for better access to education.

But we also witnessed real signs of hope. We saw firsthand the effects of the Scaling Up Nutrition campaign (SUN) in these two villages. Written and endorsed by prominent international leaders, the SUN framework outlines plans to end child malnutrition in more than a dozen countries with the highest levels of hunger and food insecurity. Village leaders in Malawi eagerly shared specifics about their educational programs designed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for the purpose of promoting proper nutrition and good sanitary practices.

They also showed us simple ingredients they add to meals to ensure their foods are more nutritious; a hand-washing station they built from a plastic bottle and sticks that is used for improved hygiene; and posters urging mothers to breastfeed. It was wonderful to see how macro-policies or ideas translate into simple but effective solutions on the community level with the help of organizations such as CRS.

As a Christian and Baptist minister, I believe I am called to be compassionate to others, and to be aware of issues facing my brothers and sisters in other countries. As an African-American,
I feel compelled to take action on issues facing my brothers and sisters in Africa. When I go home or to my own community, I've realized that we aren't always held responsible for knowing the depths of the challenges -- hunger and poverty, malnutrition, education disparities, disease, and famine -- and triumphs that our neighbors in Africa are experiencing. For that reason, we need a paradigm shift in the way African-Americans view Africa.

We're taking steps in the right direction, but there are many more places -- such as the Horn of Africa -- where the need far outweighs the work being done. Just as many Jewish Americans show strong, intentional support for Israel, I believe African Americans must continue our long march forward in pursuit of justice for hungry and poor people in Africa. If our community doesn't come together in support of our "Motherland," who will? I will continue to urge leaders to unite and magnify their voices while advocating for policies that improve lives on the local level. We as Christians are called to care for others. Won't you join me?

Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation's decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. Rev. Derrick Boykin serves as associate for African American leadership outreach at Bread for the World.