Food Not Bombs

Elizabeth Tadic Report - Dateline SBS 05/18/06 - Run time 13 minutes

Food Not Bombs protests against war by feeding the homeless and the hungry, and while the FBI may have managed to silence some anti-war campaigners, the co-founder of Food Not Bombs just won't shut up, even when he's accused of being part of a "domestic terror group". Dateline's Elizabeth Tadic caught up with him, almost predictably in poverty-stricken Nigeria.

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REPORTER: Elizabeth Tadic

Early morning in Nigeria's Christian southern city of Calabar. American peace activist Keith McHenry is the centre of attention. He's dedicated the past 26 years to expanding the Food Not Bombs organisation around the world. Now there are almost 1,000 branches spread across every continent bar Africa. So what better place to start than Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation? He's here to motivate them to start their own Food Not Bombs chapters.

KEITH McHENRY: This concept of sending money in and sending food in from abroad has not really changed the situation in Nigeria or in Africa, and if people can organise in their own groups, like in a Food Not Bombs model, then I think they can achieve a great deal.

Keith wants to create a society based on peace and democracy where basic human rights are guaranteed, like the right to food.

KEITH McHENRY: We're cooking rice with vegetables, and I also have mushrooms, that I brought from America, and soy.

Keith McHenry's family has a long history of military involvement. His father developed the Minuteman missile, and his grandfather helped plan the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Another forebear, James McHenry, fought the British in the American War of Independence. Keith wants to make amends for what he considers the sins of his forefathers.

KEITH McHENRY: As a founding family of the US, I feel it's my responsibility to do what I can to return the US to a democracy, if it ever was.

Overwhelmed by the excitement of hungry children, he approaches the community leader for advice.

KEITH McHENRY: We brought food, how do you want me to give it out?

COMMUNITY LEADER: We are in three groups. We have blind, we have lepers, we have cripples. These are the three groups we have. And each group has its own leader. So when we get something like this, we share into three - blind, lepers, cripples.

In Nigeria, at least 100 million out of a population of 140 million live below the poverty line. Feeding the homeless and hungry in the name of Food Not Bombs is not an activity the US Government appears to support.

NOVEMBER 2004, RALLY: 1, 2, 3, 4, We don't want your fucking war! 5, 6, 7, 8 Well will not participate!

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the organisation is one of the latest peace groups placed under FBI surveillance and on an Anti-Terror Watch List.

KEITH McHENRY: In America they're accusing people like us of being terrorists, they're accusing people like me of being a terrorist. I was accused by the Pentagon for being a terrorist just because I organised a protest against torture.

This is what democracy looks like.

Despite being labelled a terrorist and spending nearly 18 months in gaol, Keith took his campaign on the road. He now tours the world to help promote Food Not Bombs. The Muslim community in Lagos is surprised to see him.

MUSLIM: We are very happy to see an American like you today because people are saying that Americans are killing people in the whole world so people are criticising America. They do not want to see an American but we want to see an American like you. When we see American like you we know you are our brother. You are welcome.

KEITH McHENRY: Thank you so much. That's great. Thank you everyone. This is wonderful. Salaam Aleikum?

MUSLIM: Salaam Alewikum!

KEITH McHENRY: Thank you so much! You guys are so good! That's excellent!

REPORTER: But you're not very patriotic going around the world speaking out against the American Government?

KEITH McHENRY: Absolutely not. I don't think what the American Government is doing is right. Nigerians look at America as being a democracy and yet we don't have basic, fundamental, democratic rights within the US. And they've killed people all over the world in their effort to maintain political and economic control of the world. And that's not democratic.

YINKA: You're meeting Keith. He's an American. President Food Not Bombs.

Keith's next, and perhaps most important, stop is with the National Association of Nigerian Students, or NANS. With a membership of about 40 million, NANS is a very powerful lobby group.

STUDENT: Today we are going to meet the white man who’s been incarcerated and in prison, more than you and me. I present mr Keith McHenry.

After a brief address, the student senate passes a motion to adopt Food Not Bombs nationwide.

VICTOR WALLAS: You see food should be produced and not bombs, in fact, if there's a way to harness food, it would be a way of settling crisis.

MAN: They must keep fuelling that crisis. While they sell arms to the Middle East, they fight the other parts to get oil, so what they get from the oil is what they use to sponsor crisis to sell more arms.

How do we conquer Bush and his allies?

KEITH: That's a big problem but that's what we have to do. We have to conquer Bush and his people, otherwise the world is just going to collapse.

Some of the students join Keith as he tours Nigeria. All foreigners are warned not to travel to the Niger Delta because of kidnappings and murders.

KEITH McHENRY: I think that as an Americans it's our responsibility to try to change the world. Much of the oil - much of the Bonny crude that goes to America - it's used by our military jets, and our naval ships to dominate and control the whole rest of the world.

Surprisingly, it's hard finding petrol in the Niger Delta, Africa's biggest oil-producing region. Keith eventually buys some fuel off a black marketeer. His first stop is with a group of farmers.

KEITH McHENRY: Hello, I'm Keith McHenry. I started Food Not Bombs with my friends and we're now all over the world. So we heard about you and are very excited to meet you.

JAMES: The elder says that they are solidly behind your plans.

KEITH: That's really, really good.

Keith plans to give the farmers money to plant yams. The students will help harvest them, and bring some of the food back to feed people in the cities, but the land here is barely fertile. The waterways are polluted because of the nearby oilfields. Keith hits the road again, heading deeper into the Niger Delta.
The next day he arrives in Port Harcourt, the commercial centre of the oil industry. Just across the road from this multibillion-dollar refinery, thousands of people live in squalor and poverty. The community elder, Igwe Ejireyi, says that life has progressively deteriorated since Royal Dutch Shell came here in the 1960s.

IGWE EJIREYI: We are not benefiting because our country prefers... ..carries out the oil to other countries.

KEITH: Even with the price of oil going up, you are not getting the benefits?

IGWE EJIREYI: No benefits, nothing.

He says there's no health care, no school, no clean water, no clean air. Nothing but the constant glare of oil flares burning 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

KEITH McHENRY: Is there a way where we wrote letters to somebody or we did something, something peaceful that would get the attention...? ...

IGWE EJIREYI: Yes, we are actually annoyed because we are hungry, because a hungry man is an angry man.

KEITH: We want you to have this book for your community. This is our philosophy, tells you how to make a lot of food, you know, for 100 people. We will also, and others, will come and support you.

IGWE EJIREYI: I'm very happy, I'm very grateful.

Back in Lagos, Keith buys the students the equipment they need to get Food Not Bombs off the ground. He believes the anti-war movement will one day prevail. It's this belief that's kept him going for 26 years and has made him dedicate his life to peace.

KEITH McHENRY: I'm pretty optimistic that we have put the brakes on the aggression of America, and that it would have gone even further and in a more terrifying directions had we not been able to mobilise masses of people on a regular basis to resist the policies of the Bush Administration.

REPORTER: But this opposition isn't stopping the Americans from going to war with these countries?

KEITH McHENRY: It may not have yet but I think it will slow them down in their adventurism.

The day after Keith leaves, true to their word, the students serve up free food on the streets of Lagos, and it's all in the name of the new Nigerian chapter of Food Not Bombs.

STUDENT: We believe that the sustenance of our democracy requires the most basic thing and that is food. If people are given food, they will be able to reason. If people can reason, they will be able to act positively. And if people are able to act positively, then they will be able to contribute positively to their society.

REPORTER/CAMERA: Elizabeth Tadic
EDITOR: David Potts
PRODUCER: Adrian Herring
EP: Mike Carey

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