Tens of thousands of children marched against hunger in Liberia, adding their voices to a global event to tackle food shortages that many in the war-battered west African nation have felt firsthand.
The UN's World Food Program organized the march on Sunday, which took place simultaneously in more than 110 countries. Marches were planned in 117 countries, with the first one in Auckland, New Zealand, and the last one in Samoa.
"When you are hungry you can't listen to teachers," Musu Smith, 14, said. "It was hunger that killed plenty people in Liberia during the war."
"We were forced to eat all types of leaves and fruits just to survive when we were running from fighters to save our lives," said Ma Korto Nyalay, a roadside vendor in Monrovia who lost her home in Liberia's decade-long civil war.
The fighting devastated Liberia's agriculture sector, leaving the country largely dependent on imports and food aid. Vice President Joseph Boakai said recently that Liberia currently imports about 70 percent of its food, compared to 30 percent before the war.
"Large numbers of Liberians can hardly meet most of their basic needs such as food, shelter and other means to keep their families healthy," said Abidirahman Meygag, deputy director of the World Food Program's Liberia program.
In Monrovia, streets were blocked off and more than 30,000 people wearing "Fight Hunger" T-shirts walked and sang alongside a marching band. Many of the children said they were eager to catch site of Nigerian movie star Omotola Jalade Ekeinde, who was participating in the walk. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also joined the marchers in Monrovia.
About 80,000 children had signed up to march throughout 15 counties in Liberia, accompanied by their parents, organizers said. Though demonstrations and marches are common in the capital, such large gatherings are usually restricted to national holidays in the rest of the country.
This year continues to be precarious for Liberia's food security. The World Food Program said it is short by about US$9.7 million for the next six months, making it difficult to keep to a target of getting food aid to 700,000 people a month.
Most of Liberia's farmers depend on emergency assistance for basic agriculture tools and about 95 percent of city residents' food is imported, according to Meygag.
Yet some participants approached the walk with cynicism.
"What international organizations here need to do is simply cut down the flamboyant lifestyles and divert the money to the fight against hunger," said Jebbeh Passawe, a middle-aged woman at the Monrovia march.
Monrovia resident James Lamine said countries with food crises need more than just food aid.
"We need practical actions that will help us feed ourselves. We need farming assistance," Lamine said.
Arlene Mitchell, director of Walk the World program in Rome, said organizers hoped to raise US$5 million from Sunday's marches around the world.
In Kenya, marathon star Paul Tergat was among more than 1,000 people who turned out for a march there, saying he benefited from school meal programs when he was a child.
"We are here to raise funds to support a school feeding program, which enables kids that can't afford meals at schools," said Tergat, who won the New York City marathon in November.
The fund and awareness-raising initiative has been an annual event since 2003, but this is the first time it has been organized on such a large scale, the World Food Program said.