Food for thought

Ignatian discernment led a Jesuit-educated Sydneysider to move to Somalia, where he and others help the UN World Food Programme to combat hunger.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

By Gianni Taranto, Alumnus of Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview and recipient of the College’s 2023 Patrick Rodgers Memorial Award 

 Just over a year ago, I was living 400 metres away from Bondi Beach in a share house with my best mates and working at a top-tier strategy consulting organisation, Bain & Company. I had a girlfriend of a few years and was able to see plenty of my parents and siblings who live in Perth and Melbourne, due to a convenient work travel schedule. I would spend my weekends on patrol as a volunteer lifesaver, playing water polo or at the pub watching sport with my mates. You could say I had it pretty good for a 25-year-old. Certainly, 16-year-old me in my Riverview blazer would have thought so.  
 
But something seemed to be missing.  
 
As much as I tried to be fulfilled, I wasn’t quite so. I was ready for an adventure and to do something that I felt was meaningfully improving the lives of others. So, I picked up the phone to Michael Dunford, a Riverview old boy nearly my Dad’s age. I had been introduced to him three years earlier and knew that he worked with the UN World Food Programme in Kenya.  

I told him, “I’m ready. I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything. I want to work with WFP.”  
 
I said all this without actually knowing anything about what WFP did. It turns out that WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, providing lifesaving emergency food and nutrition assistance to food-insecure populations, while simultaneously implementing development initiatives that will end world hunger in the long run. WFP does its work in nearly 100 countries around the world.  

Michael Dunford (left) with Gianni Taranto in front of a World Food Programme helicopter in Beledweyne, a city in central Somalia. All photographs courtesy Gianna Taranto.

Michael replied that he would see what he could do, and asked, “What would you say to the idea of moving to Mogadishu?” After looking up where Mogadishu was (despite my late grandmother being a geography teacher, the subject was not my strong suit), I said “sure” with as much confidence as I could muster.  
 
From there, Michael introduced me to the Country Director of WFP in Somalia, a country on the brink of famine due to the worst drought in four decades. The country director, El-Khidir, was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met and after a short interview I knew I wanted to work for him. He had been born in a remote Sudanese village as the son of a goat and sheep herder. By pure fortune he ended up staying at school after the age of five. He survived typhoid and malaria and even lived through a famine himself – quite the credentials for an organisation that is working to end hunger.  
 
Now, at 62 (although he doesn’t know his exact birthday because, as he puts it, “in the village there is no need for birth certificates”), he has studied at the London School of Economics, been regional director of Save the Children – one of the world’s largest NGOs – and has received an OBE for his work supporting the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Africa. And yet he still doesn’t know how to tie shoelaces or a necktie – evidence of his humble roots and even humbler demeanour. 
 
A few months later, I was on the plane to Mogadishu, Somalia, to support El-Khidir as his strategic advisor/special assistant. Again, I didn’t actually know what this role would entail, but rationalised it as being akin to a chief of staff role at a start-up. But WFP Somalia was no start-up. Instead, it was in the process of scaling up to provide emergency assistance to around one-third of the country’s population – about five million people every month. This made it a multi-billion-dollar operation with a 600-person team spanning 14 offices across the country.  

With one of the local youngsters at a food distribution point.

One year on, and after the experience of seeing a famine narrowly averted, I can safely say that I’ve got the adventure and impact that I was searching for. I’m writing this from a remote area of Somalia called Galkayo, where I’m currently living for the next three months to lead a 20-member team that is directly responsible for providing assistance to around a quarter of a million people each month. Although the worst of the drought has subsided, ongoing conflict and cyclical climate change-induced disasters (currently, we are dealing with El Nino-driven flooding) combined with widespread poverty, mean the food security situation remains dire. We also oversee several developmental initiatives like teaching local farmers drought-resilient farming techniques, as well as providing social safety nets to women in rural households.  
 
Prior to the Galkayo deployment I was leading WFP’s engagements with state and federal government institutions around the country to support the strengthening of their capacities so they can gradually provide services to their populations. I have worked at the coalface of a turnaround strategy following widespread fraud and corruption issues identified as part of our operation during the famine response. I have engaged with the highest levels of the Australian, European Union and American foreign service respectively in the region, to advocate for support and to demonstrate the impact of WFP’s work. I have travelled to towns completely besieged by the national terrorist group Al-Shabab, I find myself wearing a bulletproof vest far more frequently than a suit jacket, and I spend my life locked in secure compounds that are surrounded by guards carrying AK-47s. Quite a change from Bondi … 

Walking towards an armed convoy before setting out on the next assignment.

These are the box-office highlights. But there are plenty of smaller unexpected benefits too: I work with the most diverse cohort of people imaginable, so am learning about all races, creeds and colours. I am making the most of the generous “R&R cycle” whereby I get two weeks’ leave after being in the country for four weeks. On my most recent trip, I spent my days exploring and surfing along the Moroccan coast and I have been to over ten countries over the past 12 months for a mix of business and pleasure. The professional development opportunities are far greater than if I had remained a corporate city slicker, given that I have regular access to such high-ranking people and am given the responsibility to lead initiatives and teams so independently. I am also learning a great deal about myself – the isolation and insecurity are a test of adaptability and mental fortitude. I also eat a lot more healthily, although I’ve learned that camel meat is actually quite tasty, and I drink less and exercise more. In sum total, I’m fulfilled – with the adventure, the impact and all that comes with it – in a way that I wasn’t in Bondi.  
 
I can’t profess to thinking about Jesuit pedagogy every day, but the central tenets of its teachings live with me always – partly due to my schooling at Riverview, as well as the influence of my family, and all the things I’ve seen and experienced.  

Surrounded by colleagues who comprise a truly diverse team.

For example, as a 16-year-old Riverview student, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Asia Pacific Jesuit Leadership Conference in the Philippines. As we unpacked the theory in Chris Lowney’s book, ‘Servant Leadership’, and put it into practice while building houses in slums and meeting with convicted murderers in maximum security prisons we visited, I began to suspect that living a life of service might be of interest.  
 
This early inkling took further shape during my immersion to India less than a year later. The sense of purpose through richly lived experiences was a sensation like no other. Some poignant memories from the immersion that will stay with me for life are: 

  • Supporting a doctor and nurse to re-break a man’s ankle after it had been in a cast for six months and healed incorrectly because he could not afford a pair of crutches; 
  • Despite no common language, sharing deep laughter with a disabled old man as I cut his worn toenails and shaved his coarse beard; 
  • Spending three days developing friendships with orphaned children, including taking them to the Taj Mahal.  

Beyond these one-off, intense moments of Jesuit formation, there are a handful of slower-burning ingredients that have underpinned my motivations and actions: 

The support of my loving parents, who have always encouraged and supported me to pursue my passions. 

The principles of Ignatian discernment, particularly where one looks back at one’s life from one’s deathbed to determine which choice to make at a particular juncture. This has allowed me to make decisions that at face value are outside my comfort zone, such as moving to the US for my undergraduate university degree or working in Somalia.  

The values I learned at Riverview, particularly the importance of courage, commitment and compassion. These were the three values of utmost importance that I stressed to Riverview’s graduating class of 2023 when speaking at their recent graduation ceremony. They are the values that drive everything I do.  

The considerable influence of Riverview old boys who are living or who have lived lives of service and/or have supported me to get to where I am including:  

  • The late Patrick Rodgers (it was at his funeral six years ago that I first divulged perhaps to anyone, but certainly to Dr Paul Hine, the headmaster of Riverview, my desire to work in the international development sector as I reflected on how inspired I was my Patrick’s Cambodian exploits); 
  • Daniel Street, an international development practitioner working with the World Bank and who has become a dear mentor and friend over the past eight years; 
  • Michael Dunford, who, as I mentioned, introduced me to my present boss at WFP, among others.  
     

The good news is that I’m certainly not the only Jesuit-educated alumnus who wants to make a real difference where it truly matters. Just last month I had the pleasure of meeting a Xavier old boy who is also a former Bain employee and who is engaged in similar humanitarian and development work in the Middle East. The network of Jesuit-educated men and women of conscience is far-reaching and growing continuously. 
 
I must also mention the humanity of the people whom I serve. My work serves as a daily reminder of how fortunate I am amid the scale of climate- and conflict-induced human suffering in our world. Those who suffer deserve to live in a more equitable and peaceful world.  
 
It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to “shake the bucket”. With the Israel-Hamas conflict filling our newsfeeds, the world is forgetting the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war, and losing sight of the way in which domestic conflict and climate change have affected multiple nations in Africa. In Somalia alone, there are millions of men, women and children that remain food-insecure and unassisted by WFP. Any contribution helps, and you can donate via this link. And it goes without saying that if you are ever in Mogadishu, or Somalia more generally, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! 

With the Australian Ambassador (second from right) to Somalia.

To read more about the Patrick Rodgers Memorial Award, named after a Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview alumnus who was just 23 when he died on Christmas Day 2017, click here. 

For more perspectives on the region in which Gianni works, click on this clip that aired recently on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent series: Somalia – a story of survival 

 

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