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This child will be dead within five minutes, they said. But look at her now…

2009 November 28
by Paul Vallely

The first time Bob Geldof saw Birhan Woldu was on the television. It was in 1984 and the face of the child was one of the most haunting images in the BBC report which alerted the world to the famine in Ethiopia in which as many as a million people died. At the end of a harrowing sequence of images of malnourished children the camera stopped on the face of a child whose eyes were closed by pain and parched lips were swollen with dehydration. The nurses said she would be dead within minutes. Her name was Birhan Woldu.

The film shocked the nation. It prompted Geldof to summon the nation’s pop stars together under the logo Band Aid to make a fund-raising record, Do They Know It’s Christmas. Tomorrow (Sunday) is the 25th anniversary of its release. To mark it Geldof this week returned to Ethiopia to see how the money has been spent. At one of the projects Band Aid has funded waiting to meet him was a young woman. It was Birhan Woldu.

The 26-year-old was standing, at the end of the gravelled drive at Hagere Selam school about an hour’s drive out of the highland city of Mekele in the northern province of Tigray. The child who had been snatched from the grasp of death had grown into a poised young woman. She stood, dignified and confident, with her hair plaited in corn rows across the crown of her head, dressed in a plain white robe, embroidered with black, green and red panels. She had the bearing of a princess.

Behind her the new school building of square-cut stone, green paintwork and bright red roof is home to 500 pupils aged between 7 and 15. It is one of four schools run in Ethiopia by a charity named A-CET which is funded by Band Aid.

The Irish rock star was received like visiting royalty by hundreds of  cheering pupils and their parents. He was presented with a bouquet of yellow silk roses and asked to cut a ribbon across the drive way and then unveil a plaque of dedication to the school whose graduates include an accountant, mechanical engineer, information systems analyst and an international lawyer. But the wildest welcome came from Birhan, who threw her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.

Geldof’s second encounter with her had been confined to film too – the footage of the BBC report had been surrealistically cut to a track by The Cars with the refrain “Who’s going to take you home?” and had been shown at the Live Aid concert which followed Band Aid in 1985. When the film was screened to the largest audience in history – a billion people, across the planet – it world paused in horror.

Twenty years on it pricked the conscience of the world again when it was shown at the Live 8 concerts. In Hyde Park the audience were stunned into a shocked silence. But that time Geldof came out onto the stage to announce that the little girl on the screen, who had had 10 minutes to live 20 years before, had just passed her agricultural exams. He introduced Birhan once more to the world. This week he made the journey to see her in her homeland.

What he found was that she has spent the last three years training to be a nurse. “I had a vision,” she told him. “I was saved by the skill of a nurse, and now it is my turn to save someone.” Not long after the camera had moved from her face the little girl’s eyelids had stopped flickering. But as her father wrapped her in a shroud and he sensed a tiny pulse. He called a nurse who immediately administered some re-hydration shots. After three days the child began to blink. A week later she could walk.

Now, she told Geldof, she had just finished her nurses training and was working as a volunteer at the A-CET school until she finds a nursing post.

But she was not the only nurse present. One of the trustees of A-CET is Claire Bertschinger, the nurse who had shocked the BBC reporter Michael Buerk in his 1984 report from the Ethiopian famine plains when she disclosed that she was moving through the crowds of malnourished children deciding who should live and who should die. Those she decided she could help, she admitted; those who she deemed too ill she sent away to die.

“Twenty five years on and it is so great to be back in Mekele and to find that everything is so much improved, said Ms Bertschinger who is now director of tropical nursing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The place is thriving. There are good roads, new factories, a busy university and local people in the restaurants. There have been two years of consecutive droughts but the famine early warnings systems are now working well.”  Last month, the government appealed for 159,000 tonnes of food aid worth 121 million dollars to feed 6.2 million people until the year’s end.

“But people look healthy, children are well, livestock look good,” she added. “Deaths among under fives has been halved in Tigray and it is one of the few places on course to meet the Millennium Development Goal to half child mortality by 2015. There are  certain areas of food shortages that need addressing but overall I’m very positive.”

There has been one other occasion that Bob Geldof met Birhan Woldu. The activist invited the young woman to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, during a meeting of Tony Blair’s international Commission for Africa. The then prime minister’s eyes moistened when Geldof introduce him to the resurrected woman. All the Commission’s statistics on poverty had been made flesh. Each one of the children who die somewhere in the world – every three seconds – might have grown into a man or woman like this, brimming with possibility and potential. Here was the enormity of one life saved. The Commission’s report became the blueprint for the Gleneagles G8 deal.

“As a result of what Gleneagles did on debt 37 million more children are in school. And 500 of those are here in this school,” Geldof said after watching a concert laid on by the pupils who were revealed as impressive acrobats, jugglers and musicians. They performed beneath banners which proclaimed: “Education is the key to success” and “We are making poverty history.”

In the midst of the display Birhan appeared, waving a tall Ethiopian flag. “Life is like a road which has opened up everything for me,” she said later. “It is full of possibilities. People who say that aid is a waste of money don’t understand the reality of what it can do and how it can change lives. If only they would come here to see they would change their minds.”

One such life is that of A-CET’s manager Bisrat Mesfin who was an earlier graduate of the school which rescued him from a life selling chewing gum on the streets. “With your money we built this school,” he told Geldof and the two other Band Aid trustees accompanying him on the trip. “With education we can do anything.”

Geldof thanked him in return. “Twenty five years ago we told the world about your pain,” he said. “Now we want to tell the world about your wonderful children, this fantastic school and the healthy flourishing community you have become.”

The school band closed with an idiosyncratic rendition of the Band Aid single. “Better than the real thing,” the singer pronounced at the end. A quarter of a century on and they could do it for themselves.

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