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Spectrum: Screened from the suffering children

1985 December 13
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by Paul Vallely

In an odd way it is actually worse on the televison than it is in reality.

Recently I had the disquieting experience of watching a home-made television video of a camp full of starving African children. I had been to the camp and stood among the children as they squatted on the plastic sheeting of the feeding centre and waited with their empty bowls.

I had breathed in the nauseating stench so characteristic of these places, a sickly-sweet miasmic odour of vomit, sweat, dust, faeces and decay. I had reached out and touched little forearms so fragile it seemed they might snap. I had felt their skin, wrinkled like old crepe paper. I had lifted a spoon and tried to pour a little milky porridge into the apathetic lips of one shrivelled infant too starved even to feel the hunger.


And yet, I had not been so shocked as I was when I saw the same thing on that television screen.

There, in a warm, well-upholstered suburban room, with wine on the table before me, in a house with hot and cold running water, stacks of food in the larder, I sat and watched, ashamed, not of having forgotten, but of never somehow having seen what the shameless lingering eye of the camera had seen.

This time last year my experience of Africa had been confined to the relative comfort of a Kenyan safari bus. Since then I have seen people starving to death in Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. It has been a numbing experience.

There is, aid workers will tell you, a cycle of responses which range through horror, anger, guilt, depression, indifference and hope. It is, apparently normal to shift through them repeatedly.

The sense of horror is easy enough to understand. Arriving for the first time at a feeding camp in Ethiopia in January, it was the size of the place which was so appalling. You could walk along the lines of waiting people and each time you stopped to look, there was a tragedy entire in itself – the hollow eyes, the shrunken limbs, the bulging belly spoke of an empty home, a barren field, a history of bereavement, a breakdown in something fundamental to human existence. The tragedies stretched on, in their tens of thousands.

It does not take long for horror to transform itself into outrage and then you look around for someone to blame. In Ethiopia there was an obvious target – the Marxist government, many of whose policies on public health, resettlement and price fixing, were at best insensitive, at worst callously indifferent to the real interests of the people.

But locking horns with the politicians on issues like that made it possible to walk through the camps looking for evidence to support a case, and missing the more profound truth that the humiliated people needed a solution which transcended politics.

Hunger breeds in apathy and reduces its victims to glassy-eyed statues who no longer seem human. It was only later, at Bati Camp, seeing people who had been restored to amination by food aid, that this became clear. A sense of uneasiness grew in me that I had walked through several camps impervious to the people around me.

At night I would return from the stark horror of the camps to the Telex machine in the luxurious Addis Ababa Hilton and its cordon bleu restaurant.

‘What did you eat? Couldn’t you take food from your hotel to the starving people?’ one of my daughter’s schoolmates later asked. There are no answers to questions so simple.

The fact that the contrast between life in the camps and life in Addis Ababa is far greater than the contrast between London and Addis, is problem shared by most of the Third World.

The legacy of coloialisn left most of Africa with a black elite in place of a white one, but one just as out of touch with the mass of the people. The capital cities had been located in sites chosen for easy contact with the West rather than good national administration. Their economy is based on cash crops designed to give cheap products to the West rather than to feed the native population. Their education system is geared to producing not entrepreneurs or innovators, but more administators for the overburdened bureaucracies.

The wester world’s recession upset the economic equation the Africans were handed on independence. In 1971 one Sahelian cow bought a barrel of oil, in 1981 it took nine. Prices for cash crops fell, interest rates rose, and foreign aid payments decreased in real terms. It often seemed as if the West was keeping its head above water by standing on drowing black men.

In the post-colonial West we shall never agree to bear our true share of the responsibility for these problems until there is a shift in public opinion which means that Third World aid becomes an election issue.

To compund all this, many of the countries were wasting money in fighting civil wars and there were the formidable natural problems of bleak terrain, enormous distances and rainy seasons.

Band Aid was refreshing example of how compassion can emerge from beneath the cynicism and commercialism of our modern life. But in the end individual aid workers are left to carry the standard.

Amid the squalor and purposelessness of the death and suffering, they maintain good humour and dedication which is impressive. Some of them find their motivation in religion. ‘I can see Christ in every face’, one nun in Ethiopia told me. All I could see there was a bleak denial but in the work of the aid staff, both European and African, there was a saving humanity.

It is, perhaps, because the video camera can never properly capture that warmth and caring that, in the final analysis, I am please to have had the chance to glimpse the reality behind those television pictures.

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