By Barry Malone
I never know how to behave when I go to write about hungry people.
I usually bring just a notebook and a pen because it seems somehow more subtle than a recorder. I drain bottled water or hide it before I get out of the car or the plane. In Ethiopia a few years ago I was telling a funny story to some other journalists as our car pulled up near a church where we had been told people were arriving looking for food.
We got out and began walking towards the place, me still telling the tale, shouting my mouth off, struggling to get to the punch line through my laughter and everybody else’s.
Then there was this sound, a low rumbling thing that came to meet us.
I could feel it roll across the ground and up through my boots. I stopped talking, my laughter died, I grabbed the arm of the person beside me: “What is that?” And I realized. It was the sound of children crying. There were enough children crying that — I’ll say it again — I could feel it in my boots. I was shamed by my laughter.
Inside the churchyard there were tents and inside the tents children were dying.
Rows and rows of women sat on the ground cradling delicate babies. An aid worker told us we had ten minutes and so we went to work. Camera shutters clicking, pens scratching: “What’s her name? How far did she walk? How many of her kids are dead?”
Some journalists leaned down over the mothers to talk to them, some stuck cameras inches from their faces. I stood further away when taking the photos, I sat down in the dirt to interview people. I thought I was better, but I wasn’t. I was just more conceited.
I remember looking up and seeing a girl who worked at a U.N. aid agency crying. I motioned to her to get out — her tears as self-indulgent as my sitting in the dirt. And then we leave. Thank you, we say. Thank you for talking to me. Thank you for holding up your dying baby for my camera. And thank you for your dignity. Thank you for giving it to me. Thank you for letting me have it.
Because that’s the thing. An Ethiopian girl told me last week that she cried as she watched foreign journalists interviewing a Somali woman in a Kenyan refugee camp. “All she had left was her dignity,” she said. “And then they took that, too.”
She was right. And I knew that I had done that. Many, many times.
I used to tell myself that it was okay because what I did was important. A U.N. official once excitedly phoned me at 7am to tell me the U.S. had donated millions of dollars to his agency because someone from the government had read a story of mine in the Washington Post.
Another aid worker approached me in a bar in Addis Ababa. “Hey! That story you wrote about that woman? That woman who had a kid die every year for the last four years and now only has one left? Awesome, man! Awesome!”
Her name was Ayantu. I don’t know if her son, Hirbu, is still alive.
Last weekend I was there again. The U.N. loaded me and some other journalists onto one of their planes in Nairobi and we flew to a tiny village near Somalia to meet people suffering from hunger, to ask them our questions, to find the sorriest tales possible.
We jumped into an imperious row of white jeeps when we landed and swept into the village. Doors flew open, everybody walked very fast, everybody was very important.
I saw six people all firing their cameras at one bemused woman. I saw aid workers fawning over the head of the World Food Programme. I saw soldiers fanning out to protect us. And then I saw the man with the iPad. I stood and stared for some time, enjoying the deliciousness of what was one of the strangest things I had ever seen in my life.
I raised the camera.
This is what I’ll write, I thought. Not about another Ayantu. Not again.
Because it’s a cycle. African governments know that drought is coming and they don’t prepare. Foreign charities working there talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years. It’s as much about politics and war and poor economic policies as it is about no rain. I’m no expert but I know that much.
I also know it’s wrong that every few years we’re faced with an “emergency” that could have been prevented, that aid groups must frantically try to raise money to respond, that journalists need to find emaciated babies at death’s door and film and photograph and write about them before the world gives a damn.
Part of me felt bad for publishing the photo of the man with the iPad. Because he was a good person doing his job. And because we are the same.
He comes with an iPad, I come with a notebook.
Both of us steal dignity and neither of us belong.