January 24, 2007: Perspective
By Jennifer Parmelee ’80
Jennifer Parmelee ’80 joined the U.N. World Food Program in Washington in 2005, after a 25-year career in journalism.
Fifteen years ago, a plane dropped me in the badlands of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where catastrophe had struck. Far away from the TV cameras and the tender mercies of most aid agencies, a ghastly scene unfolded: Amid the haze of heat and wood smoke, blue-and-white-plumed marabou storks pecked their long beaks at animal and human waste, ungainly angels of death stalking the camps of misery where thousands lay dying from famine.
I was new to Africa, and it was my first exposure to starvation on a wide scale — searing a memory I’ve never been able to shake. I was there as a reporter, and it was nearly two weeks before another plane would arrive to take me out. Cut off from the rest of the world, no satellite phone handy, I interviewed the aid workers and the victims, took notes, and went back to my hotel to cry. When I could observe no more, I tried to help the aid workers who were stretched way beyond capacity and supply. The situation was so desperate that mothers in rags hurled themselves at passing vehicles, screaming for help.
At one hard-pressed emergency feeding center, I stood in a room filled with young children — but bathed in an unnatural silence, as if someone had cut off the volume during a nightmarish scene on TV. A few little souls summoned the strength to cry out. But most sat or lay quietly, their wizened, hollow-eyed faces stripped of animation. Many children bore septic “cauterization” wounds on their stomachs, where parents had burned them with cigarettes to “take away” the hunger pangs.
Zeynep was a delicate 2-year-old whose tummy bore these unspeakable injuries. I held her carefully, a light bundle of sandpaper skin and bones, a wounded bird with enormous eyes, as I tried to coax a high-protein biscuit and a sip of water past her parched lips. A watchful Irish nurse, kind but practical, warned me that Zeynep already had reached that severe stage of malnutrition where the body starts consuming itself: She would not live for long.
Each day at dusk, I returned to my hotel — a tin-roofed, mud-walled establishment we expatriates mockingly dubbed “The Hilton.” I would sit cross-legged on my cot, writing, trying to reckon with what I had seen and felt — struggling to convey the scale of suffering to readers in a world apart. At night, before turning in, I would dribble a circle of bug repellent around me, don earplugs and sleep mask, pop two sedative pills, and pull the covers over my head — not only in hopes of deterring the armies of bugs and the rats that patrolled the rafters above, but to keep at bay the faces of the children who had died that day.
At first, I could not eat — stunned by the tragedy and, to be honest, not keen to dine on the goats that were slaughtered noisily outside my window at dawn. The worried hotelier’s daughter, a lovely young highlander named Saba, brought me freshly baked bread each morning with tea. Dismayed by the tiny red bugs that were baked throughout the bread, I would pick at it, pretending, for her sake. Although it seems obvious now, it took me days to recognize her offering for what it was — my first gift from Africa — and eat it, bugs and all.
There were to be many more such gifts in Africa. While we in the affluent world perceive the continent as a bottomless sea of need, we too often overlook the easy generosity of spirit, especially among its poorest inhabitants. So many times, I saw Africans open their homes to strangers, offering what little they had. You would arrive in some remote corner of Africa to cover a disaster, only to be greeted by an upbeat song and dance, no matter what the affliction. Then, as you were leaving, people would gather around the airstrip, still waving from the ground as the plane circled lazily upward — leaving them to their war or famine.
You — the writer, the observer, even the aid worker — could always leave. But increasingly, as I found over the years, you left a piece of yourself behind — your innocence and heart, perhaps — and gained a piece of Africa in return.
But I was still new to Africa, and not thinking these thoughts, when a plane finally appeared in the Ogaden one day, mercifully delivering aid supplies and ferrying me back to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where I had made my home. In truth, I was relieved to have my ticket out, grateful for the air-conditioning and cool drinks, and anxious to file my first story about the famine.
My story and photographs eventually made page one of The Washington Post. Eventually, the flow of emergency relief increased and turned back the tide of death, restoring life in the Ogaden to “routine” levels of poverty. I liked to imagine my story had some tiny catalytic role to play, one of the rare times I felt I had lived up to the old journalists’ dictum: “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Yet I didn’t like to contemplate how many children had died in the weeks, even months, between the onset of that tragedy and the moment when the world beyond finally paid attention. Sadly, this was a pattern that repeated throughout my five years covering Africa in the early 1990s. In a time of turmoil, we journalists traipsed through conflict zones and impoverished backwaters in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi ... through the refugee and displaced-persons camps ... through drought, crop failure, disease, and famine.
There were many front-page stories, and many colleagues risked their lives — even died — telling those stories. But the fact of the matter was this: The crisis almost always had happened by the time we journalists came on the scene. In Somalia, by the time most journalists and the U.S. forces arrived in late 1992, the peak of the dying had passed. In Rwanda in 1994, the genocide was well under way — and not well understood — by the time we caught up with it. Counting bodies from the sidelines became an increasingly soul-rending occupation.
There were also the battles to get your stories published. I recall struggling in vain to convince an editor to take an article about an Ethiopian food crisis in which thousands of young children had died in the space of months. “I know it’s awful,” said the editor, “but tell me: How is this different from any other day in Africa?”
In a chilling way, she was not wrong. Even this horrifying spasm of dying children could be perceived as but a footnote to the grim daily realities of Africa, and much of the rest of the poor world, where a shocking number of people die around the clock from entirely preventable causes. Globally, hunger and related ailments kill 25,000 people a day, most of them children: one death from hunger every five seconds.
Imagine the headlines, the public outrage, if 45 747s packed with children — an equivalent number — went down each and every day, in our neighborhoods. Yet instead, these are the poorest of the poor, in faraway places, dying in obscurity — people who have no voice, no face, no powerful lobby group in our affluent world. Is it that we don’t know, or is it that peculiar ailment that aid groups call “compassion fatigue?” Certainly, we would never tolerate even one of our own children dying of hunger.
The children were my greatest gift, and heartache, from Africa. At every stop, I found a child who reached out to my heart, who took me trustingly by the hand and led me on a tour of her life: Simon, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who painted the walls of his refugee camp home with pictures of his long-gone mother; Fatima, a beautiful little girl — almost certainly HIV-positive — in a Djibouti orphanage; Serge, a Tutsi toddler who had lost his family and home in the outbreak of Rwanda’s genocide, who wordlessly attached himself to my side whenever I came near.
So many times, I contemplated simply scooping these children up and taking them home. But each time, I left them behind, lacking the courage to take this momentous step, torturing myself with internal debates. In the end, all I had to offer was a few lines in a newspaper far away.
And so, in 2005, 15 years after I first moved to Africa, I decided to “cross over” from journalism to a place where at least I was not merely observing and cataloging Africa’s litany of woes — a place I felt I could take a stab at giving back. By this time, I had married an Ethiopian man, Tsegaye, and we had two children of our own, Sarafina and Sophie. They are bright and healthy, and I thank God every day for those few degrees of separation that have permitted our family such good fortune. As I gaze at their lovely slumbering faces at night, I ask why it is that these cruel disparities of the world exist — why it is that in so many parts of the world, equally beautiful children are afflicted with such terrible suffering. As if, in Simon’s words, “God is punishing us.”
I pray for the courage to some day get over my anxieties and bring back to the United States a “cousin” from the continent — something my elder daughter says she will do “by the dozen” when she grows up. Meantime, I’ll try to share with my children Africa’s gifts that have enriched my life: humanity and compassion, respect for the elderly, willingness to share, vitality, resilience, the ability to thrive amid the worst adversity, and joy in the moment. If I manage this, however imperfectly, perhaps I will have found a way to give back to Africa what it has given me.