Behind the Tragic Images of Africa

LOWKU KERY looks down and takes the hand of a naked child. Immediately surrounding him, there are dozens of other hands - small and thin - seeking the same attention. These children, many of their bodies barely covered by tattered clothes, eagerly follow Mr. Kery as he shows a visitor around the Panyanyang refugee camp along the Sobaat River. Within a half-mile radius, there are 5,000 children between the ages of eight and 14 - mostly orphans - who comprise the population of Panyanyang, a four-week-old refugee camp for children in Nasir, Sudan. The scene at Panyanyang is one of wretched squalor. There is no sanitation and no shelter, save the foot-high tents some children have erected out of shreds of cloth as protection against the incessant rain. Some of the children are too weak to move. Underneath a tree, two local women dress the wounds of children suffering from tropical ulcers on their legs caused by malnourishment and days of walking. Some 500 kids come to this makeshift clinic every day. Around Nasir there are at least 120,000 Sudanese who have just returned to their country after fleeing the war in Ethiopia. It's the largest population migration Sudan has experienced in several years. All the returnees - especially children - are without means of feeding themselves. After negotiations between the United Nations and the Sudanese government, the first airdrop of food supplies came on June 26. The scene at Panyanyang is one we in industrialized countries have witnessed all too often on television newsclips. The image is again of starving African refugees looking to the sky, waiting for the next plane full of food. The image is of helpless Africans dependent on white man's aid. What we normally don't get a chance to see is the reality behind that image - the self-reliance and initiative on the part of those affected while international relief agencies scurry to reach the scene. Take Kery, a schoolteacher who fled the civil war in Sudan two years ago to take refuge at Itang camp in Ethiopia. There, with donated supplies, residents established schools, health centers, and their own form of government. He was deputy director of one of Itang's schools until the school was bombed on May 26. Kery then led some 3,500 children on a dangerous 10-day trek across the border back to Sudan. Now he directs this children's camp - supervising the distribution of meager supplies, overseeing the provision of scant health care, and organizing the children into patrols searching for edible plants. Or take the workforce of Sudanese men, down the river from the children's camp, who rebuilt an airstrip by hand out of bricks they pulled from bombed-out buildings. They are now digging a drainage ditch so the rains don't wash out the supply planes' landing strip. About 100 yards away, these men have marked out the spot where a much larger plane has managed to drop 141 tons of food. For most of us, the term "refugee camp" conjures up the image we've seen on television: misery and helplessness. But how many of us realize it is often Africans themselves who tend to the sick and distribute the food in these camps? How many news reports describe the men who build the airstrips, or the women who dress the ulcers, or the local villagers who willingly share their food supplies? How many Kery's are mentioned in our media? In this, the latest African emergency, some 7 million Sudanese are facing famine; most of us have heard about the current crisis. But Africa is also struggling under another disaster - one that perpetuates the myth of a continent totally dependent on foreign aid. That disaster is the distorted image of Africa that we hold in the West. It is an image that maintains our perception of Africa as a charity case rather than a continent making progress. We think of Africa as a continent deserving of our charity , but unworthy of our investment. This misguided image serves only to compound the psychological and de facto gap between North and South, and increase western "donor fatigue." Consider the following facts: * Far from relying mainly on foreign assistance to survive, on average only about 11 percent of African Gross National Product is derived from aid. * The capital of Mozambique now boasts higher child immunization levels than either New York or Washington, D.C. * Africa has cut its under-five mortality rate by almost 45 percent since 1960. * It has taken Africa just 30 years to raise health, literacy, and other standards to levels which industrialized countries took more than a century to achieve. There are reasons behind the preponderance of media images of Africa composed of starving masses, barren landscapes, and emaciated children. The media tend to follow the "big" stories - war, famine, drought. There is usually no effort on news programs to set these reports against the backdrop of normal, self-sustaining, everyday African life. While the same could be said about the stories reported each night on our local news, viewers understand that the murders, robberies, and other graphic soundbites t hat grab one's attention are the exception in American daily life. Having no comparable understanding of Africa, a viewer watching a report on the latest tragedies in Africa gets the mistaken impression that these events are the norm. Due to competition between news media, some newspapers and news programs attempt to boost their popularity by running stories designed to entertain, shock, or horrify (as well as, I suppose, inform). When targeting the lowest common denominator, a quick shot of an emaciated infant in a camp run by an international relief group wins every time over a longer story on an immunization program successfully reaching an isolated village thanks to the efforts of a local women's cooperative. But the media are not the only ones to blame. Development agencies can frequently be caught tugging heart strings and playing on Western guilt by distributing photos of starving African children and insisting that "only through your donation can this child be saved." This not only exaggerates the role of international aid, it leaves out completely the vital partnership between local Africans and foreign aid workers that is fundamental to any successful program. Yet this somewhat manipulative tactic is us ed because it has so far worked: The funds have inevitably started to pour in. But how long can the public stand to be bombarded with emergency after emergency? Neither the media nor aid agencies are operating in a vacuum, however. If the public showed an interest in today's unprecedented gains in African immunization levels, you can bet a reporter would be assigned to the story. If the public responded to fundraising appeals focusing on the lifesaving benefits of latrines, development agencies would be more than happy to supply photos of sanitation projects in rural Africa. And yet, why should we be concerned about our distorted image of Africa? What good would come from its correction? By perceiving Africa as a land of tragedy and helplessness, we in the West seem to have settled into a pattern. Every few years we dig into our pockets and nobly send donations when a famine reaches Biblical proportions. Usually, these famines are directly linked to war. Yet we feel so far removed from the real Africa, we often remain indifferent to the causes of these conflicts. How many of us understand the reasons behind the conflicts in, say, Liberia or Sudan? Why is it that international pressure is rarely placed on African leaders to stop the fighting, as it has been placed most recently, for example, on Yugoslavia? Meanwhile, the millions of initiatives being taken that could help stave off the extent of these emergencies go unnoticed and underfunded. Africans - working by themselves or in partnership with development organizations - are building irrigation systems, increasing family food production, developing heartier seeds, and raising their health standards, education levels, and knowledge of agricultural technology. Instead of just aiding the starving, we could be assisting those initiatives that prevent the illness, malnourishment, and lack of food self-sufficiency that commonly precede emergencies. By understanding the reality behind the image of Africa, we should start investing in those efforts that work, rather than merely extending our charity when it's almost too late.

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