Two days ago ABC’s Nightline was about the crisis in the central African nation of Niger, where several million people are in danger of starvation—including 800,000 children. I didn’t want to watch the program when it first ran. I didn’t want to see the faces of dying children.
Last night I did. I forced myself to watch the recorded episode, which centered on video reports by the BBC’s Hillary Anderson. I saw starving children covered in sores, too weak to move or even drink water. I saw a family cooking a rat, their only meal of the day; the image of an emaciated child eating a single bite of rat isn’t going to leave me soon. I saw people eating rotting carcasses of cattle that were covered with flies and maggots.
And I saw myself learning the truth about a catastrophe that I had been reluctant to open my eyes to. Along with most of the rest of the world. A United Nations food aid official said that his agency had been warning other countries about the Niger crisis since at least the end of 2004.
Little was done. Now it’s too late to save many people, even though emergency food shipments have begun to be sent (probably not coincidentally, just a few days after BBC and ABC put faces on the heretofore faceless who are starving in Niger).
Nightline told viewers that they could go to the show’s website and find links to aid organizations if they wanted to donate money. That’s great, but after seeing all those images of starving children my more honest emotional reaction was: “That’s bullshit.”
The UN representative was begging for a few million dollars to help the people starving now. He said that a $100 million revolving fund for food aid would save countless lives, enabling the UN to get aid into a country before the crisis became as severe as Niger’s. A billion dollars in such a fund was his wildest dream.
That’s how much money the United States Congress wastes in a couple of lines of a pork barrel bill. That’s how much money this country fritters away every few days in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans like me shouldn’t have to dig into our checkbooks so that food can be sent to starving children in Africa. We already pay plenty in taxes. If you asked citizens where they’d prefer to have their tax money spent, there’s little doubt that saving starving children would be at the top of the list.
So, what gives? I don’t know. All I know is that it’s horribly easy to ignore human suffering such as that going on in Niger right now. Most of us like to believe that we’re loving, caring, compassionate, spiritual people, but really, we’re not. We love and care for the few who are right around us, but we don’t give a damn about millions of people starving in Africa.
I blame myself for letting children die. And I blame you too. We sit on our hands instead of doing something. However, I don’t blame us nearly as much as I blame those who have the power to truly do something: President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and all the other politicians and government officials who spout platitudes such as “I respect the culture of life” while letting a child die needlessly somewhere in the world every three seconds.
1…2…3 Die 1…2…3 Die 1…2…3 Die 1…2…3 Die 1…2…3 Die 1…2…3 Die
That was one of the messages of “The Girl in the Café,” an HBO film about—of all things—a romance in the midst of a G-8 summit. The girl gets to go to the summit after meeting an older British bureaucrat. Rather unrealistically, she is able to bluntly and passionately speak her piece about global poverty to high-ranking officials before, entirely realistically, she’s thrown out of the proceedings.
We need more people like her. Real people, not HBO people. People who aren’t afraid to speak up and tell the truth: 800,000 children and several million adults are at risk of starvation in Niger. The world is looking elsewhere, just as I did the evening of the Nightline program, for two simple reasons: (1) we don’t give a damn; (2) it’s too painful to know the truth, because then we’d be confronted with the blunt fact of our don’t-give-a-damnness.
A hundred years from now, hopefully sooner than that, the let-them-die world of 2005 will be looked upon in a fashion akin to how we perceive the let-them-be-slaves world of the American South of 1855. People of the 22nd century will wonder, “How could citizens of that time be so insensitive, so unfeeling?”
I don’t have an answer for them. What I do know is that it sickens me to watch our nation’s President and Congress bend over backwards in a yoga of hypocrisy to try to prolong the suffering of a single brain-dead woman (Terri Schiavo), while turning away from an opportunity to save tens of thousands of human beings who would have a full life ahead of them.
If they weren’t starving.