(Re-posting this with recently unearthed audio of news stories filed from Africa)
A couple of months after We Are the World and just before Live Aid, an opportunity arose to see firsthand what some of the money raised by the benefit concert and charity song was actually doing for the people afflicted by the drought and famine in Africa.
In June of 1985, a couple of the founders of USA for Africa, Harry Belafonte and music manager Ken Kragen, filled a jumbo cargo jet with medical supplies, food, blankets, tents and T-shirts, and flew to Ethiopia, inviting the media on a tour of some of the impact zones of the famine relief efforts. I flew to Addis Ababa to meet the plane. From an optics standpoint, it would have been terrific if one or more of the high-profile singers of the song We Are the World — Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner or Ray Charles — came along on the trip, but Marlon Jackson was the only celebrity who made it, other than Belafonte.
Over the next couple of weeks, with Ethiopia’s capital as our home base, a group of reporters followed the USA For Africa contingent around that country and to Sudan. Traveling on small planes and motor caravans, we visited relief camps in the Great Rift Valley; in a town called Batti – near where Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton was unearthed by paleoanthropologists; and in the northern province of Tigre, near the disputed border with Eritrea.
The relief camps consisted of tent villages and medical units surrounded by wire fence. They tended to be in open, treeless areas and were bleak, uninviting places. Flies covered, or attempted to cover, every inch of human flesh. Brushing them off while taking notes or recording audio was fruitless. The camps’ residents didn’t bother. Many of the malnourished little children in the medical facilities were simply too weak.
At one relief camp we spoke with volunteer international doctors who said their spirits were especially high that week. The daily number of deaths from disease and starvation, which had been as high as 75, was hovering in the low 30s. They showed us the medical supplies that had been bought with the money raised by the charity projects Do They Know it’s Christmas?, We Are the World and Live Aid and credited the outpouring of support from the West for aiding their effort.
The healthier children noisily followed our visiting group around in hopes that we would hand out food or drink. “Minders,” men wielding narrow shafts of wood, kept the children from getting too rambunctious; just a slightly raised shaft would “herd” them away from the visitors. Women would come up to me and hold a child up, speaking earnestly in Amharic. I was told that they assumed anyone wearing Western clothing was a doctor or an NGO, a relief worker from a non-governmental organization. Shrugging guiltily and pointing to my reporter’s notepad or tape recorder and microphone didn’t seem to get across the point that I had no food or medicine to offer.
In late afternoon we got back in the Land Rovers and headed out the gates of the camp to an inn about a mile down the road. After checking in and showering off the sand and grime, we gathered on the broad porch of the inn for dinner and drinks at sunset. The entrée: large bowls of spaghetti and meatballs. My appetite was suddenly replaced by a knot in my stomach. After a day spent surrounded by underfed children and desperate mothers something seemed terribly wrong about spaghetti and meatballs. But what to do? Turning it down would accomplish nothing. Walking down the road to the edge of the camp, visible from the porch, and passing the bowl through the wire fence might help a few people for one night but seemed like a hollow gesture. Unable to resolve the moral questions this dish of pasta posed, I wound up eating it but not really enjoying it very much at all.
After about a week of travel around Ethiopia, the USA for Africa contingent and the small group of journalists following them was set to fly next to Khartoum, Sudan.
But then a TWA jetliner was hijacked at Athens’ airport. For three days the hijackers forced the pilots to fly to Beirut, to Algeria, back to Beirut, to Algeria again and back to Beirut. ABC in New York told all its corespondents on the continent to stay put where they were, until a final disposition or destination was reached.
During that time, we swam, played table tennis and visited a discotheque in a converted railroad station downtown. A TV correspondent from another network and I invited some folks to our suite for a party the next night, blithely overlooking a hotel prohibition against any local Ethiopians visiting.
When the hijacking was resolved, we were free to move on to Sudan. However, I was buttonholed the day before by Rich O’Regan, the producer with the ABC News television crew, and told it was my turn that night to have a different kind of authentic Ethiopian dining experience.
Our minder from the Ministry of Information, a friendly government functionary assigned to keep an eye on foreign journos, had been inviting everyone to his home for elaborate dinners. Everyone in the ABC unit had already gone at least once; I was the only one who hadn’t, and Rich impressed upon me that to turn down the invitation would be rude. Likewise, turning down serving after serving of exotic dishes of spicy meats – injera – on flatbread – wat – and who knows what else, was not an option. The minder’s family was warm, the food was hot, and the way we ate in Ethiopia’s capital was worlds away from the situation in other, famine-ravaged parts of the country.
I spent much of the next morning’s flight from Addis Ababa to Khartoum shuttling between my seat and the restroom. Consider this a cautionary tale about the dangers of overeating while reporting on famine. (I’d like to blame the disappearance of my Sony Walkman on my extended stays in the restroom during that flight, but my inexplicable decision to leave the shiny new device in my checked, unlocked luggage is to blame. Some Ethiopian Airlines baggage handler was the big winner that week.)