The following was done as a request for Amanda.
George Alagiah writes about his experiences as a television reporter during the war in Somalia, Africa in the 1990s. He won a special award for his report on the incidents described in this passage.
I saw a thousand hungry, lean, scared and betrayed faces as I criss-crossed Somalia between the end of 1991 and December 1992, but there is one I will never forget.
I was in a little hamlet just outside Gufgaduud, a village in the back of beyond, a place the aid agencies had yet to reach. In my notebook I had jotted down instructions on how to get there. ‘Take the Badale Road for a few kilometers till the end of the tarmac, turn right on to a dirt track, stay on it for about forty-five minutes — Gufgaduud. Go another fifteen minutes approx. — like a ghost village.’
In the ghoulish manner of journalists on the hunt for the most striking pictures, my cameraman … and I tramped from one hut to another. What might have appalled us when we’d started our trip just a few days before no longer impressed us much. The search for the shocking is like the craving for a drug: you require heavier and more frequent doses the longer you’re at it. Pictures that stun the editors one day are written off as the same old stuff the next. This sounds callous, but it is just a fact of life. It’s how we collect and compile the images that so move people in the
comfort of their sitting rooms back home.
There was Amina Abdirahman, who had gone out that morning in search of wild, edible roots, leaving her two young girls lying on the dirt floor of their hut. They had been sick for days, and were reaching the final, enervating stages of terminal hunger. Habiba was ten years old and her sister, Ayaan, was nine. By the time Amina returned, she had only one daughter. Habiba had died. No rage, no whimpering, just a passing away — that simple, frictionless, motionless deliverance from a state of half-life to death itself. It was, as I said at the time in my dispatch, a vision of ‘famine away from the headlines, a famine of quiet suffering and lonely death’.
There was the old woman who lay in her hut, abandoned by relations who were too weak to carry her on their journey to find food. It was the smell that drew me to her
doorway: the smell of decaying flesh. Where her shinbone should have been there was a festering wound the size of my hand. She’d been shot in the leg as the retreating army of the deposed dictator … took revenge on whoever it found in its way. The shattered leg had fused into the gentle V-shape of a boomerang. It was rotting; she was rotting. You could see it in her sick, yellow eyes and smell it in the putrid air she recycled with every struggling breath she took.
And then there was the face I will never forget.
My reaction to everyone else I met that day was a mixture of pity and revulsion. Yes, revulsion. The degeneration of the human body, sucked of its natural vitality by the twin evils of hunger and disease, is a disgusting thing. We never say so in our TV reports. It’s a taboo that has yet to be breached. To be in a feeding center is to hear and smell the excretion of fluids by people who are beyond controlling their bodily functions. To be in a feeding center is surreptitiously* to wipe your hands on the back of your trousers after you’ve held the clammy palm of a mother
who has just cleaned vomit from her child’s mouth.
There’s pity, too, because even in this state of utter despair they aspire to a dignity that is almost impossible to achieve. An old woman will cover her shriveled body with a soiled cloth as your gaze turns towards her. Or the old and dying man who keeps his hoe next to the mat with which, one day soon, they will shroud his corpse, as if he means to go out and till the soil once all this is over.
I saw that face for only a few seconds, a fleeting meeting of eyes before the face turned away, as its owner retreated into the darkness of another hut. In those brief moments there had been a smile, not from me, but from the face. It was not a smile of greeting, it was not a smile of joy — how could it be? — but it was a smile nonetheless. It touched me in a way I could not explain. It moved me in a way that went beyond pity or revulsion.
What was it about that smile? I had to find out. I urged my translator to ask the man why he had smiled. He came back with an answer. ‘It’s just that he was embarrassed to be found in this condition,’ the translator explained. And then it clicked. That’s what the smile had been about. It was the feeble smile that goes with apology, the kind of smile you might give if you felt you had done something
Normally inured to stories of suffering, accustomed to the evidence of deprivation, I was unsettled by this one smile in a way I had never been before. There is an unwritten code between the journalist and his subjects in these situations.
The journalist observes, the subject is observed. The journalist is active, the subject is passive. But this smile had turned the tables on that tacit agreement. Without uttering a single word, the man had posed a question that cut to the heart of the relationship between me and him, between us and them, between the rich world and the poor world. If he was embarrassed to be found weakened by hunger and ground down by conflict, how should I feel to be standing there so strong and confident?
I resolved there and then that I would write the story of Gufgaduud with all the power and purpose I could muster. It seemed at the time, and still does, the only adequate answer a reporter can give to the man’s question.
I have one regret about that brief encounter in Gufgaduud. Having searched
through my notes and studied the dispatch that the BBC broadcast, I see that I never found out what the man’s name was. Yet meeting him was a seminal moment in the gradual collection of experiences we call context. Facts and figures are the easy part of journalism. Knowing where they sit in the great scheme of things is much harder. So, my nameless friend, if you are still alive, I owe you one.
A Passage To Africa is a moving, touching account of what George Alagiah felt and experienced in a small town in Africa, and the beauty and intensity of emotion lies, not only in the message behind it, but also in every word of every sentence in this article.
The title itself is significant. The noun ‘Passage’ is ambiguous; of course the obvious meaning would be that the following is an extract, a piece of writing. But it could also be interpreted as a path, a way, a journey to Africa. Also the use of the word ‘to’ imply that the passage is not a mere informative work on Africa, but a dedication to the country.
The beginning of the passage is a one sentence introductory paragraph starting with a series of adjectives in rapid succession: ‘thousand, hungry, lean, scared and betrayed faces.’ Showing the turmoil of emotions the author felt, unable to pin down the description of the faces in one word, it also evokes at once the curiosity of the reader a well as lays the ground work for the setting: a general picture of death and disease form in one’s mind. The use of the noun ‘faces’, not names, not people, but ‘faces’ shows the impersonal detachment of the author. They aren’t human beings to him; they are just faces, just surfaces and expressions. This is emphasized in the ending of the sentence: ‘…but there is one I will never forget.’ Along with informing us about a meeting which was so exceptional that the author cannot forget it, it also implies that the rest of the death and suffering he sees around him are very much forgettable and don’t really affect him.
The setting is cemented in the second paragraph: the use of the archaic noun ‘hamlet’ to describe the small village, the hyperbole ‘back of beyond’, the fact that agencies cannot reach that village, the long sentence giving directions of how to reach there, the dash before further elaborating on the bleak picture and the use of the simile comparing the place to a ‘ghost village’; all convey the isolation of the village, it’s detachment from the rest of the world, along with giving the reader a sense of the unnatural death and disease which surrounds the settlement like an ever present aura.
We find out in the third paragraph what the journalists are doing in such a village. They are looking for pictures for their newspaper. The writer’s disgust at his own job shows in the way he describes their job as a ‘ghoulish hunt’ in which they ‘trample huts’ looking for ‘striking pictures.’ These words refer indirectly to the prey/predator metaphor, where the journalists are the searchers, the ferocious and ruthless hunters looking for ways to exploit the suffering and deaths of the village locals, who become the helpless victim which covers and trembles before the mightier being.
This simultaneous degradation of the village people and elevation of the journalists is ironical as it proves that in the author’s mind it is the village people who are above them as he views himself as nothing more than a relentless animalistic hunter who is following a trail. This feeling of revulsion which the hunter feels towards himself is further shown in the ellipses in ‘my cameraman… and I’ as if he hesitates a little, out of shame and self-disgust, before admitting that he too was involved. This hatred that he harbors for his own feelings is explained when he admits that all those things that might have appalled him before don’t even leave an impression on him now, showing how his job is changing him, making him harder, more cynical and detached.
Pathos and pity is evoked in the reader by the next paragraph, its impact strengthened by the use of names as the plight of two daughters and their mother is described. The anaphora in ‘no rage, no whimpering’, the dash followed by adjectives such as ‘motionless, simple and frictionless’; all are used to diminish death, as if it is a matter of no importance or significance, an everyday occurring which is inevitable. Seeing death up close on a daily basis, Alagiah feels that it is rather life which is the difficult part, as in seen by his description of the girl’s existence as a ‘half-life’ and her death as ‘deliverance’ as if life is a punishment, something to be saved from.
His cynicism is again shown in how he refers to the famine which permeates the place as ‘a famine away from the headlines,’ as if all of the desolate scenes around him are not gruesome enough anymore to act as material for news. The ghastly horror of slow death does not hold the strength to leave an impact on anyone.
The following description of the old wounded woman lying ‘abandoned’ in her hut acts as proof for the prior admission that such scenes aren’t news worthy. ‘Decaying flesh’: a hyperbole which does not necessarily seem like one arise the sense of smell along with adjectives such as ‘rotting’. The ellipses before the explanation of her wound show the writer’s hesitation before he describes the army shooting at an old lady as ‘revenge’, making one wonder exactly how brutal and ruthless they must have been if the most subtle euphemism for their action is ‘revenge’. The paradox in ‘the gentle V-shaped boomerang’ casts a ghastly and vivid mental picture of the wound, as well as draws attention to the fact that an old lady is suffering from a war wound.
The simple one sentence sixth stanza ‘And then there was the face I will never forget’ implies the great significance of the meeting it alludes to , how important it must have been for the author.
The day of the meeting which has till now only been alluded to is next described. The writer recounts how everyone else he met that day caused him to feel revulsion. The repetition of this fact in a short sentence: ‘Yes, revulsion,’ not only implies that the readers should be confused and shocked by this, but also shows how the author himself is surprised and perhaps ashamed in admitting this, but feels a determination to do so. His disregard for the ‘taboo’ by stating a fact that most journalists choose to ignore, places him in a positive light despite his revolting admission. The reader is moved by his honesty and frankness and trusts his point of view because of this. His revulsion is explained in his description of the feeding camp, where people are ‘beyond controlling their bodily function.’ The reader too is disgusted by the effect of the imagery, despite the intense pathos which the scene evokes. He cleans his hands ‘surreptitiously’ as if he knows that he should not be feeling disgust, as if he tries to hide it.
The height of pity is reached in the eighth paragraph when Alagiah describes how the people, defeated by death, crushed by its oppression and helpless in its absolution still refuse to give up whatever shard of dignity they have left: the woman covers herself up, the man does not let go of his gardening hoe. These people are graceful even in their defeat. Among these is the face Alagiah catches sight of, the face that smiles. It is a face, not a man, not a name, simply a face; as were those faces that he saw and forgot that were mentioned before. But the smile is what makes it special, something unearthly in its beauty. He cannot pin down what the smile means, he describes it in negative sentences, it is not one of greeting or joy. He wonders at it as it has moved him to a feeling much ‘beyond pity and revulsion.’
The verb ‘clicked’ signify a sudden realization an epiphany which the author experiences as he realizes that the smile has been one of shameful apology. He is moved with disgust at himself and appreciation for the man’s courage and dignity. The irony is evident. The man surrounded by death, disease, suffering, and destruction is ashamed of his circumstances and appearance, but the man who is healthy, well-fed, confident and strong stands among them unashamed. Alagiah admits that the smile got to him in a way that death, misery and everything else could not, using short direct sentences to explain his meaning. The fact that the man tries to apologize for his suffering metaphorically ‘cut to his heart,’ so deep is the man’s question’s impact was.
This incident, isolated and alone, was what made the author determined to write about the plight of the Africans with all his heart and soul in the matter, not all the other horrible things he could forget. He regrets in the end that he does not remember the man’s name, implying that his name wasn’t all that important. Not as important as his message anyway. The ending is distinctive and different: Alagiah expresses his gratitude, his awe, his acceptance, and his apology to the nameless man who smiled at him amidst the sea of suffering , all in one sentence: I owe you one.
This article was an impressive comment on society: one that makes the reader pause and ask themselves what the world has come to? The glance at two different worlds, the poverty and suffering of one, and the apathy and coldness of the other is made evident here. This is done through the eyes of the journalist: the man who lives these two different realities. The person who sees the suffering around him, feels the sorrow and pity which is expected from a human being, but does nothing to stop it, instead is forced to exploit all that he sees for the sake of his job and profession. Something which is so wholly against human nature changes the journalist: it makes him cynical, detached, emotionally and spiritually dead, and the search for the next big break, the next shocking tale becomes his ‘drug’, the high he craves lying in the suffering of others. It makes him nearly inhuman, to the extent that he feels like an animal, a parasite living off other’s lives.
The passage also arises several questions and emotions in the reader, as man’s inability to feel for those who suffer from circumstances that he himself is safe from is made evident. We are comfortable in our own lives, the mere day to day troubles of fluctuating weather our main concerns while in parts of the world people are dying by the thousands every day. The excuse of obliviousness is not available to us, as the news publicize on the suffering of others. The reporters and journalists fight their base instincts of helping those whom they see as marks to get the story to us, those who are responsible for helping such people out. They do their jobs, but we fail at them spectacularly. We remain unmoved, unaffected, our ability to cope with everything making us adapt to the knowledge that we just are more better off than them, so much so that we take this fact as a right more than a privilege and do nothing to help them.