The Real Picture
by Paul Jeffrey
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When I traveled to the Horn of Africa last April to cover the worsening drought there, in my mental baggage I took along images from years of coverage of Ethiopia in the western media. They were images gleaned from photographs that show Ethiopians as emaciated beggars, starving people brushing flies from their moribund bodies while waiting for the world to come to their rescue. What I found was something different.
Ethiopians are a proud people wrestling with how to survive in an area afflicted for decades by crippling droughts. Photos that show them as mere victims respond more to our needs as would-be rescuers than to their needs as real people.
I did photograph and interview people dying of hunger -- far too many of them. But their experience isn't the only story to tell about Ethiopia. Lots of people I met were coping in traditional and creative ways, waiting out the dry years, living in constant hope of the rains to come. Like the poor in many lands, despair is simply not an option for many Ethiopians. Struggle is all there is.
This refusal to be victims was most pronounced among Ethiopian women. Whether making their family's one meal a day as nourishing as possible, gently soothing a child crying from hunger or sorting through seeds looking for those destined to grow in dry soil, the women I met possessed remarkable resilience, as if they could keep their families alive by pure force of will. Good thing. At times that's all they have.
This tenacity and stamina doesn't derive from some protected status. Ethiopian women have a hard life, and drought makes it even harder. As the primary fetchers of water, women and girls are forced by the lack of rain to walk ever longer distances to bring water to their homes.
When I visited community projects to dig new wells or construct new water storage facilities, it was the women who were working the hardest.
I suspect the photos we've grown accustomed to seeing from Africa have a lot to do with the prejudices we've developed about what's happening there. Far too often in the media, including in church-sponsored publications, we see photos from Africa that depict our African sisters and brothers naked with their bellies swollen. Such photos, often intended to motivate us to hand over money for the latest cause, flatten the differences between the poor of Africa and the affluent of our lands into a simple, two-dimensional economic formula where we have something they want. If we give money, they get food and we feel good. Everyone is happy.
Such reductionism is a disservice to a continent rich in diversity, creativity and hope.
The women I met in Ethiopia -- the women you see on these pages -- do not consider themselves victims. Personally and communally, they have vast psychological and spiritual resources that help them survive. That they struggle with great obstacles cannot be denied. Yet if we want to help them, our first step is to come to see them the way they really are.
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America. He traveled to Ethiopia on behalf of Action by Churches Together, an international alliance of church-based relief organizations headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is a member.