You can see why I was so affected immediately upon focusing your eyes on the picture. It’s from south Sudan in 1993. The little girl, along with hundreds of others just like her, was crawling her way along in an attempt to get to a feeding centre. Collapsing in exhaustion on the ground, a vulture that had been swooping overhead landed nearby in a gruesome vigil. No one knows what ever happened to the little girl.
I had just purchased a computer and this was perhaps one of the first images I ever saw on the Internet. It rocked me back on my heels. I had to sit down on a chair as I put my head in my hands, trying to shake the image from my mind. There was no point – it has become a permanent part of my mental landscape.
It would be another five years before Jane and I journeyed to south Sudan, but it was partly motivated by this picture of the child and the vulture. It propelled me to a kind of lifelong commitment to alleviate such suffering. This image of the child wasn’t just worth a thousand words; it was worth changing the course of my life – something for which I will be forever grateful.
This is what our humanity does to us. Sure, we refine it, educate it, expand it where we can, and protect it when we are vulnerable. We actually get so proficient at this in the West that we can often submerge it. People who die here fade away in hospitals. We don’t see vultures propped on electrical wires. Starvation? Well we have food banks for that, right? We journey to vacation spots in the sun, remaining cloistered away from the harder realities of what the indigenous populations face. Often we become a people successful at dressing up our humanity by attending posh fundraisers and networking around charity.
And then something like this image pops up on our screen and all that refinement just can’t hold our emotion. This is the kind of life over two billion people live – destitute poverty. Thanks to modern technology, it occasionally confronts us and we are left to figure out a proper response. It is our deeper, primal humanity reminding us that civilizing influences can never take away our ability to care at some submerged level.
Sometimes when I’m in Sudan, I wonder if I ever passed that child along the way. Was she one of the children we freed from slavery, helped in a refugee camp, or built a school for? Perhaps she knew one of our kids. Maybe she perished moments after the photo was taken.
This much we do know: the photographer himself died only a few months after taking the picture that was to win him the Pulitzer Prize. His name was Kevin Carter, a young South African, and according to a friend, for days after he took the photo, he “sat under a tree and cried and chain-smoked and couldn’t distance himself from the horror of what he saw.” There it is again – humanity – reaching in, pulling at the deepest parts of us, prompting insecurity and remarkable compassion at the same time.
A few months later Carter committed suicide – a young man in his awarded prime whose humanity had been tested to the limit. Controversy still swirls around his photograph. Apparently he waved the vulture away after the photo was taken, but didn’t tarry to see if the child lived. He was there on assignment and lots of kids were dying around him, attempting to reach the centre.
Following the publication of this photo in the New York Times, the paper was flooded with calls – thousands of them – asking if the child lived or not. People wanted to help – where could they send money to assist that young life?
This is what we do so well – give. But why does it ultimately take such graphic tragedy to get us involved? We have become so used to hearing of Africa’s struggles, and our personal lives are so hectic, and we are busy helping domestic charities close by, and surely we can’t help everybody, and … well, you understand. Children like this one die in similar circumstances every day, and we won’t change that by just responding to one life. It will take commitment and understanding – an ability to really get outside of our own circumstances and see the world as it really is and not just the way we created it in our own image. If people like me had acted a lot sooner, perhaps the Sudanese mother of our children wouldn’t have had to bolt for freedom from slavery with her children, only to be killed in a raid with them watching. The real solutions to such stories don’t come with adopting kids from Sudan, but from dedicated efforts to ensure that slavery doesn’t happen and that the mother has a fighting chance to bring up her own children in her own world.
It is time we stretched ourselves. My posts on humanitarianism don’t get nearly the readership as those discussing politics or community in Canada. Sometimes our confining world views limit our potential. It is time we permitted our deeper humanity to embrace the broader realities and make our world, and not just where we live, a better and more human place.