The Lives We’re Used To

Why we should not dismiss Darfur.

Sores and sun-chafed skin rippling across sunken infant ribcages. Indifferent flies buzzing around weeping eye-corners. Brittle, breakable wrists and distended stomachs. Listlessness and food aid.

It’s what we’re used to when we think about Africa — a succession of harrowing images lined up like child-soldiers, smudged into cinematic blurs of Idi Amin’s infantile rage or Leonardo DiCaprio’s diamond-spangled death tears; a swift juxtaposition of history, fiction, and morality that gives us a difficult and painful view of the daily hell of the “Dark Continent.”

Hunger, displacement, death.

But Ashta Adam, watching her 18-month-old son waste away inside a roofless hut in a Chadian refugee camp, has a message for us:

It’s not what she’s used to.

Ashta is one of the two and a half million people who have been displaced by the violence in Sudan’s Darfur region and in eastern Chad. The Washington Post recounts her unbelievable story: Forced from her village by violent attacks, she fled to a barren, under-supplied camp where the only food she can give her son Izzedine is a kind of millet that is usually reserved for animals. Izzedine is starving — half the weight of a typical boy his age — and Ashta takes him to receive a high-caloric food supplement that may get him through the next week or so. After that, it is anyone’s guess.

Wait, did I say “unbelievable” story? That doesn’t quite apply here, does it? For us, stories like this — in their endless repetition and cinematic interpretation — have become completely believable. Years of superficial reportage and Sally Struthers telling us we can save Africa for the price of a cup of coffee have left us with the notion that starvation is normal, natural, and immutable for poor, helpless Africans.

Their stories are familiar. Tiresome, almost.

But if we listen to Ashta talk about what she is going through, this is what we hear: “Deep inside, I’m very sad about this situation we’re living in. This is not the kind of life we’re used to living.”

She goes on: “We’ve never eaten this kind of food, but now we are here and we have nothing except this.” Referring to Izzedine, she says “Usually he eats so much, but this food is no good, so he stops eating.”

Starvation is when the body begins to eat itself in an effort to stay alive. It is characterized by constant physical and psychological pain. It is not normal or natural for anyone, including Ashta — who, in her own words, almost always had enough to eat before she became a refugee. She lived in a stable community where neighbors and extended family supported one another. Her child was a healthy, if not to say discriminating, eater.

Ashta’s present life isn’t some darker variation of her past — it is patently different from anything she has known. For her, it isn’t believable, or familiar, or tiresome.

It’s terrifying and painful, and she is unprepared and afraid.

To draw a parallel: it’s as if a group of government-sponsored fanatics came into your house in Baltimore or Silver Spring or Cambridge and stole everything you had. They beat your neighbors to death and burnt your house so that you and the remains of your family were forced to flee to a field in western Ohio where there is nothing to eat so you feed your son low-grade dog food while you watch him slowly starve. Everything you have — your job, your belongings, watching ‘Lost’ on Wednesday nights — is gone, probably forever.

Unbelievable?

It was for Ashta Adam, too; and so it should be for us.


To learn more about the crisis in Darfur, or to or get involved with ending it, check out these links:

The Save Darfur Coalition (includes petitions urging President Bush and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to take immediate steps to stop the killing in Darfur)

UN Watch (human rights watchdog group that monitors the United Nations)

Darfurgenocide.org (a movement pressing to end the genocide in Darfur and indict the Sudanese leaders who are responsible)

United Nations Children’s Fund (accepts donations to help fund aid work)


Dennis Wilson lived in rural Mozambique for more than four years while working as a teacher.

Article © 2007 by Dennis Wilson