Silent heroes of Africa

When I first saw the famous picture of a Sudanese child dying while a vulture waits impatiently, I trembled. Every death of a child violates, but to see an African child reduced to something less than an animal broke my heart. I felt ashamed of being African, of living in a continent of fratricidal wars. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Congo, Uganda, and Sudan were all summed up in that frightful image.

But then I read the small print and discovered something even more iniquitous. South African photographer Kevin Carter had been awarded a Pulitzer prize for this incredible picture in 1993. As soon as it was published in the New York Times, hundreds of people asked what had happened to the child. Carter didn’t know. Here is Time’s description of how he took the photo:

"Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding centre. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle."

I could not believe it. What ethical justification could there have been for such detachment?

Reading further, I learned that before Carter came to Sudan; he was desperate for a good picture that could put him in the limelight. When war and famine in Sudan broke out he jumped on a plane. And Lady Luck was on his side: as soon as he stepped off, he saw a baby being stalked by a vulture. What a great photo! So many rich people in America donated to their favourite African charity when they saw it!

Well, you know, I’m tired of Africans being reduced to pathetic victims in the Western media. There’s something destructive about it. It’s not good for us because it fosters an entitlement mentality. And it’s not good for developed countries either, because they are tempted to despair. In fact, the sad coda to this story is that Carter was driven to drugs and desperation by the bloody mayhem he photographed in his career. Just weeks after receiving his Pulitzer, he gassed himself to death. "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain," he wrote in a suicide note.

The reality of daily life in Africa, chaotic though it may be at times, is not victimhood but courage. I wish the Western media would highlight that instead of misery and wretchedness. I lay no claim to being a hero, but I often hear about them and it makes me proud to be a Nigerian.

This is something that I witnessed in 1990. I was caught in a war between Christians and Muslims in Kano city (the Muslim northern part of Nigeria). I hid in a friend’s house the whole day as fighting raged. The next morning as I moved around; there were dead bodies on the streets. Then, right there in front of me, a mob of angry Christian southerners, mostly Igbos, descended on a Hausa Muslim man with clubs and machetes. Perhaps they wanted his blood in retaliation for the deaths of hundreds of Christians the day before.

I was petrified. Suddenly a man rushed up to the blood-thirsty mob and shielded the victim with his own body. Some of the blows fell on him. The mob was surprised and stalled momentarily. The man quickly pushed the victim into the open door of his car and sped away. That was my first encounter with a real-life super hero.

A friend told me another story. A woman driving to drop her child at school came across an asthmatic slumped on the roadside. She put the man in her car and raced to the hospital. (There are no ambulance services in Nigeria, as the available ones are used for transporting coffins to villages for funerals.). By the time she arrived the man had died and the doctors told her to take the body away. So she was stuck with a corpse and she had not a clue where his family could be found. She went to the police for help. They arrested her and charged her with murder. She was behind bars for almost a week until a relative bailed her out, having paid a huge sum of money to the police and taking care of all expenses for the burial of the dead man. 

Another type of heroism is needed not to succumb to widespread corruption. A good friend stumbled into my office one day with bloodshot eyes. He had quarreled with his wife all through the night. "About what?" I asked. He said that since he had become the director of a government ministry, he was offered bribes every day. He always refused. And because of this, he was a disappointment to his kinsmen. They had expected to share in the loot from his job. Even his beloved wife thought he was a fool. She kept telling him, "money is the only thing that will shield our children from the degradation out there. After all, everyone does it". This constant humiliation had brought him to the limits of his endurance. But he would not give in.

Western newspapers always focus on the generous financial aid that their governments give to needy African nations. But you know what? I think that Western nations need generous foreign aid from us, too. A while ago, I became friends with a 20-year-old German fellow here in Enugu. He played street football with the street kids. They loved him and were always running up to touch his white skin. He learned a lot from us about the warmth of friendship, about the infinite value of children, about the joys of family life. He learned that life is better than lifestyle. He began to see that Europe’s plummeting birth rates are demographic suicide. And of course he learned to appreciate Germany, too -- the thousand varieties of ice cream, the super fast internet, roads without pot-holes.

In some ways I feel sorry for the rich nations of Western Europe. Which is the real Dark Continent? They are burdened with so much loneliness, so much angst about the future, so much moral confusion. Efficiency, wealth and order are wonderful treasures. But sometimes I think that the West needs missionaries of courage, joy, detachment from consumerism, and generosity. That was what this German lad learned here. If only more could have his experience, Europe would be a richer place.

Chinwuba Iyizoba is an electrical engineer in Enugu, Nigeria


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