"Mister Blaine, a woman, her baby died. You want to interview her?"
The questioner was my "minder," an employee of the Ethiopian Ministry of Information and National Guidance, an impresario of countless press tours of the highland feeding camps where starving Ethiopians are available to reporters.
We were at Korem, a camp of 45,000. More precisely, we were inside a long shed of corrugated tin, with a dirt floor and stone beds, that is the hospital at Korem. At one end of the shed lay hollow-eyed, stick-like people with pneumonia; at the other end, similarly wasted patients with hepatitis. In between, were wards for those with an infectious lice-born ailment called relapsing fever and for old people too weak to move. The air in the hospital was sour with the smell of excrement. There was little noise but for coughing and the clink of bed pans against the stone beds. The mother whose baby had just died -- 10 minutes after it had been given an injection in the hospital -- was waiting for me outside.
I went to Ethiopia late last year to get the particulars on the great famine, to put in words for this newspaper what millions were seeing on television at suppertime every night. A grieving mother with a newly dead child was precisely what I was after. So I followed my minder (and my translator) out the hepatitis end of the shed.
We found the mother, Sakarto, a girl of about 19, standing stiffly, tears running down her cheeks, beside a teen-age hospital worker who was holding a tiny body. The baby was wrapped in a gray blanket. For 15 minutes, as Sakarto wept and the hospital worker dutifully stood by with the baby in his arms, I interviewed her. How long had she walked to get to Korem? One and a half days. Where was her husband? Gone, resettled by the government 1,000 miles to the southwest. Did she expect to join him? No. Would she let me take her picture? Yes.
I was out of film and asked Sakarto to wait while I walked back to a Jeep, about a quarter of a mile away, to reload my camera. I reloaded and had walked halfway to the hospital shed when I realized I had left my pen in the Jeep. I ran back after it and returned to find the mother standing unmoved in the equatorial highland sun. She waited, as if fearing punishment from me: a white foreigner whose face was hidden behind dark sunglasses, a baseball cap and a zoom lens. When I finished taking pictures and asking more questions, I turned away. I felt ashamed of my coldblooded interview with this woman who feared me, and I cried for a few minutes.
The point of telling this story is not to expiate my guilt for having been a ghoul, although there may be something to that, but rather to get at the jumble of confused emotions an American and newcomer to the Third World feels as a temporary voyeur amid tens of thousands of miserable and dispossessed human beings.
Most notably, there was emptiness. The distance between Sakarto and me, in language and culture, made our interview a charade. I believe she thought I was a doctor. I came no closer to her than if I had seen her on television. My feeling for Sakarto -- like the feelings of millions of Americans who saw television pictures of suffering in Ethiopia -- had less to do with her and her country's poverty than with me and my country's wealth.
At Korem, as at other large feeding (and dying) camps across Ethiopia, nearly everyone was visibly ill. Heads were shaved to get rid of lice. Arms were painted a shocking violet, with antiseptic dye, to kill scabies. Ninety percent of the people at Korem had some kind of bronchial infection. Tuberculosis and leprosy, dysentry and gastroenteritis, eye infections and skin diseases were epidemic. Sakarto's fingertips were falling off.
I had grown up being squeamish at the prospect of using someone else's toothbrush. All this sickness in the camps scared me, and I was not alone in being scared.
Some reporters feared touching their notebooks if they accidentally dropped them on the dirt. No one ate or dared think about food in the camps. In hotels back in Addis Ababa, where Western famine-watchers -- reporters, aid workers and visiting government officials -- stayed, we dined together over discussions of the advisability of repeated shampoos to get germs out of our hair. We asked our hotel workers to launder our clothes after each trip to the camps. We warned each other to be careful: keep your fingers and your pens away from your mouth while in the camps. Remember, we told each other, a reporter from Newsday got a fever of 104 degrees after a stay at Korem and had to be evacuated to Nairobi.
In places like Korem, all I managed to do was look at starving people. Interviews with them elicited responses that, after being processed by my government-paid translator, were bleached of any emotion. Unless they cried in front of me, I didn't have any idea what these curiously passive people were thinking or feeling, what they were afraid of, what sense of panic or shame the famine had forced upon them. In this vacuum, I wrote about what famine looks like: two-dimensional surface descriptions that painted victims, not human beings. Television pictures, really, without the immediacy of live video.
Only when children crowded around us during our guided tours did I, or most of the other Western famine watchers, have a chance to actually touch anyone in the feeding camps. The children had amazing recuperative power. With regular meals of rice porridge and a high-energy goop made of milk, butter oil and sugar, they metamorphosed in a couple of weeks from immobile skeletons to giggling kids.
At the feeding camps these kids ran to be near foreigners. They wanted to hold hands. Sometimes four or five of them would try to touch one of my hands, each attempting to claim a finger. When they had a finger, they would throw their heads back, look up at me and smile. Back in my hotel we had discussed this hand-holding at some length.
The children don't use toilet paper, we had said. Their cute little hands carry all kinds of diseases. One representative of the U.S. Information Service said at lunch at the Addis Ababa Hilton that his wife thought anyone who feared touching the children was a jerk.
In the feeding camps, with children bobbing around my knees, begging to touch my hands, sometimes I would let them hold my fingers. Sometimes I would not.