Friday, 12 August 2011

The stories are all the same...

Perhaps it is just because I am interested in aid work, so follow a number of aid agency and advocacy group feeds, but I'm beginning to feel like every time I open my twitter/facebook/google reader, I'm bombarded with the same story. The Horn of Africa emergency is serious and urgent. Of course it is necessary to raise money and provide food as quickly as possible, preferably without decimating the grain reserves of nearby, also-somewhat-vulnerable countries. But this story that we're telling bothers me.

It's the story of a woman (often an old woman) with children, who has sometimed been raped and abused on her trip and now sits in the red dirt and cries a lot and her children are severely malnourished. The woman has a name, but only a first name and it is never particularly memorable. The children's names and ages are not given. And the woman and the children have no histories. How far they came is mentioned but never from where. There is no description of their ordinary lives before. They travelled for many days but the place they were before, the people they were before, is never mentioned. There is generally no husband or partner.

I find myself wondering if these ads, these messages, these texts are trying to tap into guilt or pity. I don't see how they could be evoking compassion or empathy. The people in the texts aren't real enough. At least, for me. Are other people really satisfied with a fake name and a vague, unspecific sob-story? Does this portrayal of innocent, poor, women as victims evoke sympathy?

Perhaps it is just me. I work with people a lot like those in the refugee camps in Kenya. I can't shake the sense of irritation and nagging disbelief. The stories are all the same and not one of them seems to recognise that these are unique, ordinary human beings with histories and lives and quirks and faults, who have lived in a difficult place and still raised families and lived reasonably normally. Survivors and farmers and workers, not desperate, passive victims. People who didn't suddenly come into existence for the media story or NGO direct mail piece about this famine.

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