April 29, 2013

Images from the other side of planet


---- — On a warm summer day many years ago, more than a hundred well-dressed men and women gathered in the California Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.

We sipped glasses of wine while we ate warm sandwiches and made new friends. A piano murmured softly in the background. We had come to witness starvation in Ethiopia, and we were doing it in style.

The room lights dimmed, then went out. A screen flashed to life. Conversation drew to a close as images swam into view.

My mind told me that what I was looking at was not real, that this could not be happening. Not while we were comfortably eating and drinking. It was merely another example of the picture-maker’s art.

There were gasps as the people in the audience realized that the faces on the screen were our own faces. Our well-fed bodies squirmed uncomfortably with the knowledge that these stick figures with parchment skin stretched thin across skeletal frames were our friends, our relatives — they were us. We shared a common past, and our futures were bound together by the color of our skin.

No, we the observers were obviously not starving, not in the sense that we had been deprived of food. We were, however, starving for the closeness that the centuries-ago trip across the ocean had efficiently erased from our collective consciousness.

The emaciated child suckling a shriveled breast that had not held liquid in recent memory was not one of ours — and yet she was. There was no escape from reality in that dimmed room.

The other side of the planet does not always exist for those of us who have not been there. Disasters, on the scale of the Ethiopian tragedy, do not become real even for one who has traveled. The multitudes of those who have died and who will soon die come in numbers that defy imagination. We have not learned to count in millions.

The stillness of the slides make the forms of the dead indistinguishable from those of the living. People lose their identity when they die, becoming bodies, corpses, victims — unfeeling words, their essence and dignity gone.

We have become inured to tragedy, thanks to the miracle of instantaneous transmission of images. We observe the fire and violence of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan in dying color and take our time in coming to the truth.

Now we sit in our living rooms and watch thousands starve while we fill our garbage cans with more food than would be required to feed all those who have none. What we refer to as civilization is sadly lacking in humanity.

Some cannot bear to look at the dehydrated bodies and turn away — but even through closed eyes they can still see. Perhaps a small payment might ease the way to heaven and allow our drowsy consciences to drift back to sleep. After all, materialism is our God, and it is easier to turn off the television than it is to give up the new furniture or that long awaited vacation.

Some complain that our president does not speak or do enough to end poverty and hunger here on our side of the planet, much less Africa — and they are probably right.

“An entire continent of people is in dire need of food, clean water and affordable medicine,” says the Rev. Richard Roy, director of the Missionaries of Africa’s Washington, D.C., office. “Without our help, there will be no Africa. Its life, its beauty, its children will eventually die.”

The lights come back on, but few speak. A heavy silence fills the room. As we leave, wine glasses and plates are left half-filled while we digest what we have just witnessed.

Over the years, we have heard and seen these stories many times, yet Africa is still in trouble. The continent that once was the cradle of human civilization might turn into that cemetery on the other side of the planet.

The animals that once filled Noah’s Ark are rapidly becoming extinct, and I fear that Africa’s humans might soon join them.

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at