Who saved Birhan Woldu’s life?

Live Aid apparently saved the Ethiopian famine’s poster child in 1985, and 20 years later the UK media claims it ‘found’ her looking beautiful. Nice story - shame about the facts.

Jennie Bristow

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‘She had 10 minutes to live 20 years ago. Because of Live Aid 20 years ago, because we did a concert in this city and in Philadelphia, last week she did her agricultural exams in the school she goes to in the northern Ethiopian highlands. She is here. Don’t let them tell you that this doesn’t work. Look at this beautiful woman.’ (1)

So Sir Bob Geldof introduced the audience of last weekend’s London Live 8 concert to Birhan Woldu, the 24-year-old agricultural student from Ethiopia, better known as the ‘poster child’ for the Ethiopian famine of 1984. Then, that was an unforgettable image: a three-year-old girl, eyelids flickering on the brink of death, set to the soundtrack of ‘Drive’ by The Cars. Twenty years on, the contrast between the starving child and the striking young woman who danced with Madonna and addressed the crowd in the name of Africa reportedly moved everyone to tears.

Which shows how effective emotional manipulation can be, if you’re just prepared to tweak the facts for the sake of your own self-esteem.

It is true that Birhan Woldu was starving to death in 1984. It is true that today, her life seems immeasurably better – she is a healthy, beautiful young woman who is studying for exams, not scavenging for food. It is also true that the film of Birhan during the 1984 famine made a major impact upon the UK public; and it may even be true that, as Geldof claims, this film was ‘why we did this’ (2) – why Geldof and co set up Band Aid, releasing the charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ in late 1984 and organising the Live Aid concert the following year, which raised significant amounts of money for Ethiopian famine relief.

What is not true is the series of grandiose claims that have been made about how UK popstars and journalists changed Birhan Woldu’s life. It is not true that Live Aid saved Birhan Woldu’s life, as the press has reported. It is not true that she has Live Aid to thank for the fact that she is now at university, as Geldof would have it. It is not true that this miracle child was ‘found’ by the British tabloid press.

Above all, it is not true that Birhan Woldu is living proof that ‘it works’ – that a crowd of pop stars and their fans feeling good about themselves in London can transform the lives of the people of Africa. Rather, the attempt by Bob Geldof and his media fan club to manipulate this young woman’s story into another feel-good tale reveals the patronising, crass and self-obsessed nature of the Live 8 message.

So what really happened to Birhan Woldu? A swift Google search throws up a lengthy feature by the prominent Canadian journalist Brian Stewart, published on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation CBC, and originally published in The National in December 2004, the time of the Band Aid reunion (3). Stewart describes how he and his camera crew were reporting from Tigray in the North of Ethiopia in October 1984, when they arrived at a Catholic feeding centre ‘that was overwhelmed with parents bringing in sick and starving children’. ‘[W]e began moving along the wall, talking to mothers’, he writes, when they spotted ‘three-year-old Birhan Woldu, cradled in her father Ato’s arms’.

Stewart continues: ‘As they reached the wall I noticed her slumping to the pavement and called a nurse but it seemed too late…. We left, to at least allow her dignity in death. Her grave was already being dug outside, alongside thousands of other victims. Hours later when we returned for the funeral, I was astonished to find what seemed a near miracle. The nurse, holding Birhan tells me: “Yes I think she will live now. We gave her some rehydration shots and we hope she’ll come through”…. This was my last sight of her in the famine, still weak, frightened, carried by her father out of the relief centre, back into the chaos outside. Nurses thought she’d be now safe and we had to move on.’

Stewart writes that, at the time, ‘I had no sense this would later become the legendary face of famine’. But his crew’s pictures were broadcast across the world, and ‘the world finally responded to Ethiopia’ – culminating in the Live Aid concert one year later. Which indicates, to anyone with the basic ability to tell the time, that Live Aid could not have ‘saved’ Birhan’s life at all. Her father saved her life, by getting her to the feeding station; the nurse saved her life, by rehydrating her in the nick of time; you could even perhaps argue that Stewart saved her life by calling out to the nurse. But how could anybody credit a Live Aid concert that was not even conceived of for snatching this little girl from the jaws of death almost one year previously?

What happened next? To read the accounts in the UK press, you would think that Birhan Woldu’s life was made suddenly prosperous by all that aid flooding in, allowing her to escape grinding poverty to enrol at university – only to be ‘found’ 20 years later by gregarious journalists from the British press. Brian Stewart’s version of events could not be more different.

‘I would return again and again to Ethiopia to cover relief operations in the High North’, he writes (4). ‘Over years, I often thought of Birhan and even grew increasingly haunted with fears of her fate. In 1988, four years after my last sight of her, we launched a major search, using photos and village contacts. The odds seemed hopeless. Then we got word, and at a feeding centre we saw the unmistakable face of Ato Woldu and his daughter, Birhan, now seven.’ Three years on from Live Aid, then, and what remained of the Woldu family were back at a feeding centre. At this point, Stewart became personally involved: ‘I arranged some schooling and local help.’

He lost touch with Birhan’s family again during the war, and it was not until the 1990s that ‘word came from Tigray. Birhan was safe. In 1995, a decade after the famine, I was able to really establish the friendship with the family that has endured ever since’. Working through the small UK-based charity A-CET (African Children’s Educational Trust), Stewart has funded Birhan and her siblings through education, to the tune of around £80 per month (5). And through reporting on her progress for documentaries after the 1984 famine, he has kept her, even to a limited degree, in the public eye. This is why she ‘is quietly pursuing her dream of higher education in Ethiopia’ – her father, meanwhile, ‘still farms a small plot of land and continues a passion for making honey’ (6).

In many ways, this is a touching story – about a young girl’s amazing survival in the face of death, and a journalist’s evolving relationship with the subject of his documentary films. But this story has been exploited and distorted by what Stewart himself terms the ‘media cyclone’ unleashed by the twentieth anniversary of the Ethiopian famine, of Band Aid and Live Aid. In his December 2004 article, Stewart writes, with a degree of incredulity: ‘The British tabloids, a world unto themselves, have just discovered, this year, that Birhan is “alive” and even claimed, bizarrely, to have just “found her”.’ (7) (The Sun’s Oliver Harvey is still sporting the byline ‘The man who found Birhan’ (8).) Stewart continues: ‘For two weeks Birhan is whisked through a celebrity tour in London. As a “discovery” she was raced to meet Geldof and prime minister Tony Blair. Then as international fame spreads, she comes to Chicago where in a surreal moment she joins me in the Oprah Winfrey show’s stretch limo on the way to a taping.’

Surreal indeed – and why? Not because Birhan Woldu is desperately seeking fame and celebrity – as her friend, a translator and fellow famine survivor Bisrat Mesfin, told Brian Stewart in December 2004: ‘She has no idea who Bob Geldof was or who these people are or why is she meeting them all this. She didn’t have any idea.’ (9) Not because remembering the famine represents some kind of healing process for Ethiopians: ‘We don’t talk about it’, said Mesfin. ‘It’s something that is a traumatic emotional thing and in my generation or Birhan’s generation, we never talk about it. It’s very, very pain and I think we prefer to thinking about the future.’ And while Birhan Woldu seems to have risen admirably to the occasion that she has been thrust into, talking about her ‘responsibility’ to ‘fulfil the hope of [being a] symbol’, as we have argued on spiked, the nauseating pop-n-politics posturing around Live 8 only obscures critical discussion of the problems with aid and the barriers to Africa’s development.

What Birhan Woldu’s story really symbolises, distorted as it has been by the ‘media cyclone’ that Brian Stewart describes, is that this Live 8 circus has nothing to do with starving children, and is really All About Us. We are shown old footage that makes us cry so that we can feel better about ourselves today; we are presented with a beacon of hope from Africa and told that all the credit should go to us. This is a grotesque insult to those like Birhan Woldu, who should have lived to tell their own story – not to have it fictionalised into a poster child for Western self-congratulation.

(1) Live 8 stars issue a rallying call, Mail on Sunday, 3 July 2005

(2) How Birhan came back from the dead, 20 years on, Sunday Telegraph, 3 July 2005

(3) Strange Destiny, CBC News Online, 2 December 2004

(4) Strange Destiny, CBC News Online, 2 December 2004

(5) A-CET

(6) Strange Destiny, CBC News Online, 2 December 2004

(7) Strange Destiny, CBC News Online, 2 December 2004

(8) Sun, 4 July 2005

(9) Strange Destiny, CBC News Online, 2 December 2004

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