Selamawit is not a cliche.
There are starving children in Africa.
At how many dinner tables in how many homes have finicky children been scolded that way to get them to eat their dinners?
Or maybe it was India — “There are starving children in India. Eat your meatloaf.”
And how many children have rolled their eyes at their admonishing parents? How many of those parents really were speaking from a place of gut knowledge about what it means for a child to starve?
Clichés come to be clichés because they’re true. There are, and ever have been, starving children in Africa and in Asia. They are also in South America and in North America — right here in our backyard. All over the world.
A truth devolves into a cliché through overuse. We become numb to the idea.
The whole world has become numb to the idea of starving children. That’s why fundraising for a slow-onset crisis like a drought is so challenging, much more so than for a sudden, massive typhoon or a devastating earthquake.
But 5-year-old Selamawit is not a cliché. She’s a little girl who lives in Ethiopia, where 5.6 million people right now are suffering in a food crisis.
Selamawit became so malnourished that her condition tipped into kwashiorkor, or protein-energy malnutrition, which causes loss of muscle mass, irritation, fatigue, skin issues, diarrhea, liver damage, failure to grow and more. Kwashiorkor is behind the round bellies we see in the now-clichéd photos of starving children in developing countries; the lack of protein causes fluid to collect in the abdomen and elsewhere.
With support from ChildFund, Selamawit received the treatment she needed, but she will likely never reach her full height. Her brain development may have been irreparably disrupted — time will tell. (Another cliché.)
And time will tell for Ethiopia, and Kenya, where ChildFund also works — but we know what to expect for the coming months: Next season’s rains will likely be below average yet again.
The drought that decimated the region’s harvests throughout 2016, then took hold in Kenya and several other countries in 2017, will continue. In East Africa, where most of the population depends on subsistence farming, repeated failed harvests are forcing families to purchase all their food. Already soaring prices will rise beyond their reach. Poorer families will reduce their intake dangerously, putting their children’s development at risk.
It happens slowly and quietly. And it silences children.
You can help us respond to this kind of crisis and others by donating to our emergency action fund here.
And you can take the opportunity on World Food Day, Oct. 16, to tell your friends and networks what’s happening in East Africa. Tell them about Selamawit.
Every day after that, keep an eye on the crisis, and encourage those around you to do so, too. You’ll have to search the media for it, because it’s not a typhoon or an earthquake.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on ChildFund International’s blog.