Arot Katikov is the opposite of a thriving western baby. Looking much younger than he is, the boy can’t stop crying and vomiting, and he has diarrhoea. On arrival at Lodwar district hospital he is discovered to be suffering from malnutrition and one of its complications, tuberculosis. When Setina, aged 10 months, turns up at the same place, she faints with hunger. Her mother, Ngiupe, grabbed Setina and her brother and ran from their farm near the Ugandan border when Pokot raiders came and stole their cattle and killed their neighbours. Setina’s three-year-old brother died on the way to the hospital, and she is now lying in her mother’s arms, too weak to lift her head, her eyes glazing over as her mother rocks her to sleep or oblivion.
Further to the south, Somalia is suffering its worst drought in 50 years. This is the children’s famine. Running from conflict, and sick with hunger and thirst, people are fleeing to the borders or the aid camps, many children dying on the way or too weak to survive once they get there. In some areas one in three children is seriously malnourished and at severe risk of death. In October the rains will come, most likely bringing epidemics of malaria and measles. Some of the children just lie down and wait for death, which is likely; or mercy, which is elsewhere.
This week, while the famine was happening, every media outlet in the western world devoted itself to the circus surrounding a gang of communications reprobates. Public outrage over News International is justified, of course, and the abuse suffered by the family of a murdered girl cannot go unheeded. There can be no hierarchy of moral outrages, and the wrong done to Milly Dowler and her family and dozens of other victims should be its own category. But must it chase the possible death of 500,000 children off the front pages? We don’t have to find the Murdochs acceptable in order to find the famine intolerable, but it is no category error to think of them at the same time.
We are each of us children of many things, and one of the things I’m a child of is Live Aid. I was 17 in 1985. We had our arguments with it, but there was no doubting the sudden power of that idea, pushed hard by Bob Geldof, that our lives were bankrupt in the face of third world suffering. It didn’t make every pleasure a guilty pleasure, but it made a generation aware that there was a price to be paid for its satisfactions. Yet it is now obvious that this was a realisation we failed to make permanent. Too many of our own children don’t know where Somalia is and they don’t care, so long as the stories of celebrities and their misdoings can continue to upholster their privilege and entitlement, a world beyond right or wrong.
I once spent time with Unicef at a rehabilitation centre in Malawi where you could literally see the children crossing the threshold of survival, and just because people paid attention. We came from a generation that wanted that kind of carefulness to be part of a sense of how life had to be lived. It wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was a categorical imperative, to make the world less indecent. But the last week has shone a light into the empty places of our conscience. With the hacking scandal, we can name the guilty parties and make a hoopla of doing so, but I ask the millions who read those papers and fed those empires and lapped up stories about dead little girls where they really stand in their moral crusade. And does it extend at all to the dead and dying little girls of Africa?
I’ve seen it there with my own eyes. They need high-nutritional food, Plumpy’nut it’s called, along with sanitised water and jabs against disease. Unicef is supporting 800 nutrition centres across Somalia and providing 1.2 million people with access to safe drinking water. The Unicef field workers have been up all night and I caught some of them on the phone, exhausted but determined, and shocked by the lack of western response. When I asked what it would take to save those half a million children they said about £37m. Less than the transfer price for your averagely brilliant footballing hero I thought, as I put down the phone.
This is the week when members of the rich old media proved their bankruptcy and the values of the country were put on trial. Other things happened. Fadumo came to one of the camps with her son, Ahmed, who looked like he might not make it. “We came today to receive Plumpy’nut, and, thanks to God, my son is thin, but he will get better.” The Unicef therapeutic teams are all around him in an instant, and then they move on to another, and yet another child waiting for love. Ahmed’s breathing is stable and there will be more food for him in the morning, won’t there? Ahmed may never own a mobile phone, but he too pleads for your outrage.
Andrew O’Hagan, a writer and contributing editor to the London Review of Books and Granta magazine.