The hardship and poverty suffered by those far removed by distance and culture typically only enters the collective consciousness during war or mass famine, while news headlines seem to eschew the day-to-day struggle of people living in the developing world.
Even then, it is easy to disregard the forlorn faces starting out from a barren landscape so unlike the suburban environment that many of us are privileged to live in. But it’s essential to understanding the world, said Nicholas Kristof, foreign correspondent and New York Times columnist, who encouraged young people to consider the world outside Mamaroneck, to “get out of your comfort zone…to see those issues for real.”
Kristof spoke to a large group at Mamaroneck High School Monday night on “Combating Poverty and Global Health Issues: The Impact of Youth Involvement and Community Activism,” sponsored by (KFWH), a nonprofit organization working to eliminate disease in other countries.
Kristof recommended young people take a “gap year” between high school and college to explore other cultures and countries.
“That sense of being bewildered and being over your head—giving your parents grey hairs in the course of it—better yet,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, spoke candidly and, at times, explicitly about his experiences in war-torn nations like Sudan and Ethiopia. He also spoke about the implicit hope and resilience of people he encountered in his travels.
He described a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who gave birth without medical intervention and developed , a condition that causes internal injuries and fetal death. Weakened by her condition and dribbling waste, the girl was further hobbled by nerve damage that prevented her from walking.
Terrified villagers shunned the girl, sequestering her to a doorless hut at the edge of the village. Their hope was that the hyenas would take care of her.
“She found a stick in the hut and waved it around to keep the hyenas at bay,” said Kristof.
Heroically crawling to an American missionary living 30 miles away, the girl arrived “half-dead” and in dire need of medical care. She was taken to a hospital in Addis Ababa and received a life-saving operation.
She is now a nurse at the hospital.
“It turned a squandered asset into a productive asset,” said Kristof, about the missionary’s $350 investment in the girl’s health.
The consummate storyteller, Kristof talked about his coverage of the beginning stages of the civil war in Congo circa 1997. After his first attempt to reach the area he was covering failed due to a plane crash, he switched his mode of transportation to a car. His caravan soon encountered a Tutsi warlord.
“If you’re a journalist, you’re in the truth business,” he explained, “If you encounter a warlord...you lie.”
Much to the befuddlement of the warlord, he claimed to be bringing greetings from a commander, and his group was allowed to continue on the road. Later, the warlord found out the story was bogus and sent out troops to find Kristof, who managed to escape unscathed.
Outside the lens of war, there are more sustained problems that prevail in the developing world, such as lack of education. Some of these problems can be solved with what appears to be a simple solution.
“In much of the developing world, most school kids have worms,” said Kristof, referring to a pervasive problem that can cause kids to miss an inordinate amount of school due to sickness.
The worms cause anemia and lowered immunity among other things, but can be countered with one pill taken annually that can deworm one individual effectively.
Another issue involves women missing school every month because they are having trouble managing menstruation in areas where no hygiene products are available.
Kristof cited a study performed in Ghana where providing sanitary pads reduced female absenteeism by up to 50 percent.
For many, the problems posed by the developing world may not be a priority, but as Kristof said, “When you’ve seen a kid with malaria who can be saved for negligible amounts of money, you don’t ask that question.”
Later, responding to a question from an audience member, Kristof confirmed that Congo is “still the rape capital of the world” in a place where violence against women is “used as a weapon of war.”
He cited a recent mortality study by the International Rescue Committee that found 5.4 million people have died from war-related causes in the Congo since 1998, with over 30,000 continuing to perish every month.
When a young audience member asked Kristof what his most rewarding experience was, he paused, presumably to ponder the most life changing of his vast encounters with all measures of humankind.
“When I feel like I’ve made a difference,” he began, shuffling through various moments spent introducing the subjects of sex trafficking and obstetric fistula to the general public, which, at one time, were taboo topics for discussion.
Upon his exit from the stage, Kristof received a standing ovation, which made the sheepish reporter blush.