Cast your eyes above and meet Hidaya Abatemam, whom I met last month in a remote area of southern Ethiopia. She is 6 years old and weighs 17 pounds.
Hidaya was starved nearly to death and may well have suffered permanent mental impairment, helping to trap her — and her own children, if she lives that long — in another generation of poverty.
Yet maybe the more interesting question is not why Hidaya is starving but why the world continues to allow 30,000 children like her to die each day of poverty.
Ultimately what is killing girls like her isn’t precisely malnutrition or malaria, but indifference. And that, in turn, arises from our insularity, our inexperience in traveling and living in poor countries, so that we have difficulty empathizing with people like Hidaya.
I often hear comments from readers like: “It’s tragic over there, but we’ve got our own problems that we have to solve first.” Nobody who has held the hand of a starving African child could be that dismissive.
That lack of firsthand experience abroad also helps explain why we are so awful at foreign policy: we just don’t “get” how our actions will be perceived abroad, so time and again — in Vietnam, China, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Latin America — we end up clumsily empowering our enemies.
Part of the problem is that American universities do an execrable job preparing students for global citizenship. A majority of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, but the vast majority of American students graduate without ever gaining any insight into how that global majority lives.
According to a Roper/National Geographic poll, 38 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 consider speaking another language to be “not too important.” Sixty-three percent of those young Americans can’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. And 89 percent don’t correspond regularly with anyone outside the U.S.
A survey cited by the Modern Language Association found that only 9 percent of American college students enroll in a foreign language class.
Let’s face it: We’re provincial.
That’s one reason that I always exhort college students to take a “gap year” and roam the world, or at least to take a summer or semester abroad — and spend it not in Paris or London, but traveling through Chinese or African villages. Universities should give course credit for such experiences — and offer extra credit for students who catch intestinal worms.
So I’m now putting my company’s money where my mouth is. On Tuesday, in partnership with MySpace.com, The New York Times and I will announce a second annual “win a trip” contest to choose a university student to travel with me on a reporting trip to Africa. And this year, in addition to a student, I’ll choose a schoolteacher — from a middle school or high school — to accompany me as well. We'll probably travel together to Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.
Last year I chose a young woman from Mississippi, Casey Parks, and we traveled together through central Africa. Casey and I saw malnourished children just like Hidaya, and visited burned-out villages in areas of the Central African Republic that had been caught up in the furies of the spreading Darfur genocide. Pygmy trackers led us through the jungle to see gorillas and elephants, and we managed to be held up at gunpoint by bandits.
In Cameroon, we interviewed a doctor about maternal mortality — and then found a woman named Prudence, a mother of three, dying in the next room. A dead fetus was decomposing inside her, setting off a raging infection, but the doctor didn’t care about her. And so she died. You can know intellectually that half a million women die in pregnancy each year, but it’s still shattering to see a woman die so unnecessarily in front of you.
If you win the trip, you won’t be practicing tourism, but journalism. You’ll blog and prepare videos for the New York Times and MySpace Web sites. I’m betting that you’ll be able to connect with young readers and viewers — and galvanize them to care about these issues — in a way that I can’t.
And for those who apply but don’t win, go anyway on your own. You’ll learn more than you ever would from an equivalent period in the classroom. And you’ll gain not only the occasional intestinal parasite but also an understanding of why we should fight to save children like Hidaya.