Archive for Thursday, June 21, 2001

Global issues hit home

June 21, 2001


I have to say that, unless Modu and Sawo were staying with us, I'd have little understanding of what's been going on for a decade in Sierra Leone. For all the talk of globalization, the globe still shrinks fastest face-to-face.

Sawo and Modu, high school friends of our daughter's, are living with us for a while. They're cousins who came to the United States a year ago to join their grandmother. What they have to tell about the horrendous civil war in their small West African country is a powerful education.

Like you, perhaps, we had some vague awareness mostly a sense of horror: All those stories of limbs chopped off, and photos of people receiving artificial hands. Then there was the little boy from Freetown our daughter was tutoring but he's too young to talk much about it.

So, as rebel groups and pro-government militia blasted away, as Sierra Leone's people hungered for peace and for democracy, as agreements failed and amnesties soured, as civilians were raped and murdered and the country's diamonds squandered on arms, most Americans have known little of it. Kosovo, we knew about. Sierra Leone, bereft of strategic interest, was a veiled tragedy.

When Sawo and Modu speak of home, their eyes soften. They talk of the pure water coming down from its upland streams. They talk of the flag white for the sky, green for the land, blue for the sea. But then Sawo tells of pushing his siblings out a back window as his parents were killed. Modu talks about seeing a man, walking directly in front of him, shot: "Before I could touch him, he was gone." They talk of a friend whose head was cut off. And they speak of the children, some as young as 6, lured into the fighting often by drugs.

I asked Modu if he has nightmares. "No!" he said, as if the idea were ridiculous. "I have seen all these things in my life. There is nothing left to frighten me."

I had reasons beyond a citizen's dutifulness to know what was happening in Sierra Leone. I lived for two years in Africa, and traveled throughout it. I thought when I came back here that I'd never lose track of what was going on in that vast, distant continent. But that was a quarter-century ago. Life moves on. The world is complex. When The Washington Post Magazine ran a fine piece on Sierra Leone last year, I kept it by my bed, and never got around to reading it.

When I was ombudsman at the Post, I heard often from readers who yearned for an explanation of complicated news stories, particularly foreign ones. What's the background? Who are the principal figures? What's our interest?

What most Americans are getting instead is a poorer and poorer diet of international news. A survey published a couple of years ago showed that the amount of the newscast devoted to foreign news by network television declined from 45 percent in the 1970s to 13.5 percent in 1995. Newspapers allocated about 10 percent of their news space in 1971 to foreign news, and less than 2 percent today. Editors who are determined to continue providing it often talk about how to make foreign news more compelling by finding local connections, for example, or running more maps and graphics.

In the end, though, it's a personal experience that will really connect you to other countries. A friend in New York works with an organization that provides loans for women in Latin America. This is how it got started: A decade ago, a Long Island elementary school teacher went with her husband to visit La Paz, Bolivia. There she met a child psychologist. The two women became friends, and decided to do something to help poor Bolivian women.

They thought at first about courses in health and nutrition. But the women they aimed to help said that what they really needed was a way to earn money. Today, Pro Mujer established on the model of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh provides loans to start small businesses, not only for women in Bolivia, but in Nicaragua and Peru. And I just got a news release saying it has moved into Mexico.

Now, if I see something about the Hidalgo state in the mountains northeast of Mexico City, I'll think of this friend in New York. When I see news from Sierra Leone, I'll read it with Modu and Sawo in mind. Because there's nothing like the personal to bring globalization home.

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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