A colleague once remarked on hearing I was off to Africa on another assignment: "More stick limbs and swollen bellies." His words were not meant to be unfeeling or insensitive but were delivered in a matter-of-fact way that he clearly felt summed up the plight of so many children across the African continent.
Be it wars, famine or natural disasters, it is the plight of children that I have always had most difficulty in handling when covering such stories.
It would be a cold heart indeed not to be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, anger and frustration when confronted by youngsters who through no fault of their own find themselves in a living hell. So powerful is the emotional impact that I've often found it clouding my professional judgment or reasoning as a journalist. On one occasion, not in Africa but Afghanistan, I became almost obsessed with the plight of a little boy I came across in a village one bitterly cold winter. Blind almost from birth, a simple cataract operation costing a few pounds would have restored his eyesight and liberated him from a life of darkness. Was it right for me to intervene on this one boy's behalf, providing the money and making the arrangements for his treatment when next door in a neighbouring village, and in the one beyond that, were countless other children suffering the same? Why should that one boy be singled out, and would it not be more effective for me to write a piece helping generate the donations and aid needed to provide mass treatment for these blighted youngsters?
Such self-questioning is never far away when faced with the physical reality that makes encounters like this more than merely a story.
Later this week I'm returning to Africa to cover another story directly involving children. This time I will be visiting northern Malawi. For some time there has been a growing problem in that region of children being trafficked into neighbouring Tanzania to work as forced labour or in the sex trade.
In Malawi itself, as in so many places across Africa and elsewhere, it is poverty that lies at the root cause of the horrors so many children face.
The rising number of child brides sold off to pay family debts and children caught up in forced labour that has been called today's slavery, are all symptoms of this poverty. Child labour especially continues to plague rural communities across Africa where survival sadly gives rise to the saying "school is not food". To its credit Scotland, which has a long association with Malawi, can be proud of its track record in providing aid and development support both to Malawi and other nations. That Scotland's government should do so while keeping an eye on the corruption that so bedevils such assistance goes without saying. The provision of foreign aid is the sign of a mature, caring country, internationalist in outlook. Such a country recognises, rightly, that in humanitarian terms we are all one world. Let's leave it to those of little vision and compassion to talk of aid only going to "bongo bongo land" . I defy anyone to stand before those children whom I have seen directly benefit from such help and repeat such a calumny.
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