Bush Is Here, Bearing Ironies

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

When George Bush went to three drought-stricken African countries last month, he brought with him all the stark contrasts that pervade relations between the U.S. and the Third World. Two gleaming blue-and-white Vice-Presidential aircraft carried Bush, wife Barbara, more than a dozen aides, the inevitable Secret Service agents, photographers, TV crews and a gaggle of reporters, myself included, from Khartoum in the Sudan through Niamey, Niger to Bamako, Mali in six days.

We were told along the way that Bush's visit was a pilgrimage of hope, as well as his personal effort to dramatize the depth and breadth of the African famine. Each stop had a different message. Wad Sheriffe on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border had been a way station to further misery for more than 70,000 Ethiopians two months ago. Fifty a day were dying, and those left had but one well for water and only an echo of their cry for food. But by the time the Vice President's 41-car motorcade swept into camp, five more wells had been dug, and relief groups—many of them private and American—were providing food, bringing the death rate down to about five per day.

Mali, a country of seven million with a 5 percent literacy rate, widespread blindness caused by river worms and an average life span of 38 years, is now one of the worst hit by the drought. But we were there to see Mali turn the corner. During Bush's visit, President Moussa Traoré accepted an $18 million aid package contingent upon Mali's pursuit of market-oriented reforms.

But as I looked out from my hotel room over Mali's bedraggled capital of Bamako, I was struck by the incongruities we had brought. Under colored lights on the lawn below, hundreds of white-robed Malian officials and their wives mingled with the visiting Americans, dining on French and African delicacies while stringed native instruments played in the background.

The day before in Niger, dust from the topsoil had formed a massive cloud thousands of feet into the air. It made us cringe to see that, as a courtesy to the Vice President, soldiers of President Seyni Kountché's regime were spraying precious water on the road so that the dust wouldn't mar the motorcade's route to the airport.

Aboard a C-130 on its way to the Wad Sheriffe camp the Tuesday before, advance men handed out boxed lunches to the American party. Each box contained a piece of meat, a chicken leg, two hard-boiled eggs, a cheese sandwich, an apple, a hard roll and a slice of fruitcake. Leery of food poisoning and simply overserved, many in the group ate only half the contents. When a crew member came by holding open a big plastic garbage bag, most of us blithely tossed our boxes in, leftovers and all. A few, however, winced and struggled awkwardly to see if they could stick a Saran-wrapped chicken leg or a roll into a pocket for some starving child up ahead. But they finally conceded defeat and tossed the lot in the trash.

In the hubbub of the Vice President's photo-opportunity-laden tour of refugee camps, it was sometimes difficult to stop long enough to absorb the tragedy that had brought us here. I had one such chance at Wad Sheriffe the second day out—an emaciated girl crumpled on the earthen floor of a crowded makeshift feeding station. I had a surging realization that she was about the same age as my youngest. My tears caught me by surprise.

All along the motorcade routes in central Africa that week, masses turned out to wave at the Vice President in his limousine. Some rode alongside on their camels, waving staffs or swords in welcome. Some carried little paper U.S. flags. But when I asked an Eritrean in Khartoum if this meant that America is now loved, he smiled. "They are not pro-American. They are not pro-Reagan," he said. "They are pro-food."

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