The story the photos will never tell

Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words -- but as I sit here looking through photos from my recent trip to the Horn of Africa, I don’t think that’s true.

This picture is of Falima, a 25-year-old Somalian who recently entered the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. She is holding her son, Abdullah, while her 3-year-old daughter, Fauhuya, hides behind her.

Falima and her 3-year-old daughter, Fauhuya. ©2011 World Vision

The happiness evident on Falima’s face and the bashful grin from Fauhuya puts a smile on my face every time I look at this picture. I know that their meeting with me helped bring joy to their day. I was sitting in the dirt in front of them, trying desperately to get Fauhuya to grin while I talked to their family. This picture tells me they are happy, healthy, and full of life.

But there is a greater and deeper story that the picture won’t tell you.

It won’t tell you about Falima’s 15-day trip from her home in Somalia to this camp. It won’t express the pain she felt two years ago when her husband abandoned her and their five children, leaving her alone on their farm to battle the famine that eventually devastated their crops and killed their livestock. The inability to provide for her children -- and the decision she faced as a result -- created a fear in Falima that no camera could ever capture.

This picture can’t describe the strength Falima bore as she packed up their few belongings and left home to trek across the wasteland of Somalia and into northern Kenya -- by foot, and sometimes truck. It won’t tell you how fast Falima’s heart must have been beating when bandits robbed her on the journey, taking all of her possessions, food, and money, leaving her more forlorn and helpless than ever.

The camera didn’t capture the soft white bumps on Fauhuya’s eye -- a complication from a case of the measles that has gone untreated. Without medical attention, this could cause blindness.

And it doesn’t show the hunger that is gripping the childrens' stomachs -- the result of having lived on tea and bits of food begged from fellow travelers for the past several weeks.

This image certainly won’t show you the hopelessness Falima expressed when I asked her what she looked forward to, now that she was in the camp:

“I have no hope for myself. I have no alternative,” she said. “My hope is with the children.”

Looking at this picture won’t force me to feel the hurt and loneliness that must have gripped her heart when she heard her husband is now living in this very camp, with a new wife and family.

This picture is of me sitting in the dirt in front of Falima and her family. When I see this picture, I see a woman in her early 20s, dressed for a hike, taking copious notes. I look happy and intrigued.

Michele talks with Falima at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. ©2011 World Vision

What this picture won’t tell you is how shocked I was at the realization that Falima and I are the same age: 25. Yet our lives couldn’t be more different. It doesn’t explain the grief that filled me as I thought of being abandoned by the man I loved.

How I would feel watching my livelihood taken by the silent killer of hunger? What would it be like not knowing whether my daughter would survive the measles? And how would I feel once I made it to a desolate camp with absolutely nothing but my children?

More so, this picture doesn’t show how hard I was fighting back tears, thinking of how Falima’s life was now in the hands of people like you and I, donors and compassionaries far from this place.

Every day, we are surrounded by pictures meant to convey the devastation and pain taking place around the world. But behind every photo are stories we may never know, feelings we may never understand, and individuals who continue carrying on in their journey, even after we forget their faces. Their stories may be of hope, loss, sadness, pain, happiness, or love.

The pictures of Falima and I looking content and happy in the middle of the refugee camp is evidence that a photo can fail to capture the whole story. Falima has lived a life full of pain, grief, and fear -- harsh realities that these photos will never show.

Join Michele and World Vision in raising awareness and funds to fight hunger in places like the Horn of Africa. Sign up your church group to do the 30 Hour Famine.

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Michele Tvedt, representative from World Vision's 30 Hour Famine, traveled to northeastern Kenya in the Horn of Africa in August to document the impact of the drought and food crisis living among children and families affected by famine there.


    Thank you, Michele for your detailed and compassionate reporting on the devastation in the Horn of Africa. The Lord certainly had His plan for you to be there and share your experiences with the world so that we as His servants can contribute our financial gifts that He has provided to us. I was blessed to read your article and will continue to give what God has given to me to help the poor. Blessings to you!

    Thank you for sharing this story of struggle. Thank you WV for taking our gifts and being the best stewards of them to care for those in need that we may never see.

    I was very moved after reading your article and feel fortunate that I am blessed!

    thank you & god bless

    I used to take Bibles and other Christian books and materials as well as other necessities to the peoples of Eastern Europe (about a dozen trips from 1990 till 2003). I also lived there twice and taught English in Bulgaria and worked with some NGOs, painted murals in Albania, etc. Are there any short term possibilities for me these days? Thank you.

    Thank you Michelle for giving us insight beyond what we may see in only looking at the photo. Thank you for going and helping!

    Dawn Leonard

    world vision my god bless you for your hummanitaries support.keep it up michele.

    This is why I tell my children to never complain about their food, and to be thankful for what they have. We may not have much, but I know in the eyes of people like this we would look like Kings. What a sad story. Thank you for the prospective.

    Unimaginable! , life is, but a walking shadow. This life no matter how you look at it offers nothing but misery Hopes are always are short-lived ,dashed or robbed. This life is wicked.

    Lord, meet their needs. We have absolutely nothing to complain about in this country...nothing!!!

    These stories absolutely break my heart. As I read this my eyes welled up with tears. Your absolutely right, those photo's could be misinterpreted so easily.. My heart goes out to all who go unheard in similar situations! May God bless them and those beautiful children.

    Michele, This is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever read. Thank you!! I will be sharing this with my faith family next week when I share my trip with the Bolivia Bloggers with them. God bless you! Keep telling these stories. I can't imagine her devastation at finding her husband there with a new family. My heart is so sad for her.

    And for one photo, there are a thousand others that were never taken... Lest we be overwhelmed, let us take a step to help one person in need today.

    Michele - Such a well written story. Thank you for your service to the poor people in Somalia. I am touched tonight as I read it, and I was touched by your recent sharing in your parents' church in Richland. Blessings!

    Very thought provoking piece thank you for writing it. We don't usually see the before scenario but your comments have really made me think beyond what i see.

    im so greatful to be part of world vision, it help me to give back what God so truely give me. my heart go out to fatima and her childrens may God bless them and give the strength to go on, all is going to well with fatima and her childrens

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