The worst line in the history of music, I contend, comes from the 1984 Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?” that road the coattails of “We Are The World” to shine a do-good spotlight on African famine.
Now, before we continue, let’s answer the song’s question: No, the majority of Africans don’t even care when it’s Christmastime because they aren’t Christian. But that’s not the stupidest thing about the song.
That honor goes to a line sung — and sung hard — by U2 frontman Bono at the 1:30 mark: “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
Oh. My. God.
The entire song is an ironic, sad homage to how out of touch the First World can be with the plight of developing countries. Yes, it stirred us to send food, but most of that food rotted on the docks or by airports because of one of the main reasons the famine was so bad in the first place: horrible infrastructure.
I never sent food. I tried — more on that in a moment — but, basically, I shamefully wallowed in American gluttony while the famine raged and Bono made sure I knew it was a good thing I lived where I did.
The reality is, my view of Africa largely was shaped by coverage of this famine. And Sally Struthers.
Throughout school and on the nightly news, my generation was constantly bombarded with images like this:
And if that doesn’t break your heart, I would say you might not have one.
I don’t have a clue what the real Africa is like. I know a few people who have gone on safaris. I’ve watched a ton of nature shows. I’ve known some missionaries who wanted badly for all Africans to know it was Christmastime.
But in reality, I don’t know much, except to say I do know I’d rather avoid a continent where this is a thing:
So when Little D arrived in February 2021 from the west African nation of Burkina Faso, I wasn’t exactly well-versed on his home continent.
Three-plus months later, I can’t say I’m all that much more educated. The organization that brought him here isn’t forthcoming with information about his home life, and D hasn’t been an open book with what it’s like in Africa. I’ve quizzed him repeatedly on whether lions and giraffes and black mambas live in his backyard. He tells me “no” and seems mildly amused or significantly irritated, depending on the day.
What I do know is that life with him has been full of surprises. On Day 1, he knew how to unlock and scroll through an iPhone and iPad. He knew how to work a TV remote, though he tells me he doesn’t have one in his home. He has a love of American comic book superheroes such as Captain America (whom he calls, phonetically, CapEEtahn Ahhh) and Spider Man.
And he is the pickiest eater who has ever lived in our household.
Now, Joey, AKA Boy the Elder, would have eaten a big platter of those huge beetles. He loves to try new foods. Jonah, my soon-to-be 12-year-old, has been a little more challenging, but not too bad.
My thought was that D would welcome the opportunity to belly up to the vast buffet that is America and plow through whatever we put in front of him.
Not so much.
D loves peanut butter, which he calls “peanut bugger” and if anyone corrects him I’m punching that person in the face. I gave him a spoonful of it the morning after he arrived when it was just he and I awake, struggling to communicate with each other. He would now eat a jar a day, if we let him.
Other than that, there isn’t one thing we’ve found that he consistently will eat. For awhile, we were single-handedly keeping the bagel industry afloat. He calls a bagel a “gato,” and now so do we. It’s been more than a month since he’s asked for or accepted a gato. Gatos are now, apparently, “yucky.”
As are previously enjoyed foods such as:
- French toast (which really was only ever a delivery vehicle for syrup, also now “yucky.”)
- Yogurt (which has recently come back in vogue for him, evidently).
- Chicken strips.
- Pizza (called, in D-speak, “peeKEYtzah”).
And do not even think of presenting him with anything approximating a vegetable. I seriously do not think he has consumed one thing from that food group since he’s been here, and it’s not for lack of host-parent effort and persistence.
The notion of an African child with a discerning palate is shocking. I was raised with the belief that there were kids just like him who were literally dying for the food I wouldn’t eat. That’s what my parents told me. That’s what parents across the country have told their kids for generations.
“Come on, eat your (insert nasty food here). There are starving children in (insert impoverished nation/continent here) who would die to have them.”
Shocking to no one who knows me is the fact that I once responded to a parental call to chow down on my lima beans because a hungry African child would apparently go through Hunger Games just for a shot at them with, “Well, I’ll go get an envelope.”
Yes, I was very familiar with the solitude of my room.
The other night, I made dinner for the family. I have a few dishes I’ve created over the years from stuff we had on hand on a given day. One of them is pasta with Italian sausage and peppers.
I’m imagining neither pasta nor Italian sausage are common in Burkina Faso. I could be wrong. Sally Struthers never spoke on the issue. I was under no illusion that D would put even one bite of my magnificent creation anywhere near his mouth. He’s very good at dismissing an entire plate of food before you can even set it down in front of him.
But on this night, the stars aligned. D tentatively put a piece of pasta in his mouth. And then, more sure of himself, another. And another. Soon, he was asking for more.
“Try your sausage first,” I said, thinking I might as well just press my luck and partially because I wanted to show all assembled that I was a chef whose dishes had international appeal.
He did. And said “Mmmmm.”
Pretty soon, he was asking for more of both.
Oh, no, don’t even think that we tried giving him the peppers. That wasn’t going to happen on any plane of existence.
Eventually, he slowed down and said he was done. He scooched down off his chair, crawled under the table and climbed up in my lap.
And then he pulled the entire bowl of my creation to him and did this:
It has taken me a long time to do something to help assuage the 1980s African famine that I’m pretty sure never really hit Burkina Faso like, say, Ethiopia. (That song only said “Africa” and led me to believe it was one big homogeneous place of mass starvation.) I tried sending my lima beans and ended up grounded. But on this night, with that dish, I made more of a difference than Bono.
John Agliata is a lifelong storyteller and the marketing manager at the St. Louis Shriners Hospital. He and his wife, Carla, live in Wentzville, Missouri. They have three sons, Jacob, who died shortly after birth in 2000; Joey, 19; and Jonah; 11. And a temporary kid from Africa.
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