Hosanna's diary

19.03.31: HOSANNA was eight years old when she died. Her tiny face, mummified by starvation, was indistinguishable from that of any other victim of the famine.

She was not only one in a million but one in tens of millions, hardly more than a speck on the face of Africa.

Her destiny should have been to remain anonymous, and yet hers was the story that stirred the conscience of the world. It is a story that exists only in fragments; even her home village can't be identified from the pictures. We know only that it was close to Uganda's northern border.

Were it not for a single, unremarkable chance event, her death would have passed with as little notice as her birth. On her fifth birthday somebody gave her a turn-of-the-century camcorder and a bagful of cassettes. The result is one of the most humbling records of this century.

The poignancy of the diary is heightened by its contrast with earlier images on the recycled tapes which she only partially over-recorded. Spliced into her pictures of despair are surviving fragments from the lives of the camcorder's first owners - a prosperous English family captured in various states of posing and play.



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Hosanna, when we meet her, is already underfed but her face has a wide-eyed beauty. Her brothers and parents pose before the lens with self-conscious grins. In one early sequence, Hosanna displays a sack of beans, rubbing her stomach in anticipation of a feed.

Through all nine hours of tape, it is the only segment that focuses on food rather than its absence. We see Hosanna grow older but no taller. We see her brothers turn from children into ageing dwarfs. We see her mother and father, gaunt as skeletons, grinning through the famines of 2029 and 2030.


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Then, suddenly, there are no more pictures of her father. The background changes: the village has gone; the family is on the move, joined to the unbroken columns of men, women and children trudging northwards in search of the continent's scarcest commodity - hope.

For decades news channels have shown us the cost of environmental degradation and economic inequality. Death in Africa is seen as integral to the natural order as the movement of the tides. Yet this is different. This is disaster on the scale of an apocalypse.

Hosanna's camera is as unflinching as her eye. People swim in and out of focus like wildebeest in a sandstorm. Disease decimates the columns. Mothers hobble on ulcerated feet with dead babies tied to their backs. And throughout we hear her voice: trying to make sense of her life, joking, recording treasured memories. She watches as people around her, in their millions, drag themselves towards refugee camps that find room for new occupants only when the old die.


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Somewhere along the road, Hosanna's mother vanishes from the tapes. Then, one by one, her four brothers go. By the time she joins the roofless throng outside Camp 7, Hosanna is alone.

The last pictures of her, taken by an aid worker, show her at first standing shyly with her bag of tapes; then squatting; then lying with the bag as a pillow.

At the end, in the image that now stares from Hosanna Fund posters, she brushes away the flies and wets her lips with her tongue. She knows she must smile for the camera. RG


  Chronicle Picture
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