The Portfolio: Madelene Cronjé

I was out on assignment when I got a call asking me if I could go to Somalia with the World Food Programme (WFP) the following week. With a million thoughts, fear and self-doubt racing through my mind, I agreed.

Somalia! In my wildest dreams I never thought I would see this inaccessible place. The trip was postponed because of security issues, but after two weeks of rushing around planning, preparing and scraping together all the money I could find, I was on my way. I had a bag filled with headscarves, sunblock, energy bars, wet wipes and not a clue what to expect.

Pilot Steve invited me into the cockpit for part of the trip from Nairobi to Garowe via Mogadishu on a United Nations plane. I was the only nervous newbie on a plane full of aid workers talking in acronyms, some heading back from their R&R (which I figured out stands for rest and recuperation and not rum and raspberry). Looking cool and a little bored, they chatted comfortably with each other, probably about changing the world. The take-off from Mogadishu was exhilarating; the sea was bright blue in contrast to the white landscape. There was a fly in the cockpit hitching a ride.

We landed in Garowe in northeastern Somalia to scorching heat. An airstrike had killed a jihadist commander earlier that day. Scores of armoured vehicles and cars with armed guards waited to take the aid workers to their compounds. We drove for about 20 minutes in convoy to town, through barren, desolate landscapes strewn with burnt-out cars and thorny bushes in full blossom with plastic bag flowers.

In town the streets were quiet. Here and there were men casually walking around with AK-47s slung over their shoulders like laptop bags. We stayed in the UN compound, which was crawling with armed guards. After a horrific bombing attack on the compound a few years ago, security had been increased to a stifling degree.

One of our “missions” was to document a WFP school-feeding programme where children are provided with two meals a day. We arrived at a primary school in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in an armoured vehicle accompanied by six armed guards. The children stared, not at the guns, but at me. They were used to the guns but they were scared of me. A teacher tried to console me by saying that most of the children had never seen a white person before. I made it my personal mission to win those kids over. I eventually did by acting like a complete clown and after an hour or so I was even involved in a dance-off, which I lost. They laughed and that was all that mattered.

I took this picture before lunch. The kids were sent to wash their hands at a tap on the dusty school grounds. I saw one of the guards taking a stroll on the edge of the grounds. It was hot and the light was harsh. I shot the photograph and the kids went back to an open dining area where they sat on carpets and ate injeera and lentil soup. For me the image captures a normal moment in an abnormal situation. For these children, violence — or the threat of violence — is more of a certainty than lunch is.

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Madelene Cronjé
Madelene Cronjé is an award-winning photojournalist living in Johannesburg. Previously a senior photographer for the Mail & Guardian, she has contributed to publications such as Svenska Dagbladet and The New York Times.

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