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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Medical aids blame external costs as fees increase beyond inflation

Medical aid is becoming more of a luxury for many South Africans, and it’s not about to get any better

Mahikeng compounds its mess

The ailing town that wasted R2-billion appoints a municipal manager rated ‘basic’, the lowest level

More top stories

Parliament owes South Africa an apology on state capture —...

The speaker told the Zondo commission she doesn’t know why the legislature woke up to state capture so late, but believes this won’t happen again

Cape Town fire ‘largely contained’, evacuation orders remain in place

Authorities confirmed the fire had been largely contained by early Monday afternoon, although reports suggest the fire had jumped the road near Tafelberg Drive

Zondo says break-in will not intimidate commission

The deputy chief justice said it was not clear if the burglary and a recent shooting were more than criminality, but vowed no one would deter the inquiry

European heavyweights face criticism over ‘cynical’ Super League

The 12 founding clubs of the breakaway competition have faced backlash from the football community

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…