Footage of Birhan Woldu as a starving child was seen around the world and after recovering she joined Sir Bob Geldof on stage at Live 8 concertThe woman who as a starving three-year-old became the face of Live Aid 30 years ago has said the campaign has done “nothing” for her, and the celebrity that came with it has forced her to live a life underground.
Birhan Woldu, now 34, told the Guardian that because of her unasked for fame she has struggled to get a job.
Woldu was catapulted into the limelight after being rediscovered in 2005 and brought on stage by Sir Bob Geldof during the Live 8 concert, 21 years after she was captured by a Canadian camera crew, moments away from death at a feeding station in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in 1984.
Introducing the then 24-year-old student, Geldof told the crowd and the millions watching around the world that the Ethiopian had only 10 minutes to live when her image was captured: “Because of Live Aid 20 years ago … last week she did her agricultural exams in the school she goes to in the northern Ethiopian highlands. She is here. Don’t let them tell you that this doesn’t work. Look at this beautiful woman.”But Woldu, who was put through school, along with several other family members, by the Canadian journalist Brian Stewart – whose Canadian Broadcasting Corporation crew had originally filmed her – has said the fame that was thrust upon her has held her back because “people know my stories and see me with famous people”. She praised Live Aid for changing “the lives of many of my sisters and brothers” in Ethiopia, particularly during the famine.But she added: “For me, personally, Live Aid has done nothing. I am branded as the symbol of Live Aid due to the image of the 1980s. My stories are well documented and have reached the skies. But I live underground. The state I am in at this moment is miserable. I do not have a job and I cannot support my family on my own.”
Woldu explained that she had been hired as a nurse for 10 months soon after graduating from the private Sheba University College in the city of Mekelle, Tigray, but had been jobless since. She married at 28 but has since separated and lives in a one-room house with her two daughters. “[People] question how it is I am not able to support my family,” she said.“They help many people like me who have no one to support them,” she said. “They pay for children’s school fees and provide monthly stipends.” She added that she now wants to get a job and raise her daughters.Woldu is positive about change in her country since the famine of 1983-85, which took the lives of her mother and sister, sparing only her and her father. “The country has come a very long way since then,” she said. “We now have schools and hospitals and road access to remote areas. Mothers no longer endanger their lives by delivering babies in their homes. They can go to a hospital. Things are very good now.”
While she congratulated Live Aid on its 30-year anniversary, saying many felt grateful and indebted to the work it had done, she felt the organisation could help further: “As an aid agency, I believe they could do more in terms of building schools and hospitals. I encourage them to do more in that regard. That way we can be able to transform our country and offer a better life for our children.”
Giving aid in the form of food and stipends was not the way to bring about sustained change, she added. “Building infrastructure like schools and hospitals or factories that can hire a lot of people will make a big difference.” Food aid would only “make people even more dependent for all their lives … but if people get education and get jobs, they can transform their lives and their country.”