One image of tragedy that fixed the course of my life

Our columnist Martin Edwards says he has never forgotten pictures of a starving child who died nearly three decades ago

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

Some people think harrowing images are over-used in charity messages. But one such image changed my life, although it also led to me collapsing in Oxfam's headquarters.

I was at Oxford University in the 1980s when I saw pictures of a famine in Ethiopia, including one of a child very close to death, struggling to stand up in a last, pathetic act of will. The pitiful image prompted me and some friends to raise money for an Oxfam project in Ethiopia.

We decided upon challenge events that would cost nothing to stage but were tough enough to justify people's sponsorship. My friends aimed to fast for a week, while I opted to try to run 100 miles non-stop. To prepare for this task, I ran 10 miles every day over the summer.

Back at college in the autumn, the campaign got off to a poor start. The local media ignored us, so we wrote to a celebrity marathon runner seeking his nominal endorsement. He sent a terse rejection letter, so we were never able to benefit from the good name of Sir Jimmy Savile.

Exhausting experience

Armed only with some Oxfam literature, we knocked on thousands of students' doors to seek sponsorship. It was an exhausting experience that gave me lifelong respect for door-to-door salespeople.

With £8,500 in sponsorship pledged, we began our challenges. My friends completed their week-long fast. I managed to run 80 miles in 15 hours, at which point BBC Radio Oxford asked to interview me in Oxfam's nearby HQ. It was our big media break. I stopped briefly to do it, but after hours out in the wintry cold, soon after entering the heated office I lost consciousness. With commendable focus, most of the Oxfam staff simply stepped over my body and pressed on with their work.

Hazy memories

My memories of the ensuing hours are hazy. Vomit featured at some point. I think I was interviewed by a hastily scrambled reporter from Radio 1's Newsbeat, but I'm not sure if I just dreamt it. Later I told my college tutor that I had failed to complete an essay because of the exhaustion of running 80 miles. "At least I can't say I've heard that excuse before," he replied.

The Oxford Times ran a story on it with the headline "100 Mile Run Round City Fails". Oxfam's area organiser was furious, but I was genuinely delighted that the paper wrote anything at all.

We raised the money needed for the project, the first of two Oxfam initiatives in Ethiopia that we funded while at university. It proved to be the path to a life in the charity sector and, although I have moved on to different causes over the years, enjoying my share of successes and crying my share of tears, I have never forgotten that starving child from far away, who died nearly three decades ago.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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