On November 9, students in the fifth period Arab Culture class at Northeast High School were treated to a rare opportunity. Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer award-winning journalist, arrived to speak to the class about his past experiences, and about his exciting new upcoming project.
Mr. Salopek has reported stories from many parts of the world, including Sudan and other parts of Africa. The students had been learning about the life and writings of Anthony Shadid, in preparation for the upcoming visit from his wife, Nada Bakri. The experiences of Mr. Salopek dovetail with those of Mr. Shadid. Both won Pulitzer Prizes for their excellent writing. And both covered conflict zones, with these attendant dangers. In fact, both even had the terrifying experience of being imprisoned by regimes that feared what the reporters’ words would reveal.
The writer talked to students about his most recent reporting trips to the Horn of Africa, where famine threatened thousands with starvation. In relating what he saw there, and presenting pictures of that land and its people, Mr. Salopek touched on an important lesson of unintended consequences. The famines are due to many factors, he said. Soil erosion and drought among them.
When people are unable to feed themselves, they gather in huge refugee camps where the UN and other organizations can distribute food. And yet, Mr. Salopek points out, this act of life-giving charity is not without complications. Herders who use the land have been displaced by these camps. The soil there has been further degraded by thousands of feet and trucks, stamping away the topsoil and reducing the level of vegetation and threatening the people and animals who relied on it. Mr. Salopek encouraged the students to look beyond surface-level knowledge in coming to understand the world.
In collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Mr. Salopek plans to spend the next seven years literally tracing the footsteps of ancient humans. Beginning in the Rift Valley, he will travel by foot north to the Middle East, continue through Central Asia, cross from Siberia to Alaska, down the west coast of North America, before finally reaching his destination in Patagonia, at the tip of the Americas.
The route he has chosen follows the patterns of human migration, as early humans traveled out of Africa and across the globe. This monumental journey will be taken on foot or, as he put it, at “three miles an hour” in an effort to learn more about the people and cultures he will encounter along the way. The entire adventure is slated to cover 22,000 miles and last seven years. Like Ibn Battuta, he will travel great distances for the sake of knowledge, growing closer to the Earth and its cultures. Like Anthony Shadid, he reports from the ground up, speaking with people he meets and sharing their stories with the world.
He calls the project “Out of Eden” and will be posting reports and updates on his website when the journey begins. It will surely be an exciting project to follow.