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Why do we care about only some people’s tragedy?

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Frank Strasburger, a retired Episcopal priest, is the co-founder of Princeton in Africa, an international fellowship organization.

A capsized ship. The cowardly captain first to jump ship. Hundreds dead. I’m talking about the South Korean ferry, right? Or perhaps that Italian cruise ship? Wrong. This is an event you probably never heard about. And you never heard about it because, although the news media have devoted countless columns and viewing hours to those two tragedies, the one I’m talking about got almost no press. Few papers carried the story, and in those that did, it died quietly.

On July 18, 2012, a ferry traveling to Zanzibar, Tanzania, left port in Dar es Salaam in rough seas — rough enough that the captain was advised not to sail. To make matters worse, he had no radio. Two-thirds of the way to Zanzibar, the engines were swamped; at the mercy of an angry Indian Ocean and high winds, the ferry began rocking with increasing violence. Not only were the passengers not warned of any danger, they were told all was well. But the ship capsized, turned over and sank. The official count was 146 dead, but anyone who has traveled on Tanzanian ferries knows they are packed to the gills, well beyond the number on the passenger manifest. Frankly, no one knows just how many people drowned. This, by the way, was the second such ferry sinking in the same waters in less than a year.

Why do I know about this when you don’t? Because my daughter was aboard that ship. By chance, she chose to sit on the starboard side of the top deck, which happened to be the upper side when the ship capsized. She swam out through a window someone had kicked out, and when she surfaced, she spotted one of the two lifeboats that had ­self-deployed. Swimming to it, she was helped into the lifeboat by the captain, who, with his crew, had managed to leave the ship ahead of the passengers. Sound familiar?

To be sure, there weren’t 300 high school students aboard the Tanzanian ferry. But there were a number of children — and not one survived. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and at least one couple on their honeymoon were among the people who went to the bottom of the sea in a disaster that didn’t need to happen.

The important question is, why do we care about some people and not others? The Somerville (Mass.) Journal carried a story about this, but only because a local resident (my daughter) survived. Nobody seemed concerned about the Tanzanians who didn’t, or about their families and friends. Americans often are so full of compassion for people in such circumstances that one has to ask: Why not this time?

The problem is, Tanzania is in Africa — you know, that place where there’s nothing but tribal war, famine, disease, unrelenting poverty and jungle-dwellers with spears. A ferry sinking off the coast of Tanzania is no surprise; that continent is just one disaster after another. Isn’t that the way most Americans view Africa?

And why do we do that? Because Africa is an exotic mystery to most of us. You’re in a tiny minority if you can remember learning anything in school about Africa. The AP world history course one of my sons took spent all of five days studying the world’s second-most populous continent, a continent with more than 55 countries and more than a billion people.

So it’s no surprise that most Americans are unaware of Africa’s size and diversity, that it includes, yes, deserts and jungles but also big cities, tall buildings and men and women in suits with cellphones — and considerably better cell service than we have. It is a continent full of people who are far more like us than we imagine. And when tragedy strikes, its victims are worthy of the compassion we willingly and generously shower on people like us.

Bottom line: Tanzanians are “people like us.” They may be a third of a world away, but they’re human beings, and our shrinking world makes it increasingly scandalous for us to pretend they’re not there. When 146 of them drown, they and their families deserve our attention.

The news media are uniquely capable of bridging that gap, of turning the foreign into the familiar. They are our source for the stories that help us travel the geographic and cultural distance, overcome our provincialism and embrace those we’ve previously thought of as “other.” That, I would argue, is not just the ability but also the obligation of a dynamic free press.

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