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

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.

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