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Out of Africa with Diane Sawyer.


Cheryl Carter-Shotts might havebeen watching "National Geographic," "Hardy Boys," or a Disney special that Sunday night, August 11, 1985. Instead, she had turned her TV dial to Indianapolis' Channel 8 and "60 Minutes." As a result, Mohammed Ag Albakaye, who would by now be dead from starvation, is alive and well and h elping his new dad polish off five quarts of vanilla ice cream a week.

What Mrs. Shotts viewed that nightwas the rerun of a program aired in January 1985, a program that included an in-depth look at how the country of Mali was coping with the famine so prevalent in Africa. One segment of that story featured the correspondent Diane Sawyer's interview with what was left of Mohammed after his 11-or 17-year (most Africans don't register births) struggle to survive.

Diane Sawyer's presence in Africawas no fluke assignment. She had paid her dues as a newcaster, although, thanks to what one writer called a "special blend of the cerebral and the glamorous," she had paid them incredibly fast. The 5'9-1/2" blonde who was chosen America's Junior Miss of 1963 might still, at 41, win beauty contests (the Mrs. America pageant excluded, for she has never been married--not even engaged). And she had brought that beauty along with journalistic skills (a stint at a local TV station and six years as a CBS reporter and news anchor) to her "60 Minutes" job.

Diane has a thing about interviewing. "Ireally think you have to use your instincts," she says. "Interviewing is about using good instincts, about listening and curiosity." And from this combination of requisites came the fortuitous interview that changed the lives of the Shottses and saved the life of the malnourished African boy.

As Sawyer recalls, herfilm crew had been shown the "feeding camp" eight miles from the hard-to-reach city of Gao. While looking for a place to film, she heard a child behind her speaking English. Whirling around, she saw what she described as "the skinniest child in the feeding camp" staring back at her. His name was Mohammed, and he could speak English because he had been under the unofficial care of 12 U.S. Army engineers temporarily based in Gao since May 1984.

"Where do you sleep?" Sawyerasked.

"On the ground," he told her.

"Are you hungry?"


"All the time?"

"Yes. I see many children die everyday."

Sawyer relates that he followed herand the crew everywhere, and they took him into Gao for meals. "He was like a starved animal," she says. "We let him order everything he wanted. He ate everything on his plate, then went from crewperson to crewperson, eating every scrap they had left. I gave him a little money and he bought himself some warm clothing."

Back in famineless Indianapolis,the interview with the 84-pound gamin, which lasted all of 45 seconds, left Cheryl Carter-Shotts "mesmerized." She remembers little else of the segment, except that Malians were trying to cope with nothing to eat but berries and roots they dug from the ground. "By the time the report was finished," she says, "I realized that this child had crawled into my heart."

When her husband, Charlie,came home a short time later, she told him about Diane Sawyer's moving interview with the starving little boy. Not until Wednesday of that week did she confess to her husband that she felt such a great deal of "something" for this one African waif that she wanted to find him, bring him to America, adopt him, and love and care for him. That the Shottses already had three grown children of their own didn't affect Charlie's enthusiastic response. "Go for it," she told her.

Mrs. Shotts knew that the Post'sTV director, Rev. Peter Michael, had just returned from a trip to Africa, so she called to see if he could help find Mohammed. Peter, the son of missionaries, had grown up in Nigeria (where Mohammed had spent time also), and this was his favorite African country. But Peter's contacts were of no help in finding Mohammed in Mali.

Mrs. Shotts wrote to Diane Sawyerand then telephoned. "We talked and talked," Mrs. Shotts says. By the time the long conversation had ended, Diane had pretty well convinced her there was little hope of saving Mohammed from an early African grave.

Mali missionaries also tried to dissuadethe Shottses with a grim appraisal of Mohammed's condition. Mohammed's father had starved, they were told. The boy had been begging for food in the Gao area for about two years. He had a clubfoot and a hump on his back, and he was extremely thin. He also had worms (because people in Gao bathed in, played in, and drank from the same river) and possibly suffered from tuberculosis. Did they still want him?

They did. They wanted him to thetune of $5,400 in savings, a $7,000 loan, $2,000 in phone calls, and an $800 waiver of a $30,000 bond. A good part of Charlie's luggage for the trip to locate and fetch Mohammed from Mali consisted of notarized documents. The $3,000 "bribe" money the Shottses had budgeted to pay Mohammed's two uncles proved rather high--the uncles settled for a goat each and food for one year.

Then came the day when anotherphone call from Indianapolis to New York brought Diane Sawyer the astounding news that, against incredible odds, Mohammed was now safely ensconced in the Shottses' home. Diane and her film crew were soon on their way for the joyous reunion.

"Upon seeing Mohammed," Mrs.Shotts recalls, "Diane flew to him, buried her face in his neck, and sobbed over and over, 'I thought I'd never see you again.'"

Among the highlights of Mohammed'sfirst days in the United States (of which he is now a naturalized citizen) were the gift of flowers from Diane Sawyer following an operation on his foot, and her four telephone calls during his hospital convalescence. The caption under a newspaper photo showing Sawyer and Mohammed arm in arm, smiling broadly, reads:

"CBS anchorwoman Diane Sawyerwarmly embraces Mohammed Ag Albakaye, a malnourished, malaria-stricken youngster from the desert of Africa, in New York. The boy who once wondered how long he would live is spending the weekend touring Manhattan with the television personality." One of the biggest kicks Mohammed got out of that exciting adventure, his American mom says, was watching Diane lying flat on her stomach to take pictures of the Statue of Liberty.

To talk with the Shottses is to hearnothing but praise for Diane Sawyer. To them, she is everything from "a beautiful person," "A fantastic woman," and "very sincere," to having "a heart of gold" and being "the most down-to-earth person you could ever hope to meet." To these accolades Mrs. Shotts adds her impression of Diane's professionalism. "She interviewed us for a whole day without using a note of requiring a retake," Mrs. Shotts says.

Since the broadcast of that interview,she recalls, their home hasn't stopped ringing. Many of the calls are from people wanting to know how to adopt African children--something Mohammed is all for. (The Shottses have since founded Americans for African Adoptions, Inc.)

In a key-to-the-city ceremony in IndianapolisMayor William Hudnut III's office, Mohammed was asked what gifts he would like for Christmas. Mohammed replied, "A watch and my bbest friend, Nimit." He had last seen Nimit in the Gao hunger camp.

When the media flashed Nimit'spicture around the country, 13 people called to ask about adoption. But 12 immediately lost interest when they heard the cost. Not the 13th. A film crew from "60 Minutes" later recorded Nimit's arrival at the Indianapolis airport and followed him and his new parents, Raymond and Tona Moore, to their home in Bloomington. Nimit is also slated for a New York weekend with Diane Sawyer.

The Moores have good reason towonder if Diane will recognize him. Not only has Nimit whipped through three school graces in only seven weeks, but he has already gained 40 pounds and grown a full six inches as well. The boy could speak "not a word" of English, his adoptive father says, "but he was sounding out words on the plane coming from Africa." Today, Moore says, Nimit speaks "almost flawless English."

As for Mohammed, he has now decidedthat he wants to join the "60 Minutes" team after finishing school. "You want to take my job?" Diane asked him. "No, but that time you'll be doing something else," he replied. So Diane agreed to be the target of a tryout interview and promised to answer any and all questions--until he began asking them, that is. His first question, "How old are you?" and the second, "Why aren't you married?" didn't score may points, his mother laughingly recalls.

The "60 Minutes" crew had returnedto Indianapolis to record the placing of a fiberglass cast on Mohammed's right foot. This was after three months in his new home, and he had already grown two inches, gone through three clothing sizes, and gained 13 pounds (to a strapping 97).

All in all, it was quite enough tolend credence to the sign that Cheryl Carter-shotts unfolded upon the arrival of her husband and their new son-to-be at the airport: "Welcome to America, Mohammed. You'll never be hungry again."
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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