Times Staff Writer

Clad in his USA for Africa sweatshirt and a New York Yankees ballcap, Marlon Jackson knelt in the dust with a pair of Ethiopian orphans for the first of many, many photo opportunities Thursday.

The ragtag population of this dirt-destitute resettlement area in the Northeastern Tigre province alternately cheered and begged for money from the latest entourage of press and celebrities to visit their camp in recent months. And it was all caught on film for a documentary the USA for Africa foundation plans to release soon.

Whether it was meant to be this way or not, Ethiopa has gone Hollywood.

The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Ethiopia’s Marxist government has grown so sophisticated in the ways of the Western media that RRC officials now speak in terms of production values and maximum impact.


“I saw one network continuity girl actually weeping at some of the unedited footage,” one RRC official uttered in broken English while speaking of settlement camp death scenes televised in the United States.

Marlon Jackson and Harry Belafonte saw no deaths Thursday, but they did see squalor, disease, hunger and acres of graves baking beneath the cloudless Ethiopian skies. An estimated 30,000 refugees from the dry, lifeless villages of Ethiopia’s lowlands live in Makale--the model resettlement area that dozens of other RRC camps are trying to emulate throughout the country.

There were snapshots to be had of Belefonte in the Makale feeding barns, handing out used David Bowie and Judas Priest T-shirts to sick and homeless babies. There was footage of Jackson tossing tennis balls into a frenzied cluster of children whose toys normally consist of rocks.

USA for Africa’s first face-to-face confrontation with Ethiopia’s 1.5-million starving refugees was warm, sincere and televised.


But it wasn’t the first such confrontation--nor will it be the last.

Ralph Wright, a Red Cross official who has been operating in Ethiopia’s camps since December, said that he personally hopes to bring Sammy Davis Jr. to Addis Ababa for a benefit concert.

With Band Aid organizer Bob Geldof, Senator Ted Kennedy and now USA for Africa all making Ethiopian whistle stops, Wright doesn’t think the Davis concert is so farfetched.

He said that just two weeks ago two writers and “St. Elsewhere” producer Bruce Paltrow came to Ethiopia to scout relief camps for location shooting for an episode of that medical drama.


In Makale on Thursday, real life doctor Michael Rabin scoffed at the notion of Hollywood’s current intrigue with Ethiopia reaching prime-time dramatic shows.

“Of course, Jack (the character Dr. Jack Morrison) goes everywhere in St. Elsewhere, but I think that bringing this to a TV medical drama may be overdramatizing the situation,” Rabin said.

Rabin, who has been in Makale with the Africare relief organization, returns to the United States next month.

He characterized the current situation in Ethiopia as “much improved.”


“But on ‘St. Elsewhere,’ I think it’s enough just to have Belafonte and all the news people coming through here regularly to keep the issue alive.”