Where’s the empathy for Ebola’s African victims?

Where’s the empathy for Ebola’s African victims? via CNN

Obama’s Tribute To Nelson Mandela

Obama paying tribute to Mandela, mentions Ubuntu, Empathy and self reflection…

How well have I applied his lessons in my own life

“We too must act …”

“Too many of us in the sidelines, comfortable in complacency …” he says


The full speech via Whitehouse.gov

To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests – it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other.  To the people of South Africa – people of every race and walk of life – the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.  His struggle was your struggle.  His triumph was your triumph.  Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.

It is hard to eulogize any man – to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person – their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul.  How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.

Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe – Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.  Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start held little prospect of success.  Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice.  He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War.  Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would – like Lincoln – hold his country together when it threatened to break apart.  Like America’s founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations – a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.

Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men.  But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories.  “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so.  He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend.  That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still.  For nothing he achieved was inevitable.  In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith.  He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.

Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.  Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”

But like other early giants of the ANC – the Sisulus and Tambos – Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity.  Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.  “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial.  “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t.  He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.  He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement.  And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions.  He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history.  On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that, “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”  But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.  And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit.  There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.  We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell.  But we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding.  He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves.  It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe – Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life.  But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask:  how well have I applied his lessons in my own life?

It is a question I ask myself – as a man and as a President.  We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation.  As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people – known and unknown – to see the dawn of a new day.  Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle.  But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done.  The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.  For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future.  Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

We, too, must act on behalf of justice.  We, too, must act on behalf of peace.  There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.  There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.  And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

The questions we face today – how to promote equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war – do not have easy answers.  But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu.  Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.  South Africa shows us that is true.  South Africa shows us we can change.  We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.  We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.  But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world – you can make his life’s work your own.  Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land.  It stirred something in me.  It woke me up to my responsibilities – to others, and to myself – and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.  And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better.  He speaks to what is best inside us.  After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves.  And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

What a great soul it was.  We will miss him deeply.  May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela.  May God bless the people of South Africa.

Via Guardian, full text of speech here.

Via Mail & Guardian here

Empathy – the key to societal harmony

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – it means you must serve your fellow man. You see? You must respect and serve your fellow man faithfully. That’s what, because without their support you can never progress. That’s what it means. – Nelson Mandela

Anyone who has experienced a certain amount of loss in their life has empathy for those who have experienced loss.  – Anderson Cooper

Look, I’m a cancer survivor, all right? So I have great personal empathy for people who have pre-existing conditions and can’t get insurance. – Carly Fiorina

There is a man who lives near my mother’s house, who is blind. This fellow also happens to attend the same church which mother belongs to, and I see him almost each month seated at the bus stop, or walking around the neighbourhood, assisted only by a white cane.

I can’t even begin to imagine what challenges this man has had to face, or indeed what challenges his condition presents him every single day. Thinking about it alone gives me a chill, although something tells me his experiences have got to be unpleasant, very hard. Not being able to see clearly, or not seeing at all, the sunlight (or in the case of Manchester – the grey skies + rain), the landscape, birds, people, the innocence on a child – the smiles on their faces; cars, television…the world; needing help with cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc; a life in which just being able to move about in one’s own house is probably a bit of a challenge…the apparent helplessness, I just can’t even begin to imagine it.

And while there is research out there that suggests that people with blindness have heightened senses, (see other links here and here) as the above links try to explain, living with blindness is still something that those of us who have sight can’t completely comprehend, even after a visit to Dans Le Noir (see another review here).

A different example was given to me by a friend, who quoted this story which includes the following paragraphs:

“The UN identifies long-term solitary confinement as a form of torture and the effects on Warsame were clear. He became apathetic, lethargic and depressed. He rarely left his cell to exercise in the locked cell adjacent to his own. The social isolation was tortuous and agonizing.”

“At the sentencing, the judge noted that he had “seen nothing in the record or the last five years of proceedings demonstrating that Warsame poses an immediate danger.” Why then had he refused to suspend or modify the SAMs?”

“While the judge also observed “nothing that adequately demonstrates that Warsame was part of a specific plot against the United States, and very little that suggests he was especially useful to Al Qaeda,” he refused to impose a sentence of time-served, instead adding another twenty-four months, for a total of ninety-two months, or almost eight years.”

“The judge’s deference throughout the case to the government’s bloated claims of national security is disturbing. Yet evidence indicates that the court’s deference is not aberrational but replicated in other terrorism cases in US courts. The plea deal suggests that Warsame never posed a security threat. That conclusion is reinforced by Warsame’s deportation: allowing him to simply leave the country contradicts the notion of immediate danger the government repeatedly asserted Warsame’s unmonitored communications posed.”   – Article written by David Thomas, Criminal defence lawyer, How Mohammed Warsame Became an Accidental ‘Terrorist’

This post is not about blindness, unique restaurant experiences, the challenges people with blindness face or how US law treats suspect terrorists.

Instead, in my daily life, I have often encountered or heard views from capable young people who feel a sense of helplessness. That the world around them does not understand their circumstances, and is incapable of helping them.That their plight is solely up to God. They have little or no role in turning their own fortunes.

It causes me a lot of sadness.

They feel left out, that nobody seems to care, that they are powerless, with no hero either in their family or in the leadership of their society, region, country who can confront this helplessness that is causing them much stress, and slowly dragging them deeper and deeper into depression. I meet youngsters with a deep sense of deprivation and failure; who think they have no hope and can do absolutely nothing to transform their own lives for the better. Most are Africans, or of African heritage.

It’s one thing meeting a disaffected person, and giving them advice (even good advice) that could help them plan how to get out of their hardship zone, it’s quite another thing assisting them, step by step, practically and over a period of time, in overcoming their challenges. I find the latter more helpful, but often the constraints on my own life curtails how much helps I am able to offer; that wretched feeling when you know precisely how a certain situation can be tackled, made good and turned around, having tamed similar situations in the past, yet you are unable to offer much help because of your own problems…

Which is why I have great respect for organisations such as Turning Point. However, most of these youngsters I meet doubt whether such organisations can do much to help them, and in fact tend to think such organisations are only targeted to former addicts, or people have been made homeless or have met some domestic catastrophe…

The problems I hear vary from the absence of motivation and financial constraints, to frustration with leadership and life; including family entanglements and baggage from the past which they can’t quite separate themselves from, or reconcile with the present. Last week, a fine young man wrote me:

I concluded one thing and it’s how us black people as a whole lack hope. We say all this stuff about our belief in God and the love and faith we have for him. But we lack hope. We allow ourselves to be forever imprisoned by these unnecessary emotions of hate, greed, complacency and inconsistency. We are right now incapable of having the dreams that our former leaders fought with and had till they died, Kamuzu had a vision, the same way Mandela had his. That’s why they were good friends. But this generation we struggle with conviction, for we are too busy stuck here on social media websites posting all these things and having discussions. It is as if we don’t have what it takes to take that step forward for change. … But it goes back to our lack of conviction as a whole. We lack that power that our past ancestors had before, we lack that vision. Africa now has no dreamers but it is … mercenaries who dream to keep Africa at bay, and because we don’t have what it takes to dream big and beyond, to trust God for our talents we are stuck here, writing bitter statements and statuses about what’s happening to our brothers and sisters. I ask myself everyday if I care, and what should I do? But the inner spirit within me reminds me that it is not up to man to say I will change the world with my own works. … I don’t have that will power within but I know where it comes from, only God…

To me these kinds of statements come in three main forms. Grievances against general trends within society their present society, and back home in Africa; grievance against a certain type of thinking / practice, which in some forms manifests itself in”…too busy stuck here on social media websites posting all these things and having discussions” ; and grievance against public / private equity institution (both abroad and back home in Africa) which ‘fail’ to provide them with capital, or whose requirements in ascertaining suitability of a loan (which the aggrieved thinks is necessary to reverse their fortunes) to the recipient are too high to meet.

In another form, the grievances highlight the inability of even an afflicted person, to devise a solution to their own problems. Yesterday, I was speaking to a young man in Malawi who complained about how there is a total lack of leadership in local government, and how even the simplest of ideas get shot down, not only by the leadership – who do little except complain and ‘go around in circles‘, but also by those who are affected:

“Man, things in Malawi are bad, I don’t even know what will happen next, except that we are going down. The 60% pay increase civil servants were offered in early February is yet to be effected. There has been no follow-up, and i don’t think its going to happen. Our bosses invite us to meetings, every other day, where the only outcome is throwing blame and finding excuses. …

We were meant to be paid on the 21st [November], but up until now [8th December] we have not been paid. Salaries, allowances have not paid. It’s a mess. To add insult to injury our duties have been increased and we have to pay tax, even when we are not being paid. Fuel in the country is going up, the dollar is at K417 on the black market at K450, and since there is no money to pay us, we will be sent on holiday next week because the coffers are dry. But what will we eat if we have not been paid? People are disgruntled,, right now the president is going to South Africa, and after that to Kenya for some celebrations ….more travelling and money pointlessly spent. Madness really on behalf of our president. 50 years of independence achimwene [brother], and we keep going backwards….

And when you make a suggestion, even the guy standing next to you, on the same level as you, who is also suffering like you are, shoots all your ideas down, but they can’t even come up with a single idea??”

He goes on to say:

I don’t see a leader amongst any of them. I havent even registered to vote. These guys don’t deserve to be presidents. They keep recycling the same old politicians with the same old ideas. So where do you think our country is going to go if youngsters are not given a chance? Sadly we live in society that is so embedded in “bola moyo” [At least we are alive] . That’s what is sooooo heartbreaking. People that let others take advantage of them because of poverty or ignorance

What then do you do when you know that the aggrieved person is a capable hardworking individual who if given a chance, can flourish, who if given an opportunity, can achieve something, and make a success of his life.
Another young man, a distant nephew who I have known for many years said this several months ago:
Thus what am teaching Mathematics. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Management Information Systems uncle, am teaching for survival, what else can a man do for survival?
Further, several years ago, another young man, a former classmate said this:
…Haven’t been yet… The same factors that delayed my Malawi trip also delayed my [trip to] Israel. Doing business in Nigeria is astronomically hard. The easiest thing to do is enter politics and steal money
This was near the time that Nigeria was to have its elections, and at the time, some Nigerians, going by the name Nigerians Must Unite And Liberate Nigeria, created this photo:
Whatever you think of this poster or its creators, to me it represents the growing feelings of discontent most people of African heritage have within. The bottled pain, the frustrations, the powerlessness that can only be translated into song, art or writing. They’ve done the demonstration, they’ve petitioned organisation, people, politicians – the power blocs, they’ve done almost everything, and nothing seems to work, very little seems to change.
It is true that most people who have the power to change things in the world today either deliberately choose not to act, they act too late, or act in the wrong kind of way. And that list of enablers is not limited to those from within Africa alone.
Even sound advice from experienced activists, including writers who have spent years exploring and analysing Africa and its woes is largely ignored, making the task of resolving the problems even harder.
Looking at all this, what is encouraging to me is that there are some people (another here, here , here and herehere) who have  some understanding of the issues on the ground. And are willing to help, one step at a time. Although few in number, and without the capital of the larger aid organisations, these stories demonstrate that even though the situation in Africa can be described as extremely difficult, some people empathise. Some people understand. Thus, if more people looked at the helpless young people with the same lens as these people view those they have gone out to help, and offered to help, or even  practical advice which the young men and women could implement, it would represent a step forward towards defeating that sense of helplessness and failure that is common in our societies, especially across Africa.
Which is why sometimes when I see that blind man in my mother’s neighbourhood, I find myself thinking that if only I had the means to help him, if only I could do something about it, I would have offered him some help. Explored the possibility of getting him a guide dog, or even offer to pay for a part of his healthcare, I don’t know, something, even if it were just a one-off thing …