Today is World AIDS Day. To mark the day, I am passing on a message on behalf of one of the most courageous, wise and gentle men I know. A man who has turned personal adversity into an international campaign of hope that I genuinely believe could save millions of lives. Canon Gideon Byamugisha was the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce that he was HIV positive. He went on to co-found the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with and Personally Affected HIV and AIDS (ANERELA+) in 2002 and, in 2006, a shelter for children who had been orphaned as a result of AIDS. I worked on Canon Gideon’s SAVE campaign (the name is explained in the message) in 2011. Whether or not you share the particular faith of this brave Anglican priest, his message is a powerful one. I hope you agree.
I have recently returned from South Africa where I was running a reflection session with those involved in a fascinating programme designed to build trust and improve relationships between the black, white and coloured – and male and female – workers, supervisors and managers on the Western Cape’s stunningly beautiful fruit and flower farms and vineyards. It was heartening to see how a little respect can go a long way.
My latest blog is not mine at all, but is composed of a series of emails sent to me by a friend who has been living through a severe water shortage in the Senagalese capital, Dakar. She captures beautifully and movingly in words and pictures the struggle to get through a normal day without water… a day that stretches into weeks. The story has a happy ending and leaves you in awe of the resourcefulness and patience of the citizens of Dakar.
The Government sponsored vans going round London’s streets urging illegal immigrants to “Go home or face arrest” have been grounded, I’m glad to see.
The whole debate brought back to me two incidents in London almost thirty years ago.
The first was when my (white English/Welsh) mother and I were walking down Kensington High Street, chatting, looking out for a restaurant to have lunch at. Suddenly a man stood in front of me and screamed in my face that I should “F*ck off back to your own country”, and then he continued walking in the opposite direction. “Did you hear that, Mum?!” I gasped. My mother was silent – I assumed she hadn’t noticed. Later I overheard her telling my father that she was so stunned by it that she couldn’t speak. All she could think about was where to find a weapon to attack the man with. Luckily weapons are not easy to find on Kensington High Street or this would have been a story about how violent words can lead to violent acts.
The second incident was in an Indian restaurant in Putney where I was having dinner with my friend Nizwar. The only other customers were a couple of middle aged white businessmen and, at another table, a group of young girls. At some point a group of lads wandered in and spoke to the girls for a few moments. Soon after they had left, the girls left too. Then there was an almighty crash as a metal dustbin came flying against the window. There were shouts of “Go home, pakkis!” and then footsteps running away. But the truly shocking bit of this story is what happened when the police arrived.
The restaurant owner was in shock and almost weeping. “They’ve smashed my window!” he kept repeating to the two white police officers, who made no effort to conceal their exasperation that he wasn’t answering their brusque questions about the sequence of events and that his English wasn’t perfect. Eventually they sat down with the businessmen and started a jovial conversation with them over a cup of tea that they made the owner bring them and which they never paid for. After complaining that it was “Like the black hole of Calcutta in here”, they began questioning the businessmen about the incident. The businessmen’s descriptions of the lads who had come in – presumably to warn the girls to leave before their attack – were sketchy. Their descriptions of the young girls, on the other hand, were very detailed including every curve, curl, button and bead.
The policemen weren’t particularly interested in mine or Nizwar’s eyewitness reports. As we left the restaurant (in a taxi – we were too scared to walk) we saw shadowy figures of Asian men emerging from dark alleyways and coming towards the restaurant. I went back to the restaurant the next day to ask how they were getting on and whether the police had been able to find the perpetrators. The owner shook his head. “We dealt with it ourselves” he said. I didn’t ask what he meant by that, so I don’t know if this story is evidence of how one violent act can lead to another…
I have been fortunate that in all my forty years in the UK these are the only two examples of racism I have experienced. I was also heartened by the outpouring of outrage that met what the Twitterati dubbed #racistvans. But I would not be surprised if Government-sponsored slogans appearing to legitimise the “go home” mentality did not lead to violent thoughts and possibly violent acts - especially appealing to those for whom the distinction between legal or illegal immigrants is irrelevant. Sadly, many immigrants are no strangers to violence. Often that is what they are fleeing when they leave their countries. Even if what they are fleeing is poverty; poverty is a form of violence in itself, causing physical harm and humiliation just as direct violence does. The illegal stop-searches being conducted by the UK Border Agency in London’s tube stations are not outright violence, but they are humiliating and menacing. But sometimes the violence immigrants face is nothing less than that. Pure, brutal deadly violence. For Steven Lawrence it came from UK citizens. For Jimmy Mubenga, it came from UK authorities when being ejected from the country. For both it ended in death.
Perhaps David Cameron has learned something from the Taliban – even they have acknowledged the power of words.
As I write this Nelson Mandela lies seriously ill in a hospital bed in Pretoria. Although nobody wants to say it, we are all thinking that this may be the end. The spectre of death prompts reflections on life, and like millions of others around the world, I am reflecting on what a profound effect this man has had on mine.
His words, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice” are the strapline to my blog. It’s a profound truth that took me decades to understand, and once I had, Mandela’s words expressed it perfectly. The best teacher phrases the important things in a way you cannot forget.
Looking around me now, I notice that Mandela has infiltrated my world in many other ways too. A post-it reminding me that “you have the same number of hours in your day as Nelson Mandela” (source unknown). Some pieces of jagged, black rock that I picked up on Robben Island (which prick my conscience). A postcard with his curiously child-like grandfather-face gazing seriously out at me. And of course, Long Walk to Freedom taking up four ordinary books’ widths on my bookshelf.
One of my deepest regrets was not getting on the bus taking a group of colleagues to hear him address the Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It turned out to be his last public appearance. I don’t even remember now what petty administrative task I prioritised over seeing and hearing the great man in person. Another lesson learned: recognise – and then seize – the moment.
Since then I’ve been daydreaming about ways of manipulating the six degrees of separation to put me in the same room as him (the theory goes that each of us is linked via just six people to every other individual on the planet). Which six stand between me and Nelson Mandela? I got as close as the pew behind Mandela’s fellow anti-apartheid warrior, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town… and now sadly, I’m beginning to accept that that’s probably as close as I’ll ever get.
I suspect he’d hate this fawning celebrity-hunter attitude towards him. So why does he have this effect on people? It’s similar to the power that the Dalai Lama has. I think it is a combination of innate leadership – he was born and educated a royal household – with a deep and utterly sincere humility. Martin Kalungu Banda relates the story of an industry official visiting Mandela. When they sat down to eat, Mandela asked “Weren’t there two of you?” The official said “No, I came on my own”. Mandela got up, went out to the car and insisted that the visitor’s driver join them for the meal.
This chimes deeply with me because I was brought up in a privileged household being waited on by the less privileged (and compared to those with no jobs or backbreaking, pittance-paid labour, even they were relatively privileged). As kids, when we were driven to a party, we never gave the driver a thought all the time we were having fun, until we were ready to go home again and needed him. That stabs my conscience now. I’ve been trying to atone for it ever since.
For me, what burns through all that this extraordinary man has achieved, is his revulsion at the idea of one human being tolerating the humiliation or suffering of another. Shirley du Boulay in her biography of Archbishop Desmond Tutu quotes an interview between the Archbishop and Colin Morris in 1995. Mandela was then President of South Africa and F. W. de Klerk, one of the men who had kept him in prison – and his people oppressed – for decades, was Deputy. Morris asks Tutu “Where has this extraordinary magnanimity and forgiveness come from – on the black side?” Tutu replies that it is partly from Christianity, but “before that, something called ubuntu – the essence of being human – which places a great premium on solidarity, on social harmony. Anything that undermines that is bad…”
This is how Mandela describes ubuntu: “In the old days… a traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of ubuntu. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question, therefore, is are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve? These are the important things in life.”
It was in this spirit that he forgave, and went on to work with, the instigators of the brutal injustice of apartheid. And it is also in this spirit that he approaches the equally brutal injustice of poverty. In 2004, he wrote to the group that had campaigned successfully for Oxford to become a Fairtrade City, saying:
“I again rejoice and congratulate you on your continuing work to promote social justice and development in our world. Fair trade offers producers in developing countries a just return for their labour and an opportunity to help their communities to grow and develop with the proceeds they receive… This is an important step forward. We must continue on this path, to build real opportunities and freedom for all”.
No matter how many hours I have in my day, I could never hope to fill them as productively as Mandela. I don’t have a fraction of the courage, stamina, humility and wisdom of that frail old man in a Pretoria hospital bed. But I do share his humanity. And I can learn from him the lesson of ubuntu, respecting the humanity of others in deed, as well as thought.
That’s why I choose to join thousands of others working to end the injustice of poverty. People in developing countries making things for people in the privileged world to buy usually can’t earn enough to eat well, send their children to school and get care when they’re sick.
Maybe one day this will be as unthinkable as black South Africans who serve the privileged whites being forced by law to live in poverty and to get no education and substandard healthcare.
As Mandela said in the Trafalgar Square speech that I missed: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Drummer Lee Rigby’s brutally misguided killers used his death to make a spurious religious and political point. (as related by passerby, Ingrid Loyau-Kenett) Since then, extremist organisations like the EDL have also tried to use his murder to make their own points. They are accused of capitalising on the sense of outrage and fear that the killing generated in British people to promote their cause.
This has triggered anti-fascist organisations and individuals to oppose, ridicule and revile them in social networks and on the streets. This ominous pendulum is now set to swing back and forth, from far right to far left, with no hope of anyone from either side ever finding common ground or agreeing on anything.
But of course, finding common ground is not, in fact, the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is for members of each extreme to reinforce their identity, for each tribe to stake its territory. Sadly, the effect of this will be to drive each extreme further apart, and more sadly, those who were moderate will be driven further towards extremism.
When I was at university I got involved, through a boyfriend, with an animal rights group. Naively, I thought that they were kind animal lovers who just wanted to expose and try to end cruelty to animals. But when we arrived at the secret location of the meeting, I found a group of angry and aggressive young people with a strong sense of persecution. They showed videos of animals being tortured in laboratories, which got us all emotional and hyped up. Then a woman rushed in yelling that one of the group had been arrested for kicking a dustbin. “You’re allowed to kick animals in this country, but not dustbins” she spat in indignant rage – and there were angry murmurings around the room as our hatred was turned up one notch higher. The experience scared me so much I never went back.
But I never once saw that boyfriend stroke a cat or pat a dog. And his demeanour towards human beings was not exactly warm either. What was important, exciting, for him and his group was the feeling of being morally right and using that feeling to justify illegal and aggressive acts. And then feeling further justified in their fight when those acts were opposed or punished. He could just as easily have been an EDL supporter. Or a militant Islamist. Or a violent anti-fascist. These are the natural extremists – which extreme hardly matters. But there are also ordinary people who get drawn towards these extremes through reasonable levels of concern and fear.
A Facebook page called ‘I Love Immigrants’ usually posts gentle, positive profiles of people who have migrated to Britain and contributed to society. But since Woolwich their posts have focused on the EDL, describing them and their actions as “disgusting”, “nonsense”, “bad form”, “feeble” and “moronic”.
Meanwhile, a UKIP official has included Drummer Rigby’s family in a statement calling those who think the EDL is fascist “idiots”. The EDL’s leader, “Tommy Robinson”, Tweeted that he would “stick 2 fingers up at political correctness” when the charity Help for Heroes, whose tshirt Drummer Rigby was wearing when he was killed, refused donations collected by Robinson.
Watching the TV footage of the EDL and anti-fascist marches, it was hard to tell the expressions in the EDL marchers’ faces apart from those of the anti-fascist protestors. ”Racist scum! Racist scum!”, they screamed, jabbing raised, accusatory fingers in the air – a gesture chillingly reminiscent of the EDL’s Nazi salutes. I am wholeheartedly anti-fascist, but I wonder what effect the chants and finger-stabbing would have had on, say, a Woolwich housewife who might have joined the EDL march because she was terrified by what had happened to Lee Rigby and believed the EDL’s public rhetoric that they were fighting to protect her and her children?
Lee Rigby’s killers were terrorists in the sense that their actions have created terror among British people. At the same time, a spokesperson for the charity Faith Matters said after the killing; ”Muslims at this moment are feeling a real and pervasive sense of fear”. The incidence of attacks on Muslims reported to the charity has increased tenfold since May 22nd, mosques are being firebombed and sprayed with graffiti, Muslim men are being attacked and women having their veils ripped off. And they are also, of course, as vulnerable to terrorist attacks as the rest of us.
Attacking random Muslims is wrong. And killing Lee Rigby was wrong. And killing innocent Afghans and Iraqis is wrong. And torturing animals is wrong. And tear-gassing protestors is wrong…but two (or more) wrongs, don’t make a right.
In a country that prides itself on an adversarial system of justice and an oppositional system of government, perhaps strident opposition seems like an appropriate response to violence and hatred. In a courtroom and in Parliament, there is agreement on either side to accept the judgement or vote that is delivered. But in post-Woolwich Britain there is no judge or jury to decide between the advocates of hatred and fear. Voters who have been made afraid by the actions of the killers are being offered a party to vote for… as Leanne Staven, who joined an EDL march after the killing, puts it ”We need a voice… I think white British who have any concerns feel we can’t speak freely”.
However much you disagree with how each side expresses their opinions, there’s nothing you can do about the fact that they have them. Except acknowledge it. Like the carbon that turns into diamonds under intense pressure, the harder you oppose their views, the harder they get. And the more they oppose you, the harder your position will get.
The most courageous and effective response so far to this whole hideous mess has been that of the mosques that have invited their local communities, including EDL supporters, in for tea and biscuits. Quoted in the Huffington Post, mosque elder Professor Mohamed El-Gomati said, “If people sat down and talked, they may come to common, shared ground rather than shouting from a distance and not hearing what the other person is saying… Rather than have a shouting match outside we have invited people in to have a discussion and show solidarity over a cup of tea with us and see exactly what we are doing to dispel any myths. There is nothing better than knowledge.”
There are precedents for diffusing violence in surprising and gentle ways. The one that sticks in my mind is fictional – yet powerful; the scene in Anthony Minghella’s film, Truly, Madly, Deeply when a argument in a café that threatens to turn ugly is suddenly derailed by someone performing an impromptu conjuring trick. He throws a book into the air and it turns into a live pigeon that flies away.
But there was also the real life example of the Belfast policeman who stopped bottle-throwing youth in their tracks by replacing his police car siren with the tune from an ice cream van, turning the angry yells into laughter. And then there was Flower Power when 100,000 protestors against the Vietnam war in 1967 met armed soldiers with flowers, some inserting them into the barrels of their guns. And there was Gandhi’s satyagraha – passive resistance – movement which perplexed the British who were ready to fight fire with fire.
The trouble with that approach is that what you end up with is just more fire. The more we drive each other to extremes, the more likely it is that Woolwich murder suspect Michael Adebowale’s wish will be granted, that there will be a war on the streets of Britain.
Let’s not choose that. Let’s choose to make tea, and conversation, not war.
This sign is common on London buses and trains. It seems the same can be said of terrorists. My latest blog on MIT’s CoLab Radio explores the shock of terrorism being committed on our streets – and the streets of Boston – by people who are, superficially at least, “one of us”. >>read the full post.
NB Since publishing this post I received the following message from the person who was at high school with Dzokar Tsarnaev and whose prom photo I provide a link to in the post. He says:
“Good luck on your piece, but be sensitive to the fact that while he stands out in this picture, this is not an accurate representation of our entire “group of friends”, in reality we are far more diverse. And in a normal day to day setting, Jahar didn’t stand out from the group like he does here.”
After my initial messages, I haven’t been able to find a way to publish a reply on your site, so if you are reading this, please accept my warmest thanks for your permission to link to the photograph you published on your site. I wish you and your friends a long life of peace and trust and hope that you will be able to find a way to make something – anything – good come out of the nightmare you’ve been through.