Thursday, July 18, 2013

Happy Birthday, Madiba

Two simple herdboys who learned life's lessons out in the fields became great leaders of their nations. One was a poet and musician who wrote the most beloved shepherd poem in history. The other was a lawyer who spent his prime years in prison. They both understood elemental truths of leadership by herding animals.

It's something to meditate on: the two men who came to leadership by service. David and Madiba have many traits in common. Their integrity, courage, grace under attack, forgiveness, and failings. Think on them this day, Madiba's 95th birthday.

If there were something I would wish for Madiba today, it would be that his legacy continues long after he leaves us. He paid a high personal price for his country. He lost out on many family blessings because he put his people first. I believe, in the end, he gained far more--and a farther reaching family of many shades of skin.

Recently Isabel and I visited a museum and viewed an amazing platinum sculpture entitled: Pure Mind--Rare Vision--Eternal Spirit. A Bavarian artist, Tom Rucker, visited Khayelitsha (a township near here) and asked the young people there who their hero was. He expected a rock star or a soccer hero. But they unanimously shouted: Nelson Mandela.

Thus inspired, Rucker returned to Germany and began an eight-month project of laser welding to honor the man who inspired such devotion.

Nelson Mandela: Pure Mind--Rare Vision--Eternal Spirit

A labor of love: countless platinum filaments welded (with a laser under a microscope) with over 1.8 million laser spot welds. Madiba smiles at us and his black diamond eyes, set in black rhodium crinkle characteristically. 

side view of Mandela sculpture

This man evokes gratitude and appreciation in every part of the earth. His strength and grace have changed the lives of his countrymen and foreigners alike.

Madiba, I hope your example is not forgotten. I pray your sacrifice is remembered in future generations, even when the sculpture is dust. May the work of your hands be established in this country and not forgotten. And your gentle herding appreciated:

A leader. . .is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.
--Nelson Mandela

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


I found out something about myself this past weekend: I don't like retracing my steps. 
I don't want to turn around and go the way I came; I want to keep going forward.

seeking the Contour Path

Isabel and I were fulfilling one of her summer goals: the three-hour hike on the Contour Path (on Table Mountain) between Newland's Forest and the King's Blockhouse. We had a map, good shoes, directions, water and wind breakers. We were ready.

At first the map was easy to follow and we encountered quite a few other hikers and some picnickers. We knew we had to find the Woodcutter's Path then cut uphill to locate the Contour Path which promised vistas of the bay and scenery unparalleled. To our surprise, the map was sketchy in places and the directions were not straightforward. As we started to wonder about one turn off we'd taken, we heard voices on a lower path and headed back to ask them. Short, quick, they were seasoned hikers and assured us the Woodcutter's Path was just up that very trail. 

We found it and felt rather jubilant. Our Frodo and Sam combo felt good. We enjoyed the trees, the rocks, the multiple streams to "ford" and glimpses of the view to come. The Woodcutter's Path went very far, indeed, and when we reached a rutted road, we realized we had missed an ascending path (three, actually) which would have taken us to the Contour Path. There was no access to the Contour Path from our location and we'd either have to accept the road or retrace our steps. I was pushing for a cross-country attempt. But Isabel was the map-keeper and navigator. We had to go back.

That's when I learned about me. How I dislike retreating. Going back. Undoing something that hasn't been well done. I'd much rather head on, push through, not "give up." But this wasn't an option. If we wanted to accomplish our goal, we'd have to go back. That's when Isabel reminded me of Lewis' observation:

"If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this while doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake."

We turned around and kept our eyes peeled for the missed trails. Three times we imagined trails and started uphill, only to have the trail disappear, and three times we had to retreat to the Woodcutter. I was beginning to feel like Sam when he remarked that things looked familiar, and Frodo observed: "we've been here before, we're going in circles." Now the truth dawned, despite our maps and preparations, we did not know the way. 

But eventually, the trail appeared and we realized that we'd missed it in our joy at seeing a sign for "Woodcutter's Path". While rejoicing that we'd found the first part, we missed the turn-off to the second part. Then the going got rough as we ascended steeply.

Great was our rejoicing when we finally attained the Contour Path. But it would not have been ours if we had not turned back. 

"there is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake"
C. S. Lewis

Monday, July 8, 2013

Do we need another book on what's wrong with Africa?

Robert Guest's book, The Shackled Continent: Africa's past, present and future, (2004) is another of the many books I have felt compelled to read in search of a word of hope for this place I have lived and come to love. And like the other authors, his prognosis is for a long, hard-won recovery: no quick fixes, no magic cures. 

Refreshingly, he does not place the entire blame for the conditions on colonialism or foreign aid. He recognizes that doing so is likely to be counter-productive: "Much of Africa is seized by the uniquely disempowering notion that foreigners are to blame for most past and present ills." If the blame falls outside it follows that the solution is also outside, but Guest warns: "Railing against outsiders may be cathartic, but it does not achieve much."

Guest's work feels like a compilation of good ideas piggy-backed on haunting stories. 
In ten pithy chapters, Guest summarizes the ills and causes of the African milieu. He plunges into "Vampire State" describing Mugabe's reign of terror over Zimbabwe. Although Mugabe began much as a "Man of the People" reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's book, his story has deteriorated more dramatically. The vampire chapter concludes with an explanation of the man-made famine, (quoting the organizing secretary of the ruling party): "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don't want those extra people." (Zimbabwe's population was 12 million at that time.)

Mugabe is merely a representative of a cohort of despots who have pillaged their countries in the name of liberation and seem to have gotten away with it. From this low point of "freedom" stories, Guest moves on to "Digging Diamonds, Digging Graves". The gruesome blood diamond films and exposés are such a part of our awareness that the expression no longer needs explanation. That this chilling disregard for human life falls on the heels of not wanting "those extra people" should come as no surprise to us.

Then in three well-storied, hard-hitting chapters, Guest attacks communalism, fatalism and tribalism. "No Title," "Sex and Death" and "The Son of a Snake is a Snake" describe elements of African culture which, unbalanced, create precarious situations which can be manipulated by outsiders or clever insiders. Guest's genius is in capturing the ideas in memorable stories. "No Title" addresses the problem of lack of private property which John Hollaway addresses in "All Poor Together." While "Sex and Death" deals with the short term solution of prostitution to avoid starving at the risk of contracting AIDS. Such fatalism  is foreign to Westerners, thus it is confounding to anyone attempting to "help."

Many are the books condemning Western aid to Africa, and Guest's book is definitely in that category, though using a broader brush to paint a panorama. All African fail-stories are not the direct result of poorly implemented aid. But the tradition of Michael Maren (The Road to Hell) and Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) are upheld. While Maren's target is the insincerity of the aid business and their preoccupation with image, Guest points out the reality that even sincere attempts are fraught with danger. This kind of fix-it charity, throwing money at problems and not recognizing the brokenness out of which springs the "poverty" is toxic. His chapter "Fair Aid, Free Trade" addresses some possible solutions which donor countries have not considered, possibly because the price is too high, and charity is easier.

The final three chapters wrap up corruption, leap-frogging technology, and the hope of South Africa. Guest lays an array of success and failure illustrations designed to make us think. In pithy conclusions, he reminds us that we are not doomed to fail: "The lesson from Morogoro and Rufiji is that simple ideas rigorously applied, can yield dramatic results."

And this seems to be his "One Step at a Time" conclusion. There is plenty of hope for Africa, the richly endowed, colorful continent which at times is overshadowed by the pall of disparity and injustice. Keep it simple. Do it slowly.

Wise words--in simplicity is our strength. And haste is the enemy of perfection.

Monday, July 1, 2013


As he approaches the end of a most amazing life-marathon, Nelson Mandela assumes larger-than-life proportions. He is grandfather to a nation; a nation that looks to his hospital room, waits for news, and holds its collective breath. Mandela is a giant in a century of giants. He dwarfs the newsmakers and politicians, heads of state and celebrities. And he started the process from a prison cell, society's bottom rung. He lived the truth that hanging in there does make all the difference:
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”Accustomed to falling, Mandela taught us how to get up again.

These days, as he comes down the home stretch, I am reading his amazing autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom) and am impressed by the wisdom, grace, and humility of this man.

He says:
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” 

Our visit to Robben Island, his prison for 18 years of 27 years, was a pilgrimage for me of deep significance. Madiba, affectionately called by his clan name, is the prisoner most remembered of all the men incarcerated there. Everyone is familiar with his number, 466/64. The 466th prisoner admitted in 1964. The photos of the narrow cell with the stool, tin plate and cup, and bucket are familiar. His notoriety and later, fame, have lasted after other names faded. 

What makes Madiba so loved and so mourned, in anticipation of our collective loss? This question will occupy my heart thoughts for some time to come. Reading his books will help as well as talking with people whose lives were affected by his work, his dedication, and his leadership. But I suspect the way we feel about him has more to do with the character of the man. His deep humility and the grace he gave others so generously.

As I looked at the smallness of his cell, the thinness of his mat, the dents in his plate and cup, the humiliation of a bucket for his necessities, it struck me that those things were all outside of him. Very possibly he felt freedom even behind the bars and razor wire. He understood the prison of the mind that kept his captors imprisoned, and he resisted the urge to sink to demeaning others. Freedom is an internal thing, a reality he determined to live, and in so doing he taught a variegated nation that:

“. . . to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Mandela, feel free to linger as you overlook the vista of your life; your long walk is nearly over. You arrived at Freedom some time back and have been so gently trying to show us all that Freedom's door is wide open and all we have to do to enter is let go of what keeps us locked within ourselves--

In 17 days Madiba will turn 95.  His condition is critical, but he has accomplished so much else in his life journey, that whether he makes this milestone or not will not matter.