Sunday 20 March 2016

Thank you, Asenath Hatch Nicholson

The Oxford Biography Index calls her a “social observer and philanthropist”.  Asenath Hatch Nicholson wrote the Annals of the Famine in Ireland which was published in 1851.
She had previously published Welcome to the Stranger in 1847, a valuable record of Ireland on the eve of the Famine.  That is the account of her “first missionary journey” to Ireland in 1844 and 1845 which began when she left New York to “personally investigate the condition of the Irish poor” (her own words).  This is an important “baseline study” because the purpose of that first visit was to distribute Bibles and read Scripture to the illiterate – not food aid.  The background to this ministry is that she had been working with Irish immigrants in Brooklyn and felt a calling to go there as a missionary.  In her days in New York she had been involved in both the Abolition and the Temperance movements. A broken marriage may have triggered her decision to “move on”?
In those days, being a Protestant “Bible reader” in a predominantly Catholic setting was regarded as proselytizing.  She would distribute copies of the Bible to those who could read, and read the Bible to those who could not.  Worse yet, Protestants were not generally supportive of her democratic ideals, including her being a 100% vegetarian.  She was seen as something of a maverick – an American missionary to the Irish peasantry.  She complained that people stared at her!  After her first missionary journey to Ireland she left for Scotland in 1845.  The emergence of the potato famine only started later that year.
She seemed to be the right person in the right place at the right time.  She had now extensively traveled throughout Ireland and was busy generating a manuscript for her first book.  Meanwhile her on-going correspondence had established a rapport with mission agencies and the Christian press.  These contacts allowed her to appeal for relief aid as she started her second missionary journey to Ireland by setting up a soup kitchen in Dublin in late 1847.  Soon some money and gifts-in-kind began to arrive in response to her personal appeals.  As so often happens, church and non-state actors arrived at the scene of a disaster first and did what they could, followed in due course by government aid on a grander scale.
Church aid arrived on the same ships out of New York that brought hers, for the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends, but Nicholson preferred to operate individually.  She herself walked through Dublin every morning distributing slices of bread - not Bibles this time.  Unlike the Quakers, she did not charge even a symbolic price, as she was targeting the poorest of the poor.  She figured that £10 divided among 100 beneficiaries helped no one, so she tried to make a regular difference a target group.
By 1847 the government’s Soup Kitchen Act (i.e. Temporary Relief Act) had kicked in, and she had finished her first manuscript.  While it was being published, she followed the Quaker’s lead of closing its Soup Kitchen in deference to government’s aid scheme, and she began to visit the “interior” of Ireland again.  It is from this period in Dublin and the famine-stricken West that her second book was drafted - Annals of the Famine in Ireland.  It also came to be published – four years after her first book, in 1851.  Her combined correspondence and publishing were a platform from which she pleaded the case (in today’s jargonese) for Development being a higher good than Relief, and for “Trade not Aid”.  She argued this case with other philanthropists like English Quaker William Bennett.  Her appeals were not only to friends and the public, but to government, which she also rebuked for corruption and its insensitivity.  She regarded volunteer relief workers, coast guardsmen and missionaries as being much more sensitive and effective than bureaucratic government aid workers.
She herself lived frugally on bread and cocoa, and lamented loudly the diversion of grain to distilleries.
One important feature of her Annals is a record of how poor people helped one another.  In fact, her Annals is really the third part of Lights and Shades of Ireland which she published at the end of her second missionary journey in London, in 1850.  By then she thought the famine was over, but it recurred until 1852.

This week, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated including the famous parade in New York.  America has a huge Irish contingent which has made its mark.  Many of these are descendants of people who left Ireland fleeing the famine.
But one maverick New Yorker left for Ireland on a personal mission of love which turned into a mission of mercy.  Her work combines elements that are all dear to C4L – Bibles, literacy, disaster management, public engagement, fundraising, and writing books.  These are all part of what we do or have done at C4L and we do it in the same spirit of “taking it personally” (i.e. small is beautiful) and yet working with other actors, while rebuking government at times, especially for corruption and insensitivity.
On a personal note, my own forefathers still lived in the West of Ireland at the time of Nicholson’s two missionary journeys.  Maybe she visited them?  Only later in the 19th century did my great-grandfather O’Dowda emigrate to Canada.  Thus the “thank you” in the title - to this role-model maverick missionary, Asenath Hatch Nicholson.  She is the latest to join the C4L blogsite on Role Models.
Americans have a special place in their heart for the Irish, and Ireland reciprocates.  The feeling is mutual.    She is one reason why.
Mission work has changed a lot over the centuries.  But as the French say, as everything changes, everything remains the same.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Putting Out the Fire of Craving

I can remember when former President George Bush announced a $15-billion gift to fund the fight against HIV and AIDS.  It was billed as the biggest single donation ever made.  As noted by commentators on World Aids Day this week, there is no question that a disease that was once regarded as a death sentence is now being managed by millions who are “living positively”.

Then came The Giving Pledge with two of the world’s richest men (Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) pledging to give away half of their respective fortunes, and challenging other millionaires and billionaires to do the same.

So when Mark Zuckerberg this week announced that 99 percent of his Facebook fortune will be allocated to social investments, I was surprised at the reactions.  The mechanism that he chose was critiqued by some from a tax angle – but who doesn’t look at tax deductibility when making a donation?  Without suggesting that it should always be a factor in the Giving equation, there is little question that most givers like a tax deductible receipt when donating to charity.

Also Zuckerberg’s choice of a social investment mechanism that will allow profits to be generated is not so uncommon these days.  For example, “poverty lending” schemes have to charge interest to keep themselves sustainable.  We don’t all have to take an oath of poverty like St Francis did in order to serve the poor.  Nor is there any shame in doing so, by the way.

Some people pointed out that even the remaining 1 percent comes to about $500 million, so it’s not like he is impoverishing himself.  This sounded a lot like jealousy to me!

Also, no one mentioned the fact that he made this fortune by launching a SOCIAL tool, in the social media.  Facebook is hugely inter-personal and relational and Zuckerberg deserves credit for that – he didn’t just sell widgets.  He brought people together, strengthened our social fabric and softened borders.  In short, he changed the way the world works.

How much is enough?

Last year, C4L launched a blogsite by this name – with a lot of musings on philanthropy and missions.  It has had about 1200 site visits since then, so we are holding forth. This site has just been re-launched.

Zuckerberg’s initial forays into philanthropy are already mentioned on that site, and this C4L Bulletin will soon be uploaded.  One bulletin that comes to mind is Affluence Extremism and another is Viva Contentment, Gratitude and Moderation.  The Giving Pledge is mentioned along with a flotilla of 35 articles on Voluntarism, Volunteering, Altruism, and the Nonprofit Sector.

The question “How much is enough?” is a bit like “How long is a piece of string?” in the sense that there is no fixed answer.  But a few other bulletin titles may point the direction that it goes in: Affluent people have a debt to pay, Gain the whole world and lose your soul, Charity begins at home, Unambiguously pro-poor, Putting it back, Living the paradox, The best way to give, Responsibility and complicity, Mendicancy, Disaster Watch, Kind-blameless-pure-astute.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s studies arose from the work place, not from research on poverty or inequality.  His pyramid is well-known, with a wide base of “survival needs” at entry level.  The logic rises through other needs to a fifth level called “self-realization” – for example in continuing education to fulfil aspirations that were latent on your way up the ladder.

Long after Maslow, a sixth tier was added.  That is, the need to give back to the system from which your success emerged, and to say Thank You to it.  This resonates with The Giving Pledge.

Extinguishing the fire

At the root of Buddhism are the life experiences of Siddhartha Gautama.  He was heir to a kingdom but too troubled by inequality and the problem of suffering to want to assume royal responsibilities.  Discontent affected the rich too, not just the poor – in the form of greed.

Gautama concluded that no matter what anguish affects you, your mind experiences dissatisfaction or craving.  In English we sometimes refer to “need” as “want”.  For some, this is soul-numbing poverty and hunger.  For others, it is the restlessness arising from the need for love or even meaning.  Gautama probed ways to exit this perpetual angst, this constant chasing after fulfilment.  He found that Enlightenment helped to melt away the craving – simply understanding the angst for what it is, addresses it.  In Harari’s words:

“But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving?  To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain?  Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving…
“He instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke the fire of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth).  When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’).”

I don’t know about you?  But when I hear of a wealthy family placing 99 percent of their riches into an entity devoted to “advancing human potential and promoting equality for all children in the next generation”, I get the sense that the fire of craving has burned out.  In the priceless lyrics of Dylan:

 Once I was wading in fortune and fame

Everything that I dreamed of to get a start in life’s game

But suddenly it happened, I lost every dime

But I'm richer by far with a satisfied mind.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Don’t Be Evil

Today a million people are marching in Paris.  I can’t be there, so my act of solidarity is writing this C4L Bulletin…

South Africa hosted the United Nations Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Intolerance in Durban in 2001.  It generated a 61-page Declaration in 219 clauses.  You can find it on Google, although you couldn’t Google at that time.  An aside is that Google’s unofficial slogan when it went public in 2004 was “Don’t be evil”.  In case you missed it - access to information shines light into darkness.

I have thought a lot about this theme since first reading Jean-Paul Sarte’s Anti-Semite and Jew when I was at university.  I had grown up in colonial Africa, and seen the harsh Belgian system.  I also saw that it was unsustainable.  After completing my education in Canada, decades later, I returned to Africa to work as a missionary.  First behind the iron curtain in Angola, then in socialist Zimbabwe, and for the past 21 years in the free and democratic South Africa.

The xenophobia outbreaks of 2008 in South Africa were a wake-up call.  Intolerance is scary when it characterizes the large majority, in any setting.  Affirmative action in South Africa is close to that edge – attitudinally it can and does go wrong at times.  That is why all opposition parties critique it, even those on the New Left.  Only the ruling alliance keeps it going, and one has to wonder why?

Charlie Hebdo Blues

In an SAPA article in the Mail and Guardian called “MJC: Freedom of speech should not lead to hate speech” the Muslim Judicial Council condemns the attacks in Paris, but says there must be limits to freedom of expression.  The article concludes with the following three paragraphs:

“In May 2010, South African satirist Jonathan Shapiro, widely known as Zapiro, raised controversy when he depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon. The cartoon showed Muhammad lying on a couch complaining to a psychiatrist: “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour!”

“A meeting was subsequently held between the Mail and Guardian newspaper that published the cartoon and Muslim community members. Then-editor Nic Dawes later said that the newspaper regretted the offence caused by the cartoon and that it had decided to review its editorial policy on religion, especially where it concerned the Prophet Muhammad.

“Later, Zapiro himself responded by publishing another cartoon, in which he drew himself on the same therapist’s couch and poured his heart out on the difficulties of censorship on religious grounds.”

In another article in today’s City Press called “Treading the tight line of tolerance”, Ferial Haffajee describes the fall-out at the M&G where she also worked at the time.  She felt the heat again when she published cartoons made by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, to illustrate how protests were spreading across Europe.  She writes:

“We do not offend each other on religious grounds.  South Africa has decided, in weighting its rights, that religious rights trump the right to free expression.  Unlike the French, many South Africans are deeply religious – prayer and worship are the most common practices across class and race.”

Then she describes the next surge of heat they took at City Press for publishing The Spear, a Leninesque portrait of President Zuma partially naked.  As she put it “Damnation rained upon us…”

“Our society would not countenance a Charlie Hebdo here – if there was one, it would not survive commercially, and would be subject to court and other civic action.

“But in our other national spirit, that of debate, I must ask: have we overcorrected for our past and do we risk sacrificing free expression?”

Then she comes close to the present:

“At the end of last year, in the middle of the season of goodwill, President Jacob Zuma’s praise singer singled out Zapiro, me, City Press and Julius Malema as enemies of the state.

“Malema is a political opponent, not an enemy; City Press is a media title; and Zapiro and I are journalists, not enemies.

“This week’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the slaying of colleagues there have opushed me further away from our national consensus and the ways we have chosen to limit free expression.

“I understand and appreciate that consensus, but I no longer support it…”

The Economist has repeatedly rung warning bells about what can happen to a country when affirmative action favours the large majority.  This is unpacked in a M&G article by William Gumede called “Honest politics needed to slay racism dragon”.  It concludes with these five paragraphs:

“To slay the racism dragon demands more honest politics from black leaders, less opportunism in using the race card for self-enrichment and more ethical behaviour. African leaders and governments must govern in the interest of all, rather than a small elite, whether it is their “ethnic” group, region, political faction or party.

“Black communities and countries need to hold leaders more accountable for their actions.

“Cornel West, a noted American scholar on race, rightly argues that we must “replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics”.

“The challenge for South Africa and Africans is not to embrace leaders because they shout the loudest against racism, the continuing effect of colonialism or imperialism, but then go on to use racism to hide their own incompetence, personal self-enrichment and oppression of their own black people.

“Unless we do this, blacks in Africa will forever get the same useless, incompetent and self-interested leaders and governments that will perpetuate a continual cycle of black poverty and underdevelopment, helping to reinforce racism against black people and countries.”

Racism is a near and present danger in America as well as Europe and the Middle East - not just in Africa.  How can society tolerate intolerance?

I end on a personal note, in our provincial setting.  A decade ago, C4L echoed – in provincial forums - the courageous national voice of Zakkie Achmat in calling on government to roll out ARVs.  We raised our voice again about morality and leadership when Zuma staged a comeback.  In 2011, C4L did a poster campaign to raise awareness about the January Murders, which had started in 1998.  Seventeen young leaders were lost – not in one massacre like at Charlie Hedblo, but year after year.  Relentlessly, always in January, and always for whistle blowing.  A death squad.  In 2012 we reported corruption in the province’s roll-out of the Community Work Programme (CWP).    This is still with the Hawks, the Public Protector and the High Court.  In 2014 C4L’s first short-term objective was to promote more youth in Parliament.  This succeeded and the results are graphic.  Now we are lobbying that ending poverty and unemployment means ending inequality first.  None of this sits well with the rich and powerful.  The risks to C4L are there.  For example, C4L has been burgled four times in the past month, diminishing its capability.  The police didn’t even bother to come the last time we called them...  I end with the last sentence of Ferial Haffajee’s article:

“But now I want to talk about the right to free speech and how to expand it, not limit it, and how to burnish it and keep it bright.”

Long live Charlie Hebdo!  Vive la France libre!

Tuesday 30 December 2014

This Makes me MADD

These excerpts are clipped from a Canadian book about Social Innovation:

“In 1980 Candy Lightner’s twelve-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver – a repeat offender. Brought to trial, the driver was reprimanded and released.

“In her 1990 memoir, Giving Sorrow Words she wrote: “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead.”

“Lightner was certainly not the first mother to be outraged about lenient drunk-driving laws that returned chronic drunks to the streets. Even in 1980, when her daughter was killed, the statistics were well known and widely publicized. Drunk driving was the major cause of traffic fatalities in North America. In fact, it remains the single largest criminal cause death in Canada, where approximately 1,500 people are killed each year as a result of impaired driving, a number about three times higher than the country’s murder rate. The situation is worse in the United States.

“Following her daughter’s death, Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“It has been said that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. It is clear that the time was right for Lightner’s initiative. The fledgling organization that she founded took wing on currents that bore it upward.”

In today’s City Press, Mphonyane Mofokeng, chair of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance wrote about a new government initiative to combat alcohol abuse:

 “Binge drinking is the norm in South Africa.  A recent WHO report rates this country fourth on the list of places with the riskiest drinking.  The report says 16% of the alcohol consumers in the country are heavy drinkers, and 41.2% of them are women.

“Research indicates 12% of people start drinking at the age of 13… Young adults were also the most common victims of fatal violence.”

“The state ultimately shoulders the responsibility of this drinking behaviour.”

“It is not about the state playing nanny.  If there is no direct intervention to curb easy access to and the excessive use of alcohol, South Africa’s young population will feel the impact for generations to come.”

These are not the words of a white, older, foreign male.  They were written by a younger, black, South African woman.  In fact, another even younger South African woman - named Zodwa Ntuli - has been appointed to lead government’s drive to tighten alcohol regulations in line with international standards.  One measure is to increase the legal age for consumption - from 18 to 21.

“Substance abuse is a massive problem and liquor, unlike most drugs, is readily and easily available.  When kids start experimenting, they start with alcohol because it’s available.

“We’re not becoming a nanny state.  We are responding to real issues that affect everyone at work, in communities and in families.”

Over the past decade, I have written passionately about other social evils in South Africa, such as:

  • Government failure to roll out ARV distribution (C4L protested to the Global Fund in Geneva, and SANAC had to redress its distorted allocation of resources)

  • Mpumalanga murders that started in 1998 (C4L did a poster campaign in mid-2011 and there has not been another whistle-blower shot in any January since 2011)

  • Triumphalism, corruption and waste

  • Inequality and unemployment especially among Mpumalanga youth

To sum up - as a social innovator myself (like Candy Lightner) - I know a social evil when I see one.

So both C4L programming and its Bulletins (like this one) are going to echo this theme more in the coming months.  I am not in favour of affirmative action in its BEE form, but I would like to see another kind of affirmative action – in favour of the families and loved ones who get hurt because of alcohol abuse.  Zero tolerance of drinking and driving is needed to reduce the number of road fatalities.  Also, domestic abuse is so often linked to alcoholism.  Let’s stop blaming the victims and make the perpetrators answer for their crimes.

For some of you, this may seem like déjà vu.  But especially among youth in South Africa, there is need for awareness raising and behaviour change.

Back to Candy Lightner in closing:

“The goal of MADD was to reduce drunk-driving traffic fatalities and the proportion of traffic fatalities that are alcohol related has dropped 40 percent over the last quarter-century. Most observers give substantial credit for that decline to the efforts of MADD.

Since its start in 1980, more than 2,300 anti-drunk-driving laws have been passed.

In a 1994 study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, MADD was the most popular non-profit cause in the United States, ranked second among the most strongly supported charities and third on the most credible list.

“Eight years after she had founded it, she left the organization in a widely publicized display of anger. She left because MADD changed its goal, becoming far more prohibitionist than she wanted or supported. “I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol,” she said. “I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Hey, Who's That Girl?

That was more or less what Boaz said when he walked into his barley field to check on the harvest.  Over the years, I have interpreted this favourite chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth variously.  This reflects to some extent contextual changes as well as changes in my life and work.

1. Refugee work

I first noticed this chapter, which is almost a one-act play, when I was living in Zimbabwe during the 1980s.  There were so many Mozambican widows crossing the border for refuge at the time, as their men engaged in that proxy war.  Like Ruth leaving her land of Moab and coming to Israel, leaving a series of disasters behind her.

I even preached from this chapter at times, as a way of unpacking what was happening, and the need for those with resources to provide mechanisms to show mercy.  Gleaning was the Hebrew mechanism, a form of charity.  Relief agencies are a modern equivalent, and I was working for World Vision at the time.  The problem was that in refugee camps, the widows could not do much to receive the benefits of charity, which I found degrading.  So we explored other options like food-for-work projects that still helped the needy without robbing them of their dignity.

2. Volunteering and Voluntarism

In the next decade, after the Cold War ended and apartheid with it, the focus was on building Democracy, participation, inclusion… My practice as an NGO consultant (“helping development organizations with organization development”) in the 1990s was one of the roots of C4L as a resource centre for nonprofits, beginning in 1999.

In morning meditations at C4L training events, I would often read this beloved chapter and apply it differently.  All those in the work place are contributors, whether paid managers or unpaid volunteers.  Gleaning may be a mechanism of charity, but it also serves an agricultural purpose in the scheme of crop rotation.  If Boaz was going to plant another crop in that field during the next season, this would avoid having barley popping up where ever the grain has fallen to the ground during the harvest.  So what every person contributes is important, no matter how insignificant they may feel.   In fact, for a Human Resources meditation - in any sector not just for nonprofits - the drama of the Book of Ruth chapter 2 is useful and instructive.

3. The Rainbow Nation

During my two decades living in South Africa, into the new millennium, themes like non-racialism and xenophobia have been recurrent.  One could always turn to this chapter for inspiration.  Unlike the much stricter Nehemiah, who tore people’s hair out for inter-marrying with other races and culture, the message of the Book of Ruth is unambiguous.  Ruth was not Jewish, but that didn’t matter to Boaz.  By the same token, Ruth bought into the local culture, being a cultural relativist, not an enclave of Moabites in Bethlehem.  In this she was incarnational.

4. Age-disparate Romance

Now some of you will laugh!  I don’t know whether Boaz was a bachelor, a widower or a divorcee, it doesn’t say?  But it is clear that he was older and wealthier than Ruth.  One thing is for sure, though… it certainly didn’t take Boaz long once he arrived (fashionably late) to notice her.  Did he have that much of an eye for detail?  Or was she just drop-dead gorgeous?  I’ll ask him when I meet him one day, this intrigues me.

In 2004, Save the Children published a study of research in Malawi called Cross-generational relationships: using a ‘Continuum of Volition’ in HIV prevention work among young people.  It concluded: “rather than defining cross-generational relationships as inherently problematic, it is important to understand the choices (or lack of choices) that young women have in their own communities.”  Ruth could have told them that, three thousand years earlier.

By lunch break, Boaz invites Ruth to eat with him and his workers. She stuffs herself full of bread and wine (she's poor and hungry, remember?).  Then when Ruth leaves to go glean some more (she been at this all day; the young lady is a hard worker), Boaz tells his workers that she is allowed to take some non-charity grain as well. Was he just being altruistic?  Or did he already have a crush on her?

Graca Machel married a man almost 30 years older than herself when he was almost 80.  She and Nelson Mandela still got on like a house on fire, as did Boaz and Ruth… who eventually became the grandparents to King David.  What better endorsement could you get than that?!

5. Inequality

Unemployment is a kind of inequality, because the others have jobs.  Poverty is a manifestation of inequality because the others are wealthy.  So I am not sure there is a “triple conundrum” – the lowest common denominator is inequality.

In its Medium-Term Strategic Framework 2014-2019 (MTSF), the government has lambasted as “offensive” those who show off their wealth.  Josephilda Nhlapo-Hlophe, outcomes facilitator for the presidency’s department of planning, wrote the social cohesion section of the MTSF document.  Get this!

“Many times we see people who we know do not work or have any access to income and suddenly, the person is driving a flashy car. The question people will ask is: ‘Where does that person get this money from?’

“This person might not be a good role model for young kids who think getting flashy things is more important than hard work and the contributions they are making to society. We are trying to build a citizen who knows you get rewarded for working hard.”

Makes you wonder if Boaz arrived at the barley field that day driving his Mazerati, or what?

It is that kind of insensitivity that led Karl Marx to famously comment: “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”  Well, then what?  In my view, scientific Socialism failed miserably to improve the quality of life.  I lived and worked in Angola and Mozambique before the end of the Cold War.  I walked into so many stores with empty shelves, they didn’t have food to sell, let alone rope!  The answers lie rather in the example of Boaz, and three comments from our time:

“Warren Buffett wrote: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Pope Francis wrote: “These days there is a lot of poverty in the world, and that’s a scandal when we have so many riches and resources to give to everyone. We all have to think about how we can become a little poorer.”

Mamphela Ramphele wrote: “South Africa does not have a poverty problem. Poverty is a result of denialism of the way corruption taxes poor people, the inefficiencies that undermine poor people’s opportunities and our refusal to admit that we are part of the problem.”

Monday 15 December 2014

The Bible and the Almanac

We lament the departure of this great artist and human being yesterday.

When Seeger wrote If I had a hammer in 1949, Bono was but a twinkle in his father's eye.
But that song has become like our International anthem.

I wrote the tribute below in 2007 - to my own father on the occasion of his winning of the
Order of Canada for humanitarian service. It was never before posted as a C4L Bulletin, so
this is not a re-run. All I can say is this gives you some idea of the stature of Pete Seeger -
the yardstick against which I measure greatness.


In the 1940s, two musical groups were formed which would have a great influence on my
life. One was called the Med's Gospel Team, in Canada, because the members were all
studying medicine. One of the team members would later get married and become my father.
The other was called the Almanac Singers, in the USA, which included Pete Seeger and
Woodie Guthrie. Obviously the emphasis of these groups differed – one was evangelistic and
the other was social/cultural. The better known group (by far) had chosen its name out of its
belief that most farm homes had two books – a Bible and an almanac.

Maybe this explains why my two favorite forms of music are hymns and protest songs? I
love to hear my father playing hymns on the piano, and I still agree with Pete Seeger's
comment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – when he said he wished that he had an axe to
cut the cord of Bob Dylan's microphone! This because Dylan had just been accompanied by
the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and no one could hear the message in his music.

As a young man, Pete Seeger embraced the conviction that songs are a way of binding people
to a cause. John and Charles Wesley were the minister and the musician that launched
Methodism. Seeger's father - a music academic - wrote that the necessary question to ask
was not “Is it good music?” but “What is the music good for?”

Pete Seeger's influence is amazing. Dylan was not just Seeger's heir apparent, perhaps more
of his legitimization. Johnny Cash was but a teen idol until he re-recorded his song Folsom
Prison Blues in a new setting – not in a concert hall or recording studio, but live at Folsom
Prison. Songs like Man in Black, that influenced me personally, put deeper meaning in the
music and that placed Cash (the other JC in my life) in a whole new league. He in turn
influenced others - like Bono, who in the Cash tradition usually dresses in black. And Bruce
Springsteen, who was asked to record a tribute album to Seeger in 1997. In the end, he
recorded but did not include the song that has surely influenced my life more than any other...
it just asserted itself too forcefully among the others in his collection:

It's the hammer of justice

It's the bell of freedom

It's the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters

All over this land

No wonder Bono would be named Man of the Year by TIME magazine, for following
Seeger's lyrical advice - and example. I have certainly tried to live my life in alignment to
these lyrics. Recently, Seeger was introduced at a “pro bono” school concert with these
words: “He's probably the person who's done more for this country than anyone I can think

You need both spirituality and activism – Bible and almanac. Upon graduation from medical
school, the members of the Med's Gospel Team all became medical missionaries. They
headed for three continents - into Ecuador, Zambia and China. However, en route to China
my father stopped in Europe to study tropical medicine. During that year (1949) the Bamboo
Curtain came down and missionaries were no longer able to enter. So he diverted to the
Belgian Congo, where I was born.

The principle that both groups shared is that all human beings are created equal. In the mid-
20th century, this meant either you could either become a missionary or a socialist – Bible or
almanac, I suppose. The medical missionaries exerted huge influence in remote parts of the
Third World. Meanwhile, Seeger got called up before Congress's Un-American Activities
Committee. For pleading the First Amendment (not the Fifth) he was indicted for contempt
of Congress, but this was later overturned by an appeals court. Advocacy is seen by many as
a higher calling than service provision, but it often comes at a cost in terms of your
reputation. But having a bad reputation does not always mean that you lose your influence.
Medical missionaries in countries that joined the Second World (communist bloc) often lost
their reputation when they were called reactionaries, but this seldom diminished their

Here is a story recorded by Alec Wilkinson in the New Yorker (April 17, 2006). It is told by
a man named John Cronin, who is the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment, at
Pace University. Cronin has known Seeger for thirty years. “About two winters ago, on
Route 9 outside Beacon, one winter day, it was freezing – rainy and slushy, a miserable
winter day – the war in Iraq is just heating up and the country's in a poor mood,” Cronin said.
“I'm driving north, and on the other side of the road, I see from the back a tall, slim figure in
a hood and coat. I'm looking, and I can tell it's Pete. He's standing there all by himself, and
he's holding up a big piece of cardboard that clearly has something written on it. Cars and
trucks are going by him. He's getting wet. He's holding the homemade sign above his head –
he's very tall, and his chin is raised the way he does when he sings – and he's turning the sign
in a semi-circle, so that the drivers can see it as they pass, and some people are honking and
waving at him, and some people are giving him the finger. He's eighty-four years old. I
know he's got some purpose, of course, but I don't know what it is. What struck me is that,
whatever his intentions are, and obviously he wants people to notice what he's doing, he
wants to make an impression – anyway, whatever they are, he doesn't call the newspapers and
say, “I'm Pete Seeger, here's what I'm going to do.” He doesn't cultivate publicity. That isn't
what he does. He's far more modest than that. He would never make a fuss. He's just
standing out there in the cold and the sleet like a scarecrow. I go a little bit down the road, so
that I can turn and come back, and when I get him in view again, this solitary and elderly
figure, I see that what he's written on the sign is Peace.”

Advocacy is legitimized by social activism. It is important to be out there, doing your part,
not just speaking on talk shows and stuff. Which brings me to the purpose of writing these
reflections. My father is almost as old as Pete Seeger, and he is still an activist too. Already
in 2007 he has spent two months overseas, helping out his favorite cause. It was good to
observe him back in a position of influence – helping to bring about intellectual and
attitudinal change...

But best of all, for a career that has included both overseas and domestic health service, and
for his example of serving others through faith-based organizations, he was awarded the
Order of Canada this month. This is the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed on a
citizen, and he deserves it.

This month also, TIME magazine released its annual issue containing the 100 most influential
people in the world. I was wondering how many of those listed will have the staying power
of these two personal heroes of mine - one who taught me to revere the Bible, and the other
who wrote protest songs for the Almanac Singers? To love my neighbor, and to hammer out
injustice. If only two of the 100 can do so, the world will be a better place for our

Sunday 30 November 2014


What is it like for a person to be "selfless"?

Marya Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867.  Like Nelson Mandela, she was born in one century, and died in the next - in a new and different era.  That change in their respective settings and centuries could be attributed largely to the influence each of them exerted in their sphere

Like Mandela, Marya came from a disadvantaged background.  She too was a single orphan, she lost her mother as a child, whereas Mandela lost his father.  But compared to Mandela - who enjoyed the limelight - Marya cherished privacy.  Later in life, when she won her second Nobel prize, her husband stated that the media attention that this attracted was the worst thing that had ever happened to them!

Mandela’s life took a turn when he moved to the big city of Johannesburg.  In Marya’s case, the sea change came when she got to Paris.  Both of them spent their first few years completing their studies and struggling to get established in their respective professions – he as a lawyer and she as a scientist.  In their cities, they each got married – Nelson to Evelyn and Marya to Pierre Curie.  So she became better known by her francophone name Marie and her married name Curie.  She has come to be known, in fact, as Madame Curie.  Yet I have never known of a person who was more selfless:

  • After finishing high school she put her own education on hold and worked to put her older sister through college.  After graduating from medical school, her sister reciprocated
  • She practiced an austerity that verged on self-denial.  She rented small rooms that were so sparsely furnished that she didn’t even hang pictures on the wall!
  • With a wedding gift she received, she bought two bicycles that she and her groom used for the honeymoon – pedaling through the countryside of France
  • She worked in abysmal conditions, far beyond the limits of normal working hours - all for the sake of her passion for scientific research
  • She declined to patent any of her discoveries or inventions, leaving them instead to posterity for the advancement of science
  • She shared much of her prize money with others in need, in part to establish two radium research institutes – in Paris and Warsaw
  • She worked behind the front lines of battle in World War I training 150 X-ray technicians to use this new diagnostic tool that she had developed to locate bullets and shrapnel for removal from wounded soldiers
  • She exposed herself to radioactivity levels that shortened her life.  She died of leukemia induced by overexposure, before her time

She was the first women ever to be awarded a PhD in France.  And the first woman ever to win a Nobel prize.  And the first person ever to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences – Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911).

In this respect, the parallel to Nelson Mandela refers.  At Marie Curie’s time in France, it was unthinkable for a woman to even be nominated for a Nobel laureate.  In fact, she wasn’t – her husband and another scientist (Henri Becquerel) were.  But in more liberal Sweden, the Nobel committee awarded her the prize nevertheless, realizing that she was being discriminated against.  Who could have dreamed that after 3 decades of incarceration, Mandela would become President?  Both scenarios were breathtaking – and rooted in selflessness.  Justice and “the beauty of science” were paramount to them.

One irony is that Alfred Nobel himself had made his personal fortune from discovering and patenting dynamite.  Upon his death, he bequeathed that fortune to fund the Nobel prizes.  Either one of Marie Curie’s discoveries could have been patented far beyond the value of dynamite – Xray and radioactivity.  (It was she, in fact, who coined that word “radioactivity” to describe what she had discovered.)  Yet she declined to register patents for the sake of “pure science” for its own sake.  Excellence is its own reward.

“True grit” is part of selflessness as well.  Mandela toughed it out in prison for 27 years for the cause he championed.  He did hard labour in the lime quarry on Robben Island.  Like Marie Curie, his own health was affected by his exposure – in his case, to the fine dust, that damaged his tear ducts.

As for Marie, it is almost inconceivable just how much physical work she did!  Processing uranium ore (pitchblende) to refine polonium and later radium is painstaking, time-consuming hard labour.  In this, she was her own prisoner.  The final product turned out to be one-millionth the volume that you start with (compared to one litre of maple syrup which is boiled down from 30 litres of tree sap!)  Imagine – one million to one… processed by one person working by herself for about 4 years.  It was back breaking work.  Marie’s resolve is epitomized in this quote… she said: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” 

She was also very loyal – for example, naming Polonium after her beloved homeland. 

Albert Einstein said: “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”  In this, her selflessness is also similar to Mandela’s – whose movement became horribly corrupt after his voluntary retirement.

Which makes me wonder…

Have we lost an appreciation for virtues like selflessness, zealous resolve, prudence, and tenacious loyalty?

Have these been corrupted into attitudes like self-preservation, cynicism, a preoccupation with credentials and track records, and fashion crazes?

At the root of Corruption are bad attitudes.  Let us adopt role-models that serve as mirrors.