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Birth right

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2009 by Albert Gumbo

I was watching Private Sessions on The History Channel featuring Seal. During the interview, Seal was asked about whether he was surprised by the success of his first album. He, very modestly and without any arrogance, responded that he wasn’t. He proceeded to explain that he had long visualised that moment from the time he decided he was going to be a musician. At age 11, his teacher had asked him to sing a Johhny Nash classic, I Can See Clearly, at a school assembly. He says he sang with eyes closed, trembling inside but in the end there was applause. From that day on, he began to visualise himself as a successful musician. Not visualising it in the sense of forcing it to happen as some books seem to suggest, but simply believing that he could be it and visualising it as if it already was. He used the word ‘birth right’ several times to describe why he should be successful.

The next day, I watched the very opposite mindset in The Firing Line, a documentary on freelance news cameramen who risk their lives bringing us stories that often make a difference by alerting us to atrocities taking place the world over. Firstly, of course, one celebrates the courage of these men and women who follow the same strong dream that Seal describes in getting the story. Juxtaposed with this, however, are the stark stories they expose from the bombing of a UN school in Gaza, the conflict in the DRC, Orphans in Burma, conflict in South Ossetia to children branded as witches in Nigeria. The documentary features cameramen such as Rory Peck Award winners Kazbek Basayev, and Joost Van der Valk. There is a common thread of despair in the subjects being filmed that remind one of Maupassant’s characters. There is a woeful hopelessness in the documentaries. In one of the inserts, we witness an Afghan father selling off his son to a wealthy woman to save his other children from starvation. It is the second son he is selling. In Van Der Valk’s insert, it is the harrowing story of children branded as witches in the Niger Delta. Though the filming of these scenes raises public awareness, which leads to action being taken as a result of public pressure, one cannot help but wonder how many more societies are locked in the vicious cycle of conflict, poverty and ignorance far from the intervening eyes of determined cameramen. At a personal level, how many individuals are trapped in personal circumstances they would rather not be in? What is their birth right?

What is your birth right? Have you sat down and decided what you rightly deserve from life or are you, at best, a victim of circumstance? I was a guest speaker on Thursday last week at the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) national leadership training workshop in Johannesburg. I spoke to about 200 students from South African universities and their faculty advisors and told them about people like William Kamkwamba, who at 14 years old defied his dire circumstances to determine his destiny by building a windmill at his parents’ home in his village in Malawi. He simply acted upon his sense of choice and changed his life completely. Google him! Is everyone destined for greatness? Not in the materialistic sense of the word, I think not. However, I am of the belief that everyone can act upon their circumstances and move, even if it is for an inch, to step away from hopelessness. That one step, invariably leads to another which may or may not end up in success. Greatness is not in the outcome though. Rather, it is in the ability to and the act of making that effort to step out of the shadows. When you do that, you will find you are ‘lighting a candle, instead of cursing the darkness.’ It is all in the mind. It always has.

We can too!

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Thursday, November 6th, 2008 by Albert Gumbo

Studs Terkel a left leaning American journalist, author and actor died on 31 October 2008, aged 95, before he could see Barack Obama elected. The BBC, in tribute to him, had a rerun of his Hard Talk interview which I watched from my hotel room in Windhoek on the morning of November 4; the day the Americans were creating history with their biggest voter turnout on election day. 95% of African Americans, 63% of Latinos and 43% of white Americans voted for Barack Obama to make him the first African American President in American history. If you have been to the US and spoken to African Americans you will understand the significance of this election result. Let’s come back to that later.

First,  Studs Terkel. In his interview, one thing he said struck me the most out of all the gems that were gushing out of his mouth: “You must have a lover’s quarrel with the country you love. Not for what it is, but for what it can be.” Throughout his adult life, Terkel had a lover’s quarrel with his country as did Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and many others. One other person has just concluded such an argument: Barack Obama. I have not read his book, The Audacity of Hope, yet but what audacity for a first term African American senator to run for President, beating a big name Clinton along the way in the primaries and producing a result celebrated the world over. Every now and then, humanity reminds us that the biggest obstacles can be surmounted: Lewis Hamilton’s father took two jobs to support his son’s karting lessons because he had the audacity to believe his son could one day be formula one champion, so did Maria Sharapova’s father. The stories of Jesse Owens, Nelson Mandela and countless other inspirational people have repeated this truth over and over again: Nothing is impossible; the impossible only takes a little bit longer. From now on when we say, “do an Obama” we know that hope triumphs over pessimism.

I was in New York, Washington and Philadelphia in October last year and the word that I heard on most lips of African Americans, especially in Philadelphia, was “impossible” with reference to their social condition.  Escaping poverty was impossible, staying out of jail was impossible and getting a job was impossible and they all blamed it on the system. Well Barack took on the system and showed that it worked as you long you harnessed the audacity of hope and his first words in his acceptance speech reflected that very statement. He gave that moment on November 5, when he took to the stage, as proof that America works. The system is not the problem!

Mandela had a lovers’ quarrel with apartheid South Africa, Odinga with Kenya and Ian Khama is having one with SADC. Africa does not have enough lovers’ quarrels, it has too many wars inflicted on defenceless civilians. There is no romance in it, no fruit that follows the wars that have ravaged the continent and still continue to do periodically in various regions displacing millions of Africans and leaving wallowing in a perpetual cycle of violence and poverty. Enough already!

Wherefore art Africa’s lovers that we may quarrel as Barack Obama has done? Where is the vision fulfilled of Mandela, Lumumba, Nkrumah, Kaunda and Khama? Who are the quarrelsome lovers who will stand and put us back on the track to development and an honoured place among the peoples of the world? Are they all in prison or under surveillance? Have we become comfortable with amassing wealth at the expense of our brothers and sisters? Who will create wealth for the commonwealth of Africans? How did Singapore do it? Where is the leadership with the audacity of hope? Barack Obama lit “a candle instead of cursing the darkness.” It is time for Africa to do the same.  There can, no longer, be the excuse of slavery, colonialism, the north vs the south or even the illuminati. There can only be hope and that hope can only come from the lovers in us who love Africa enough to want to quarrel with her. We have said many a time, Africa’s time has come. It’s time we made it happen. Barack will be a President for America, as he rightly should. Africa must grow its own visionary leaders. Somebody once said: “the first time something bad happens to you, you are a victim. The third, fourth time it happens, you are a volunteer.”

Shall we have a lovers’ quarrel?