Posted on 2/1/16
by Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor
African Peace Journal
Those who can, do. Those who can do more, volunteer. — Author Unknown
I was at a Christmas dinner with some friends last year when a conversation about why people volunteer came up. I recall defending my position as a poor intern who has time and not enough money to volunteer but does so anyway.
One friend expressed that many people would like to volunteer but have neither the time not the money to do such a thing. He then concluded by stating that volunteering was a form of ‘privilege’ because it was certainly the wealthy who are seen doing such things.
This conversation triggered a memory of another conversation I had had with a few friends about a year earlier where I had expressed my shock when in South Sudan, locals named me, “Kawaja”, ‘white woman’, in the Muro language. We had debated on why it is that volunteering is viewed by many as a sign of affluence or privilege, where it is the perceived “haves” who go and give their extras to those who “have not”.
At the same time, we debated on issues of why it is that white people who volunteer are perceived to be the ‘privileged’ while black people, or Africans, are constantly perceived to be the “have‐nots” at the receiving end of the privileged white population.
This triggered a sore core from conversation with my parents who did not understand why I insisted on doing things I certainly can not afford to have been doing, and that I constantly need to raise funds from other people in order to accomplish my volunteering “stints” as I am sure they perceived them.
To be honest, I have wondered on this issue for a while now and I am seeing many discussions surrounding this dynamic very frequently. I am not sure if I have settled the matter in my head as yet, but what I do know for sure is that there is no human being who has nothing to give. Kindness comes from a heart filled with gratitude and contentment. If we always want more than we have, we will never have enough for ourselves and thus never have enough to share. If we never make time to share then we will always run out of time to do what is most important.
We like to pride ourselves as a people who live by democratic principles but we pick and choose which principles of democracy suit us best at a given moment.
I refuse to believe that the majority of us like to see people suffer and if that is the case then there ought to be more of us out there giving whatever there is of ourselves to a world that suffers in want of compassion. After all, as another unknown author wrote, “volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy”.
You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote everyday about the community you want to live in. When we set our minds on how much it costs to be kind, then we have lost the plot of what it means to be human .
Some of my favourite words by the apostle Paul are, “Be kind to one another, tender‐hearted…”. A tender heart is a grateful heart, it is one that recognizes privilege no matter how small. In the end, if there is a person who is in a worse off situation than you, near you or far from you, there arises the opportunity to be tender-hearted.
There is a Shona tribal proverb from my ancestral birth country of Zimbabwe that says, “nhamo yemumwe hairambirwe sadza”, which means one cannot shrug off his privilege or food just because someone else suffers.
I am by no means implying that we must all sell whatever we have and give to the poor, not everyone has been asked to do that, and surely one cannot become poor in order to help the poor, that is counter-productive and perhaps absurd.
My point is that our measure of poverty is amis.
We measure poverty in monetary terms and hours in a day. Our perceptions of what truly counts in life is exceptionally narrow and dull. We cannot see past what we shall eat, where we shall sleep, or what we shall wear, and yet if we are completely honest, those of us who are reading this have never lacked these things.
If and when we decide to reach out to others in need we will find that we have much to offer and we are able to make time.
As Seneca said, “Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for Kindness”.
You may have your own problems to deal with but until you show a little kindness those problems will always only be your own, while you lose the opportunity for someone else to lighten the load for you. James Matthew Barrie puts it this way, “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves”.
There is none too small, too young, too old, too busy, too poor to be kind.
In the end volunteering in any community is kindness in action.
Even if there are just a handful of people volunteering, remember what Betty Reese says, “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito”.
Posted on 1/7/16
by Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor
African Peace Journal
Foot Steps in the Jungle
What a deceptive title to an over simplistic explanation of what is going on in Calais.
I suppose my mind has not yet put everything into perspective.
There is still a sort of numbness to my heart and mind. Two warring forces, one of reason and the other of a system instilled in my mind that I hardly understand.
When I decided to go to Calais I was not sure what I expected.
I was not excited; in fact I was slightly apprehensive. To be honest I was not fully prepared for what I witnessed. My first thought when I arrived in the jungle was, “well this is not too bad, I have seen this in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania before”, but then I was caught with a sudden fear of the unknown.
Was it dangerous, could I trust anyone? Who were these people, what were they doing here and what was I even doing in the jungle?
As I sit in my office in Geneva today, reflecting on the experiences of that past week, tears well up in my eyes because I know deep down in my heart that many of those 6,000 plus people may never be able to make it to where they hope to be.
I do not write this to be negative about the world but I am hoping in some way I will strike a chord in your heart to do something, anything, anywhere.
On the second day of entering the jungle, all my prejudices were wiped away. I found myself so warmly welcomed firstly by the other volunteers and then secondly by the inhabitants of the jungle. I found myself being offered Westminster tea by people who had way less than I did. Eating in shacks and rubbing shoulders with people who only had a hope. I remember a conversation with a young man from Afghanistan who had been in the jungle for two months and was adamant he would make it to London. After I had expressed that I felt like I was part of the jungle community, he looked at me and said, “The jungle is for tigers, only the strongest can live and survive here.”
I believed him.
The conditions I witnessed are not fit for any human being to live in, no matter what.
Sitting in a comfortable chair, with my cute shoes and fancy perfume I feel rebuked by the memories of the stench and cold that pervades the jungle.
How can I forget the plight of thousands in the jungle?
How can I ignore the little children who are sleeping in cold wet tents at night?
I know there is a huge lacuna in our law; refugee law, asylum seeking law, migration law, are all suddenly becoming useless as states pick and choose how and when to apply them and to who they will apply them to. The line between what is legal and what is criminal sometimes seems to become blurred.
One of my fondest memories of my time in the jungle was New Year’s Eve:
We decided to go to the dome, a theatre shack built for performance in the jungle.
There we were surprised to find that the program consisted of performances from different countries followed by a time zone countdown to New Year’s. We started off by celebrating Afghanistan, we listen to deep meaningful, moving poetry and music performed by the migrants, followed by a count down. We did this for Iran and Sudan.
I remember tears coming to my eyes and thinking, “I am on earth but oh how I hope heaven will be like this”. I suppose for the first time I was witnessing a celebration of difference with reckless acceptance. We were all just people, different yes, but oh so equal. I was privileged to be part of those celebrations.
What if our daily lives were characterised by this bold and relentless acceptance of each other? What if we preferred to expend ourselves for the sake of one who has less? What if we went to the highways and corners of our communities and searched for those we could help? Imagine if just a few of us could do that, how the world would transform?
The Calais experience was more than just me taking time off to help other migrants.
It was more like an initiation into the family, Earth.
I became part of the human race and I can safely say, one must step into the jungle near them to know what it means to be a human living on planet earth.
After all, we are all in this together.
Posted on 8/21/15
by Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor
African Peace Journal
Chemin Marc-Emery 25 | Case Postale 7 | 1239 Collex
You Are Not Serious
South Sudan has started to feel like a distant nightmare that I hoped I would never forget and that I now hate to forget. I guess when one settles in one’s comfort zone, the sense of urgency in helping others somewhat begins to fade away. I write about South Sudan perhaps as an attempt to recapture the once in a life time experience of adventure and courage and the possibility of witnessing horror.
Among the now vague memories of my days there is a young man in his early twenties, tall, confident, handsome Benjamin. ‘Benji’, is what everyone called him.
I first met him on a Wednesday afternoon when he came to take me to Mundri, which is in the Western Equatorial region of South Sudan. He informed me that we would be taking public transport as I had requested and that I had to be ready by 6 am. Everyone else in the compound I lived in, advised me to remain in Juba until they could arrange transport for me to travel to Mundri, but I would not be moved since I had travelled all this way to witness the plight of the ordinary South Sudanese and most of them travelled by public transport; that was exactly what I would do.
Benji seemed somewhat unsure of escorting me via public transport but he took the precautions of booking me a seat in the vehicle to make sure that I would be safe. However, as we arrived at the station, the driver realized I was foreign and Benji’s precautions became meaningless as the drivers decided that I should pay more than everyone else specifically because I was foreign. Like my protector, I saw Benji speak to them until I was allowed to take the transport with everyone else at the same cost.
We travelled for 11 hours that day, in the back of a land cruiser packed with 8 other people. Two of those hours were spent bribing the police official to allow me to travel without any mishaps to the village town in Mundri.
There, once again, I saw Benji calmly talk to the police and eventually asking me to give them a certain amount to settle the issue. During the 11 hour ride, Benji told stories of his childhood, of how he learnt to shoot at the age of 5 and how he accidentally rode into a camp of rebels once and almost got captured.
I was intrigued and in awe, owing to the fact that I had no other option but to trust this young man. I had never known or seen him before, but his presence was surprisingly reassuring. I knew he would get me to Mundri. We arrived in Mundri at night, there I met Lawrence and Dawa who I would be staying with for the duration of my stay in Mundri. After taking a bath and eating, we sat and spoke for hours on end.
I was for the greater part, paying much attention to the stories about Mundri and learning the different culturally appropriate expectations I would have to conjure the next day when I meet with the community elders.
This evening would mark the nature of the rest of the evenings we would spend in Lawerence’s house: Sitting around a small desk-like table, under candle light, talking about Mundri, life expectations and experience.
It was here that I learnt that Banji was studying business at Juba University, and that he had put himself through school by working in the community library by day, and as a security guard by night. He had bought a new motorbike in order to generate fees for his next year of university. I must admit that every night Lawrence, Dawa and Benji would captivate me in their stories, I was always intrigued and left speechless!
They asked little about my background and I frankly was quite reluctant to share with them; I felt I had nothing half as admirable as they did to share.
I could imagine with the little of what I shared of my life, they probably wonder at the utter spoilt existence I had lived. In them, I witnessed a resilience and ingenuity I could not imagine to posses. Theirs was a character shaped through endurance under the harshest of contexts and conditions. I admired their discipline, their happiness, their zeal and their community spirit.
On many occasions after I asked something or said something there would be a moment of silence followed by Benji’s unbelieving statement, “You! You are not serious…” while wagging his finger at me and shaking his head at the same time.
I will never forget these nights, when Benjamin would reflect on my thoughts and question me with the simply response, “You are not serious”.
I am still not sure what it is I’m not serious about, perhaps life, perhaps myself, I am not even sure why I didn’t ask but one thing for sure is that I see few glimpses in my world of the absence of seriousness in whatever we do.
I look around at the opportunities that have been spread around me, my family, my friends and my colleagues and I try to imagine what it is that Benji would do if he were in my position. However, this is far fetched, Benjamin is not me, but he recognized that I was lacking something that he himself had.
The last day of my South Sudan experience, Benjamin came to wish me goodbye.
He looked recluse and somewhat sad. I assumed it was because I was leaving but when I asked, he informed me that his new motorbike that he had invested in to make money for tuition had been stolen. My heart broke and I was speechless.
How could all his bright ideas be sabotaged like this and why Benji?
Why not me? Why not someone else who can afford to have a motorbike stolen? How is he going to pay for his tuition, what is he going to do?
I do not know what Benji ended up doing, or where he is, we lost contact.
As I sit in a dark living room randomly decorated by fine western ornaments and fine rugs I wonder what the rest of the world in this privileged position are up to? Updating statuses on social media? Watching movies? Checking our bank accounts? Partying? But what about Dawa and Benji? What are they doing with the little that they have?
I am convinced that if we were half as serious as Benji and Dawa about anything, we would be able to achieve anything.
People are still dying of hunger in this world because we are not serious.
Wars are stealing the lives of mothers and children because we are not serious.
Drugs are tearing nations apart because we are not serious. Corruption in plunging countries into horrific ends because we are not serious. Our seriousness may not be measured by how much money or time we give to a cause or to others but perhaps by the passion that burns in our hearts and drives us towards what we believe in.
I don’t believe that we must all starve for us to combat hunger in the world.
However, I believe if each person took a stand and came up with a personal resolve and solution we would end hunger.
Nothing is impossible when we believe.
We are just not serious.
Posted on 7/7/15
by Rutendo Urenje, Managing Editor
African Peace Journal
Chemin Marc-Emery 25 | Case Postale 7 | 1239 Collex
A calm, calculating, strong looking woman, only 30 years of age, the age of my older sister, in fact, she reminded me somewhat of her.
Her hairstyle showed that she was not the normal South Sudanese woman.
Rose had fled South Sudan with her children to Uganda when the year had become protracted. Her husband Lawrence had stayed behind. I suppose he felt the need to take care of the family home and the community, but he also felt it was imperative that his children and wife should flee.
I was living in Rose’s family house in Mundri West, South Sudan.
One afternoon, as I sat calmly with Rose, I asked her to tell me her story. She looked at me almost suspiciously and then looked around as though to check where her husband was – this would be routine behaviour every time we would start talking about her life.
She told me she was 17 when she got married.
Her husband had asked her parents for her hand in marriage and her parents had insisted that she married him. The fear, she told me, was that if she didn’t get married, the Dinka (a tribe in South Sudan) would come and kidnap her as they commonly raided villages for unmarried young women. The day of her wedding she ran away and hid in the bushes but her parents and community leaders found her, quite convinced that her only hope in life was to marry a man she had hardly known.
Rose had her first child in her first year of marriage and subsequently had three more, one after the other. She describes her lifestyle with tears in her eyes.
At some point they had no money to feed her children and so she decided to work in the market while she was still breast feeding. She described herself sitting near a boiling pot of oil frying fat cooks while breast feeding her son at the same time. Life was unbearable, food was scarce and war was raging all around them.
Eventually her husband decided that Rose and the children should move to Uganda.
However, the situation did not drastically change as soon as she and her children arrived. The first feeling she expressed to have found was peace. Her children started attending a school. A smile suddenly grew on her face as she described how her children’s education translated into her own education.
Rose had no form of formal education because of the war in South Sudan and when she got married she had no opportunity to go to school because she had children. Living in Uganda, her children would bring homework and she would do it with them. She described an evening where one of her sons would teach her how to read and write.
It made my heart well up with so much hope, seeing the resilience of humanity and the element of what grace does.
Now Rose can read, count and write through her children’s education in Uganda.
She has also started a small business in Uganda, baking and selling her goods so she earns an income and does not depend solely upon aid from the international community.
Rose is a symbol of the simplicity of the refugee situation in Africa.
It is easy to look at the situation and be overwhelmed by the complexity, but were we to take a case by case strategy we may realize that these cases are not far removed from one another. Although not all the situations and stories are the same the underlying thread runs well through all the reasons and contexts.
There is a socio-economic crisis in Africa.
Whether it is war or climate change or whatever else that causes people to flee their homeland, this crisis persists. Socio-economic factors are primary, but of course are also garnished by other factors. This then makes development the answer. We must be careful however not to ascribe our ideologies to what development may mean to persons in different contexts. Development should not carry with it superimposed Westernized ideas but should simply be flexible enough to fit into the local context and work.
Rose’s example is that of a life given a chance.
Given a chance and a choice people do not want handouts, they want a livelihood.
The lure of Europe is not necessarily a search for the ‘diasporal’ dream but, at least for the African, the opportunity to provide for the family, to survive in a world of polarized interests and will.
As we give voice to the silenced and yet to be spoken of, the African Peace Journal will this year bring together voices that will shed light on what exactly it means to be an African refugee and then move from that to finding lasting and sustainable solutions rather than problems, to this phenomenon.
People have always migrated and travelled to places for many different reasons. This year we shall evaluate these reasons.
Following the initiative by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, a World Humanitarian Summit will be held in Istanbul from the 26th to 27th of May 2016 to propose solutions to the humanitarian crisis our world is facing. In line with this initiative the African Journal will focus on one of the themes:
“Reducing Vulnerability and Managing Risk’.
The choice to zero in upon this one theme for the year, stems from identifying a theme that is motivated toward giving more substance to the one thing that the African Peace Journal can do very well: Taking cognizance of the fact that migration will always happen and that it is common but also that, over the years, it has become more dangerous and is caused by many man-made disasters that could have been effectively managed and perhaps even totally avoided.
Living in Uganda as a refugee is not a choice that Rose would make if she did not have conditions in her own country forcing her to leave in order to save her children and her life. The question we need to answer this year then is this:
How do we as Africans reduce our vulnerability and manage the risk we may find ourselves in? That is, how do we make Africa a continent of peace and security where people thrive and love one another without fear?
To answer this we will evaluate what it is that is causing vulnerability and then how can we manage the risk of that underlying cause. I am looking forward to a year of practical and sustainable solutions that reach and change our Africa.