personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

Who inspires you?

The question "Who inspires you?" was asked a couple of weeks ago during a training of trainers workshop in Nepal. The workshop participants, a dozen human rights educators from South Asia, shared their thoughts on this question in a 15 minute one-on-one discussion. They had just answered another question, "Why did you become a human rights educator?"


I find it important to take the time once in a while to reflect on these questions, and just as importantly to share them with others. The dedicated human rights educators I have met are passionate, committed, honest, and firmly convinced on the importance of promoting and defending human rights for those whose rights are so often violated. That passion and dedication are rooted in some part of each one of us, and sharing it with others helps us define our own work more clearly.


When the participants went through this exercise, I sat at a distance away from them, unsure how well the activity would work because I'd never done it before. In the end, the feedback was positive, and I echoed my colleague's sentiment when I said I wished I had also been part of the group. So I take a few moments now to reflect on who inspires me. Many people over the years, some of whom are human rights educators, but most of whom are not.


From 1993 to 1995, I lived in the town of Zomba in Malawi and taught at a girls school. I lived comfortably in a big house that was split in two, the other side occupied by a Peace Corps neighbour. A few metres in front of the house, just past the maize field, was a small shop where a neighbour of mine had a modest business selling general goods: Surf laundry detergent, Lux soap, Life cigarettes, Panadol for headaches, and sometimes my favourite anti-cockroach spray, DOOM! He stayed there during the day with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom, no more than four years old, had Down's syndrome. She always waved as I passed by the shop on my way to town. At night, he slept in the store with his wife and youngest child, while his other children stayed with another family member in their house a few minutes away.


One Sunday I came home after a weekend out of town to see the familiar site of my neighbour sitting by his store playing checkers with a friend, his wife in the store, and two older children helping out. The youngest daughter was not there. I paid little attention to her absence, walked by and greeted them with a soft "Maswela." I found out later that his daughter had died over the weekend.


For a moment I thought, How insensitive of this man to be playing checkers after his daughter just passed away. How unfeeling this man must be, how uncaring. But the grim reality of living in one of the poorest countries of the world is that death comes and takes anyone away on such a regular basis and without warning that the living are almost dulled into a fatalistic acceptance of these circumstances. My neighbour was not insensitive, but far more courageous than me. He was not uncaring, but showing - in his own way - that life must continue for his family, in a manner that is as "normal" as possible, despite their tragic loss.


His daughter would not have lived a long life, but she should not have lived such a short one. So when I think of a person who inspires me to do my human rights work, I think of my neighbour, I think of his courage and tenacity, and I think that if we lived in a better world, his life and the lives of his wife and children would have been a lot easier. Thinking that we can make a better life for people like him is what motivates me to do the work I do.



2 comments :

-joe said...

It's hard to comment on such a thoughtful post, but at the same time I feel compelled to say something as a way of saying thank-you for sharing it.

You are doing good things with your time. Thank-you for setting such a good example. Peace, my friend.

Paul McAdams said...

Thanks, Joe, it's always encouraging to get feedback from others, especially from someone who's gone through a similar experience from living in Canada and being thrown into an environment so utterly different from our familiar surroundings. It was impossible to leave Malawi unmoved.
Paul