personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

This is Ouaga

Monday night, 10 PM

Africa. Surprisingly cold tonight, no more than 20 degrees. James Brown belting out “I Feel Good” in the hotel lobby, the waiters in their yellow and black shirts cleaning the tables after tonight’s dinner. Crickets and a lone bird sounding off in the background, as loud as the putt-putts of mopeds gently zipping by the main road. The occasional bat swooping down a few feet away from me to steal a gulp of water from the pool. Only one cockroach so far, crawling towards me this morning while I sat eating my croissant. His slowness an obvious sign he’d been hammered with the local toxic bug killer. Splat goes my sandal, and he’s now two-dimensional under my chair. The three women sitting with me don’t react – it’s just normal. I can’t but think how other people I know would freak out at the sight. Or get annoyed that yesterday’s lunch took two hours to cook and showed up in black plastic bags.

Most of the participants attending our planning meeting have gone for dinner, and they plan on resuming their work upon their return. It’s an enthusiasm and tenacious work ethic that shows the best in people. They are here to plan their second annual Session régionale de formation aux droits humains – a two-week human rights training program for human rights educators in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Senegal.

Thirteen years ago, before moving to Ghana, I read a travel guidebook that told me “If you want to see wildlife, go to East Africa. If you want to meet people, go to West Africa.” Our welcome Saturday night was a true testament to the integrity and kindness of the people of Burkina Faso. Where else have I gone and been welcomed by almost half a dozen people at the airport? I felt as close to being a movie star as possible. It was expected that we go out immediately after our arrival, despite the fact that my colleague Natalie and I had gotten little sleep over the past 24 hours. Nothing like having two big beers and talking politics, religion, human rights, and plenty of jokes until well past one in the morning. At least the sheer exhaustion assured a sound sleep that night. Part of the welcoming committee was our friend Lucien, a one-time police officer who went to a village eleven years ago and was shocked that they could not offer him a glass of water. He changed vocation, became a human rights advocate, and lobbied donors to help construct two dams to provide clean water to that village along and for neighbouring ones. Top that, won’t you.

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a letter to Thomas, my nephew and godson, as he was just coming into this world. I was living in Ghana at the time, and wrote him a handwritten letter on...well I can’t quite remember, but I know he still has the letter. In it I probably told him the same stuff I’m writing about now. How ordinary people, despite living in some of the worst conditions you can imagine, lift themselves up and do what they can to survive and to help others. To struggle to live a life of dignity, to live a life free from want and from fear, to live a life of fulfillment, to live in peace. You see it written on the banner for this planning meeting: “Promoting human rights for a better world.”

A few minutes ago, I spoke to Thomas to wish him a happy birthday. With the advent of new technologies, I called him from my computer for free and it sounded as though he were next door. As I thought of him as an unborn child thirteen years ago, I took the time to reflect on the impact of my work. Working on human rights in Africa – if you’re truly committed – is a huge mixture of hope, despair, frustration, patience, and persistence, with plenty of opportunities to wonder whether or not you’re making any bloody difference at all. I wasn’t sure back then, but thirteen years later, looking at this group of people striving for their “monde meilleurs” – their better world – I can let out a satisfying whew and rest assured that I’m needed less now than I was back then, and maybe someday I will work my way out of a job.

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