Searching for Ubuntu

Month: May, 2013

A Letter From Africa

by Michael Mpofu

Dear Ryan

I hope you’re doing we’ll and enjoying shaping the young minds of Brooklyn.

It’s been a while since you last set foot in Cape Town and I thought I’d send you a little note from Africa.

I’ve had some time to reflect on some very sad events in the last few weeks in the political and socio-economic worlds that affect those in the great continent. And I must say, I haven’t been inspired – the expression would be more along the lines of “distraught”.

It seems like such a hyperbole, an exaggeration, but when you really think about it, some of the stuff that is tolerated here, is unbelievable, shocking, almost unheard of in your part of the world. This is not to discount the challenges people on your side of the sea face, but I’m simply saying, the reaction to the atrocities experienced by our people down here would stir riots or some form of protest action in your world.

Because I have the privilege of working where I work, at the centre of where key (political) decisions are sometimes taken in the South African context, it has given me perspective. Having spent some time listening and watching laws being made that ultimately shape the future of almost 52 million people, I recently had a “eureka” moment:

The reason why Africa, in fact, the world, is what it is today – far from what our predecessors envisioned – is because presidential boardrooms and government offices, banks and educational institutions are filled with people who have good intentions.

That may sound like stating the obvious, but it is in fact true.

In years gone by we have listened and watched politicians, businessmen and philanthropists make inspirational speeches about how they would help change the world. And no doubt, some of them have. The trouble is that those of us who have been tasked with carrying the baton further have simply become people with good intentions.

When listening to people speak and debate, make resolutions or whatever it may be, there is a sense of hope in their rhetoric. What is mind-boggling is that when faced with the opportunity to truly make a difference, we tend to withdraw into our cocoons and do nothing.

Most African leaders have some of the most exciting and inspiring stories in their rise to power. It’s the stuff that movies are made of, and that’s the trouble, it remains on television and cinema screens and never translates into reality. I’m not sure what possesses people, but it appears easier to have good intentions than actually doing something because maybe we can feel better about wanting to do the right thing when the going gets tough – so we can still enjoying the benefit of taking an exit. After all, we had the right motive we just couldn’t keep going.

You may be asking why I have felt the need to pen this half an hour before midnight in South Africa? Frustration. Frustration that those who are fighting the people in positions of power and have the intention to actually do something to uplift the plight of the people – are actually becoming the people they despise.

While they have good intentions, they are becoming the devil they despise. The trouble with Africa is not that we lack the people to do it; instead it’s that those that are willing to get their hands dirty end up with dirty hands, muddled in corruption and greed. But that’s okay, because they meant well.

Liberation movements in the fight against colonialism meant well, to free a people from oppression and institute freedom for all! But given the opportunity to outwork that freedom, they decided to hold on to the intention, the idea of the dream, make the exit and take solace in their good intention.

It frustrates me.

And that’s why Africa will remain the way she is – dark, disease ridden, poverty stricken and conflict dominated. Because of men and women who meant well, but found it easier to act otherwise.

Perhaps our search for that thing that brings us together must begin by introspection. What and how do I want to change the world? Great intention – let me roll up my sleeves.

Until the next one Ryan,

All the best with shaping young minds.



Founded in Hate and Fear

by jwdalton

Dear Ryan,

It was wonderful to receive your letter back to me a little over a month ago.  I am afraid I am horribly delinquent in my response to you and I apologize.  Things have been quite busy at work, as I have been trying to wrap up a few assignments before our new little one arrives, and at home for the same reason.  I have finally reached a point of calm though at work, as now only the excitement and anticipation of a new child remain.

Despite my delinquency, I have thought a great deal about your last letter, as George Stinney’s gaze bore a hole in the back of my head while I sat in the office.  One night when I was at home, Callie looked up at the calendar on the wall in our home and looked at those same eyes and said, “That’s sad.”  This wasn’t something we had talked with her about, but she could see it in his expression  — a palpable somber gaze.  It’s truly heartbreaking.

You noted in your letter to me that this execution of a 14 year old occurred only 69 years ago, which is certainly in our collective recent memory, but our practice of allowing juveniles to be sentenced to death extended far beyond that.  Amazingly, it was not until 1988 that the Supreme Court ruled that executing a juvenile 15 and under would be cruel and unusual punishment.  The following year, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty being imposed on a 16 year old and maintained that position until 2005, when the Court finally held (in a 5-4 decision) that executing anyone under the age of 18 would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Many people were furious with this decision at the time.  Indeed, Justice Parker of the Alabama Supreme Court wrote an op-ed shortly after this decision, criticizing the other members of his court for following this precedent (that they were bound to follow), and arguing that they should have refused to overturn a juvenile’s death sentence in Alabama.  He said if they would have refused to follow this precedent, then maybe the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t have overturned them since they have limited cases that they review, and the juvenile “would have been executed as he deserves.”  Needless to say, Justice Parker’s views must not have been too unpopular here in Alabama, as he continues to be elected as a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court.

All of this is to say that, at least in certain parts of the country, we have truly not come very far — and certainly not far enough — in the last 69 years.   Indeed, living here in Montgomery has shown me just how much further we still need to go.  One area that is especially amazing and troubling to me is the school system here in Montgomery.  As I often drive down the road and pass one of the largest private schools in Montgomery, it makes me ill to read their large brick sign out front: Montgomery Academy — Founded 1959.  That may seem harmless to some who pass it.  Some may not realize the story that sign tells.  But that sign speaks volumes about the history of schools in Montgomery.   It might as well read: Montgomery Academy — Founded in Hate and Fear.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959 because in 1954 the United States Supreme Court said what we all know is true: separate is never, ever equal.  A private school was founded in Montgomery in 1959, because the white citizens of Montgomery knew that desegregation was going to be forced on them, so they wanted no part of the public schools anymore.  They wanted to create their own private school that they could keep all-white, that they didn’t have to integrate, that they could send their children to.

Sadly, not much has changed in Montgomery schools in the last fifty years.  While Montgomery Academy now has an official non-discrimination policy, according to Great Schools, the school is still 89% white and only 7% African American.  Meanwhile, the vast majority of the public schools have been all but abandoned by the white population.  Darcy and I live in a predominately white neighborhood, but the school that our children would be zoned to go to is 98% African American and 1% White.  There are four major public (non-magnet) high schools in Montgomery.  Two of them are 99% African American and 0% White (as a note, my children, and the other children in my predominately white neighborhood are zoned to one of these schools).  The third (Jefferson Davis High School, no less) is 94% African American and only 3% White.  Only the fourth (Robert E. Lee High School!) has any semblance of diversity: 75% African American and 21% White.  All of this in a city that is 57% African American and 37% White.  And this is not a problem unique to Montgomery.  It exists throughout this region of Alabama and in Mississippi as well (and likely in other Southern states, though I hesitate to overstate, since I do not know).  In these regions, de facto segregation continues along — like Brown v. Board of Education never happened.  And as you would expect, most of those schools I linked to above (and countless others in this area) are failing schools.  Unsurprisingly, separate is still not equal.

Living in the South, I am often struck by the so-called “Southern hospitality” that is truly present here.  When we had Callie in California, I remember one of my co-workers getting us a gift and I was struck by it because she was the only person who got us one.  It wasn’t that I was surprised no one else did — in fact, it was the opposite, her gift was unexpected and touching.  By contrast, here in Montgomery, my co-workers threw us a lovely “diaper shower,” loading us up with supplies.  In another example of this “Southern hospitality,” one of Darcy’s mom friends set us up a “Meal Train” so that when Tessa comes we will have food prepared for us for days.  It’s an amazingly kind act that will ease so much stress off of us.  As I was thinking of this act the other day, it occurred to me that it is a perfect example of the spirit of Ubuntu living and breathing here in the South.  It is as if people are saying to us, we know it is stressful to raise two children on your own, let us help you — let us ease the load — we are in this together.

In many ways, even with all the problems that exist in this society I now live in, I see so much more Ubuntu here than I saw in California, where people often chose to keep to themselves.  In addition to the examples listed above, there are countless other simple, daily examples.  For instance, we own a ladder and leaf-blower jointly with our neighbors across the street, and we are constantly meeting and talking to complete strangers who want nothing other than to say hello and hear just a piece of your story.  My hope is that we can find a way to tap that spirit of Ubuntu, that under-current that exists in some facets of this society, and get it to apply in more areas.  My hope is that the care that most of the people of the South do actually show for their true neighbor or friend, can be expanded out to the metaphysical neighbor, the unknown friend, the greater society that they are a part of whether or not they realize it or want to be.  Until that happens, people will continue to suffer in this society.

And as I type these last words, I realize my letter has nearly become a prolonged sermon.  My delay in writing you has led me to ramble for some time in my overdue reply.  I hope that all continues to be well for you in Brooklyn.  I would love to hear about your experience in your school or anything else that is on your heart.

Love from Montgomery,