This year, the Wangari Maathai Memorial Lecture will be delivered by Dr. Mukesh Kapila at the Storymoja Hay Festival. In the course of a discussion about the preparations for the festival, Storymoja staff got to talking about Dr. Kapila’s career and what is most likely the most difficult decision he had to make.
See, Dr. Mukesh Kapila is a medical doctor, humanitarian expert, and international aid diplomat. He is also the author of Against a Tide of Evil – wherein the former head of the United Nations in Sudan reveals for the first time the shocking depths of evil plumbed by those who designed and orchestrated ‘the final solution in Darfur’ and why so many good men stood by and did nothing.
Back to the conversation at the office, the question was asked: If I was the only one willing to speak up against something that was most definitely wrong, would I do so at the risk of my career, even my life? What followed were some interesting conversations that we would now like to share with you:
Alex Kandie: Would I be able to stand up for what is right, even when my career and life is at stake for it? What about if nobody else chooses to stand up for the cause, will I continue to soldier on and follow what I know and believe to be the right thing?
This is a hard question or situation to grapple with…but definitely not a new one as such. Martyrs come to mind once my mind begins to wander back into history. They stood up (and still stand) for what they believe is true to them, and refuse to flinch even if the end result is death for them. Revolutionaries also did the same. Martin Luther is another figure that wafts into my mind.
What about some examples that are closer home? Nelson Mandela, who is regarded as one of the most influential figures of all times, was ready to resist the apartheid regime in South Africa to death. He was in prison for 27 years and ‘wasted’ his prime years in a prison cell, standing up for what he believed in. Our very own MauMau freedom fighters believed in independence from the colonialists and fought with all their might and wisdom till they got what they believed they deserved. And then there is a lady called Wangari Maathai…
The late Maathai is well-known as an environmental activist all over the world. Her efforts to sustain and curb the deterioration of our environment and natural resources won her accolades all around the globe, among which is the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. But where did she begin? What gave her the courage to stand up for what she believed was right, even when nobody else was paying attention to her?
It is this question that keeps churning over and over in my mind as I write this. It is easy for us to see all of the people that I have listed above as heroes now, but what about when they began…and everyone thought they were nuts? Am I able to stand up for what I believe in this same manner?
Aleya Kassam: The personal cost to effecting social change. What would I sacrifice to speak out loud against something I disagree with. Something someone said about Mandela has been ringing in my ears. How there is no way he could have done what he did on his own. What he did was rally people, be outraged loudly, infect other people with his vision and get an army behind him all fighting for the cause. I think as one person it is difficult to change society. I think your power comes when you are able to get other people on board with your vision, and empower them to also take their own actions.
It has to be something you care about. Something that affects you deeply. Something else has been ringing out in my mind. Play life in a big way. Care about big things. Let your mind not be consumed by the pettiness of life, but by something that can truly impact the world around you, and that when you are departed, you will have left the world a slightly better place.
There is that story about the man picking up and throwing starfish into the ocean. Somebody came up to him and said, there are thousands of starfish, do you really think you are going to make a difference? As he picked one up and threw it back, he said, well I made a difference to that one, didn’t I?
I suppose the challenge then is how to get other people to take on the task of also throwing star fish in the ocean. Better yet, how to innovate in a way that you are not consumed by one star fish at a time, but you can get a whole lot at one go. I suppose that is also the power of social media. Kenyans for Kenya is one example. Really I think it all boils down to one thing. Do you care enough?
What would I sacrifice? Different things are important to different people. Can you achieve it all? I don’t think so. I do think there is an opportunity cost – be it your family, personal life, career, image, ego – all of those things. Again, the conversation around activism comes to the fore. Activism is doing something to try and impact society positively. It does not have to be political necessarily, it does not have to be forceful even. But it is embedded in the word act. To do. Action. It is about feeling something…then doing something. I think it is very comfortable to speak – and a whole lot harder to do.
Again…what would I sacrifice. That whole concept makes me feel very uncomfortable. Perhaps because I care but am scared I wont be able to stand up when it really counts.
Juliet Maruru: 6 years ago, I came upon a security guard beating up a woman just outside a building in the Nairobi CBD because she was drunk and because she was asking for her phone which had been stolen by a colleague of the security guard. A crowd had gathered, watching the violence. If anyone thought what was happening they did not speak out, just watched. Some blamed the woman; she was drunk. Some called her a prostitute; she most likely was. No one thought that beating up a woman, beating up anyone, was wrong; if they did they did not speak out.
I wanted to walk away, I wanted to pretend I wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. I was late for work anyway. Speaking out possibly meant I would be subjected to the same violence, called a prostitute too. I didn’t want that. But before I walked away, I found myself so moved by what I was seeing, that I called my father. There wasn’t a working police hotline back then. So I thought perhaps my father could call his ‘friends’ with the police and get them to come and stop the violence.
He was groggy as I talked, it was way too early. But he was clear when he spoke. If I could see something going wrong, it was first up to me to stop it. Sometimes all it took was speaking out. With that he hang up.
He did call the OCPD who showed up ten minutes later, but in the meantime, shaking in my boots I stepped up and spoke up. Yes, the security guard did attempt to turn the violence back at me. I stood my ground and he backed up. Yes, the mob that had gathered did call me a Malaya defending my own. But I pointed at the men and told them they were her customers, and at the women and told them that this prostitute was their daughter.
By the time the police showed up, I had been insulted so much my ears hurt, but the violence had stopped.
I was terrified, but I have never been prouder of myself than at that moment. Would I be scared to speak out if I ever had to again? Most definitely yes! But would I stand up and try anyway?
Lucie Sedglackova: It is always tricky to think about yourself in a situation which might never happen. Or if it does, everything would be totally different to what you have ever imagined. It is said, everybody has three personalities – the one you wish to have, the one you have and the one you show to others.
As famous psychologist Phillip Zimbardo puts it, in all of us, there is some evil deep inside. And under particular circumstances this evil wakes up and starts to push us to do horrible things. However, we have also some good substance inside as well. It sounds simple and compelling. But it has one deficiency. We all know and feel this evil but are not able to admit it to ourselves.
Lots of people in places that have experienced dictatorship or any kind of tyranny think that they are innocent. I have not done anything wrong. I have not betrayed anyone and I was not cooperating… They just did nothing. This is usually the attitude most of us bear (lets admit it to ourselves). And the most horrifying thing is that this attitude is one of the building stones for these regimes – without this they would never have existed.
There are some brave people, who are able to chain down the evil inside them and stand and build something really extraordinary. And as it is said every such a big step consists of smaller ones. Good upbringing, good actions of your mother or stranger on the street. Without these small pieces the big story would never happen. Plenty of small steps and actions precede all the biggest ones.
Mukesh Kapila has made a big step aside – from the row of unwillingness and insensibility and stroke out a blow against genocide in South Sudan. Similar Romeo Dallaire spoke out about the same atrocities in Rwanda and both tried to attract attention in order to prevent them . And they both shouted loudly even when no one was listening. Their actions have made sense now.
But in the beginning there was just the determination of one man somewhere in the world.