The Revolution will not be Televised – My Experience in Ellen Johnsons-Sirleaf’s Africa.
The revolution will not be televised.
Today, President Johnson-Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
I used to work for The Hunger Project. I was head of fundraising in Sydney and I have to admit it was a mixed bag of experiences. Some of the most wonderful moments of my life happened while I was there, and some of the most dreadful. But then, world hunger is at the nexus of a series of issues and the hungry people bear the brunt of aspects of our lifestyle we wouldn’t link them too in our wildest dreams. So in extreme activity, come the extremes of human behaviour. Good and bad.
Without hesitation, I can say the greatest moments for me were shared with the hungry people themselves. I funded two of my own trips, and gave a small fortune to a rolling campaign through Africa where the illiterate, rural women took to the streets during election period to demand recognition as the farmers that feed the people of Africa. I attended these rally’s in Ghana and in Uganda. I met women who couldn’t speak their native language, only a tribal dialect, who had learnt small business skills so they could become eligible to set up epicenters in their areas. We fought for land tenure reform. These women wanted the Chiefs in their area to be restricted to claiming just 85% of their crop as tax, not the existing 100%.
These women often walked 7km each way twice a day to fetch water for their hungry families and thirsty gardens. They would pass wells and streams that belonged to other chiefs who had not permitted their use of the water. They battled husbands who, weak with hunger and desperate for revolution remained drunk, touted guns and raped their own children.
I learnt many things while marching through the streets next to these women. Here are some that will never leave me:
1. We are not losing expendable people in the villages of Africa. We are losing Ghandi’s, Nelson Mandela’s, Picasso’s, Einstein’s and Shakespeare’s. The world is poorer every time one of these hungry people die.
2. Charity does not work in any way but to appease the guilt of the giver. The people I gave money to insisted I call it an “investment” not a ‘gift” or a ‘donation” and I was encouraged to go to the country and let them show me what they have done with my investment. I saw an Epicentre built with a school, a hospital, a micro credit bank, a meeting hall, and a small shop that serviced local villages in the area. A rickety bus did the rounds and brought children and teachers to and from school and people to the hospital for their regular checkups. But the REAL work I did, was to be white, western and rich and to go to their country and stand behind them in acknowledgement as their press clamoured to speak to these women who could get white folk to give them so much cash.
3. I learnt that the poor are better with money than the rich, because the rich don’t have to be careful, no matter how careful they think they are. I learned that these people have survival skills and internal resources that our wealthiest business tycoon can only dream of. I learned that people who were raped, beaten and abused all their life and every day, can get up and care for and love those around them. These people had a power I’d rarely seen the likes of in any Western society.
4. I learnt that you can be so hungry, for so long, that no matter what your personal beliefs, you will pick up a gun.
5. I learnt that if you see a person who is dying from starvation, you do them a huge disservice to give them your boxed lunch. You are better to hold their hand, experience the desperate pain of helplessness as they die in your reach. Let the experience enter you so that you are never the same again. And go home and tell your friends and get people to redirect funds to the village that can save its young and can make a difference. This and only this, honours those who have died.
6. I learnt that the most important revolution in the world is not happening in the Westernized nations. It is not in battles on Wall Street, in election campaigns or coming out of our televisions. It is silent, and it is being fought by the most disenfranchised and the most misunderstood people on the earth.
I was lucky enough to meet many great leaders in Africa and India and Bangladesh in the time I worked for the hunger project. One of those I didn’t meet personally, but did assist with fundraising efforts for was President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia. This is an extraordinarily well-respected woman who claimed the presidency after her country had been ravaged by fourteen years of civil war. The day she became president on the 16th of January 2006, President Sirleaf put in place her ‘First 150 days action plan’ to start rebuilding the nation. The plan stood on these pillars:
– Expanding peace and security
– revitalising economic activity
– rebuilding infrastructure and providing basic services and
– Strengthening governance and the rule of law.
One of her first acts of faith was to fire 12 top officials in the governments finance sector who were known to be corrupt. This immediately improved Government revenue by 34%.
She declared that ‘the education of girls is to become a cornerstone of development’ in Liberia and launched Liberia’s National Girl education policy with these main pillars:
– provide free and compulsory schools for every Liberian child
– recruit and train more female teachers
– offer life skills training to raise self esteem so that girls can say no to sexual abuse
– increase the availability of scholarships to girls.
A potent advocate for women in high political office, President Sirleaf also appointed a new minister in charge of police to be the first woman to hold that position, and the first female minister for justice and law.
She has stated that: “Because I represent the aspirations of women all over Africa, I must succeed for them. I must keep the door open for women’s participation in politics at the highest level. That is both humbling and exciting.”
Today, President Johnson – Sirleaf, along with her fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman have been honoured together “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
It couldn’t go to anyone more deserving.