A Letter to My Sons: Eternal Good Evenings

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

There’s a jazz band in the hotel garden with a heavy bass that’s shaking the table as I write to you, my cold Nile Special beer sweltering in the evening heat. I’ve been here nearly three weeks and just checked in to my flight, a long journey back home starting tomorrow night. My first trip to Uganda was exhausting but productive, and while the report I write with my colleagues will be completed by the end of next month, I will have more lasting memories of the places I visited and the people I met.

I was reminded early in my journey that a formal greeting to a friend or stranger is commonplace, if not expected; one always finds the time to say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. You are expected to wait for the response, and only then can the conversation properly continue. It’s something I hadn’t experienced in a long time, not since my days living in Ghana, and it was a pleasant reminder that simple courtesies matter. It slows down the pace. It gives you time to smile to the person you’re talking with. A few times in our journey across the country we were lost, looking for a guesthouse, a school or a district office. To stop someone by the side of the road and ask for directions would never be as curt as “Excuse me, where is the Golden Courts Guesthouse?” No. “Good evening,” our driver would say. “Good evening,” the response from a man by the side of the road, approaching us as our driver rolled down his window. And then the discussion, go down this road, turn left, take the first exit at the roundabout. In some cases, when the roads were windy or circuitous, the person we’d ask directions from would hop on his boda boda and personally escort us to our destination.

The band is now playing an instrumental of “Isn’t She Lovely.” The temperature has cooled now that the sun’s down, the patrons in the hotel’s garden area are sitting at their tables with friends, sipping their juice cocktails or Nile beers, the occasional lonely traveller like me typing away on an Excel spreadsheet or something that looks just as boring.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet students, many of them your age, who have benefited from a scholarship program that helps them throughout high school. All were happy to have received their scholarship, most of whom told me that without it, they might not have gone to secondary school. Can you imagine stopping school back when you were 11 or 12? Many of them come from small villages not unlike the ones we passed by as we drove across the country. Let me tell you what I saw.

Driving on the main road up to Arua near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, you get a sobering sense of the toll that drought has taken on the population. Without rain for months, the landscape is scorched yellow as far as you can see. A spattering of dried patches of grass become congregation areas for emaciated goats and cows chewing on meager offerings amidst a scenery blotted with used plastic bags: black, blue, transparent, they are omnipresent, on the ground, stuck in trees, half-burned, in ditches, by the side of the road. It’s as disgusting as it is sorrowful. Massive tree trunks add to the desolation, ancient trees once tremendous and hallowed sit crippled by the side of the road, cut down by villagers, their stumps jutting out of the ground, robbed of most of their branches used for firewood to heat up what would likely be a family’s only meal of the day. You see some men walking by the side of the road, most of their shirts a dull red brown that could have been white a long time ago. You look to your left and see boys playing in a ditch with a stick, shoeless, half-naked and crusted with dirt. Dozens of girls walk on either side of the road, barefoot for the most part, clothed in filthy tattered dresses shredded with time; you know it’s probably the only thing they own. Each girl is holding a yellow plastic jerrycan in her hands if she’s going towards the borehole to fetch water, or on her head if she’s making her way home, a balancing act she masters for a few hundred metres, a kilometre or two, or more. The brightest spots are the school uniforms worn by students on their way back from school; sometimes a bright purple, other times canary yellow. They walk together for the most part, taking up both sides of the road, a blaze of solid colours to spare me from the arid landscape. They seem to go on forever, until finally, a few kilometres ahead, we pass by the school, and see just as many students walking home in the other direction. I try to calculate how long some of them likely walk to get to school, and the best estimate I come up with is anywhere from a few minutes to three hours. And they do this every school day, twice a day. To sit in a classroom with on crappy chairs, to share a text book if they’re lucky, to listen to a teacher whose only resource might be a lousy piece of chalk that scribbles on a bumpy chalkboard that might have been black a long time ago but is now faded.

I think of the lives of children your age who grow up in these villages and I want to dismiss the urge to feel pity. Theirs is a resilience that is admirable. Living a day in their shoes, I suspect most teenagers you know would cower in desperation. It is a life nearly bereft of opportunities, but not, I would hope, of dreams. Unfortunately, even for those who complete their secondary education, their options are limited, and should they find gainful employment, their obligations to support family members will dwindle any savings away. It is a life of obligations, a life of duty and responsibility to family, a life guided as much by a parent’s decisions as an unquestionable and unwavering faith in God.

Having met some children from places not unlike what I’ve described, the reality is that they are no different from you. They stress about exams at school, they act silly in the absence of any adult, and they laugh at my corny jokes probably more out of respect than humour. Like you, they have dreams of who they want to be when they grow up; doctors, lawyers, engineers and nurses. I can’t say that I admire them, because their lives are not nearly as easy as ours, but I am thankful for such trips because they remind me of the respect that others in less fortunate circumstances deeply deserve. It’s a respect that helps me listen to their stories with rapt attention. One boy your age took his savings to buy a goat to help his family. One girl a little older than you used her savings to pay the school fees of a younger girl in her village who otherwise would not have access to primary school. A group of boys your age donated a dollar a month of their precious pocket money to help another student in need. No one obliged them to do these things; they are acts of kindness, acts that reflect their upbringing which reminds them to help others – “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

As I spend my last day on a continent I called home for four years, I down my now-warm beer and head back to my hotel room. The security guard near the elevator looks up from her Bible as I approach. She stands and presses the button to summon the elevator. “Good evening,” she tells me with a smile. “Good evening,” I reply. I notice my own smile reflected in the mirror as I step into the elevator.

Je vous aime, les boys,
Dad

 

My 2015 Human Rights Wish List to Santa

Dear Santa,

Let me get this out from the start so I can move on: you were 1 for 12 in making my 2011 wish list come true. Even then, the one wish that came true was a little snow, and I’m not even sure you can take credit for that one. But getting rid of all the human rights violations stuff – numbers 1 to 11 on the list – well that continued, and in some cases got a lot worse.
I was waiting, Santa.

But enough about unfulfilled wishes of past lists and the inevitable sorrow on Christmas morning! We all know things got worse in Syria (#3 on my 2011 list was to remove president al-Assad) and I never did get that Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (somewhere in the middle of my list, circa 1978). On with this year’s list. With today, December 10, being International Human Rights Day, I thought I’d write my list based on a few goals that are rights-related.

First, a little background to bring you up to speed: The UN chose its annual Human Rights Day theme in honour of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the adoption of two main covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I know what you’re thinking – laudable but astoundingly boring. They tried to spice things up with the slogan “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” I think Coca-Cola might have a gripe against them because they used “Always” in an ad campaign a while back. But enough about slogans and on to substance. The two covenants do set out a number of rights that people ought to have by simple virtue of being human (right to a nationality, education, a fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, health, freedom to practice religion, freedom of expression, and so on). Along with the enjoyment of those rights you’ve got obligations that states have to help realize them. Peachy. Problem is – and I know you know where I’m going here, because if you watch children sleeping I’m sure you have a rather sophisticated/creepy surveillance system – this doesn’t happen everywhere. Sure there are some countries where rights are respected; my country is pretty good though far from perfect, but there are plenty of other places where people struggle to achieve a modicum of human dignity, like pooping in a clean toilet, having enough food so as not to starve, and being able to walk around town without fear of being shot. If I were in any of those situations, I’d wish for a few basic things that would make me feel more…human, I guess. I wouldn’t even bother setting my expectations to “Our rights. Our freedoms. Always.” but probably aim for something like “A few rights. Some freedoms. At least sometimes.”
So let me get on with my list:
  • At the national level, make sure our new Prime Minister continues to govern properly and respects our rights (a site like TrudeauMetre can help guide you). So far, he’s off to a pretty good start: the government is moving ahead with a plan to welcome 25000 Syrian refugees, there will be a long-awaited national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, the government’s serious about climate change, scientists in Canada can speak up once again, and the long form census has been restored. If there’s one thing that bugs me about him, it’s that he keeps saying “Canada’s back.” Honestly, I never left, neither did my neighbours and pretty much the rest of Canada. We’re not back; we were just governed by someone for 10 years who, in opposition to most intelligent Canadians, did not value inclusiveness, acceptance, diversity, equality, openness, transparency, and international cooperation. 
  • At the provincial level, knock some sense into Premier Couillard with respect to demands from public sector workers, in particular the education sector. To be completely selfish about this – and let’s be honest, most kids writing to you want stuff for themselves so why should I be any different – I’m sick of the teachers’ strikes from the past few months. And for that I don’t blame the teachers, but the government. My wife’s a teacher – a damn good one – and has given her all to hundreds of children for over thirty years. Nearly a week of strikes has left us with a lot less money at the end of this year, and if we’re hurting financially, so are thousands of other families with parents who are teachers. Her profession has continuously been marginalized and undervalued by every government we’ve had since she’s been teaching. Like many teachers, she spends long days with young children – a number of them with special needs – and time during evenings and weekends correcting kids’ work and planning new lessons. Some kids have driven her bonkers over the years (I won’t name names, but you probably have a nice-naughty database you can cross-reference with class lists), but she still cared for all of them. The ill-informed, ignorant and dumb among the masses scoff at teachers’ demands for salary increases and reasonable class sizes, citing pensions and summers off as perks that outweigh any hardships, but such scorn makes no sense when you consider the work teachers do with the resources they have. And again speaking selfishly, my kids – now spending another strike day at home – are missing out on their education, like thousands of other kids across the province. By the end of this week, they will have lost six days of school. While I’m all for having my children improve their high scores on Super Smash Bros. on the Wii during those days off, I’d much rather they attend school. I know what you’re thinking at this point: Getting the Premier to agree to a deal is beyond the scope of your mandate! Well, technically, yes. However, it’s in your best interests to move things forward. The more kids stay at home, the more video games they’ll want for Christmas (this entails a greater expense for you, more work for your elves, and added weight on your sleigh). So send them back to school!

Let me get to a few other points:

  • On a global scale, make sure kids in certain places get a few more hugs than usual from their parents and loved ones. I know hugs aren’t included in international human rights law, and I also know not everyone around the world believes in you, but there’s no point in excluding anyone, so go ahead and make this an all-inclusive wish. Top of the list are children who are living through war, conflict, and situations of violence on a daily basis. Think of the children living in war zones like Syria or living in refugee camps, or who have lost family members to violence, or who are forced to become child soldiers, or who are kidnapped, exploited and sold. They’ve suffered as no one should. And I have to add more to the list as well: children living in poverty, who are gravely ill, living on the streets, forced into early marriage, unable to attend school, discriminated against because of their sex or race or sexual orientation – unfortunately the list goes on. Feel free to consult Benedict Cumberbatch’s letter to you for further guidance. 
  • Get rid of ISIS. Not part of your mandate, I get it. But you can’t blame me for asking. I fear another “Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center” letdown, so I’m bracing myself for the worst on Xmas morning. In the event of a letdown, could I at least ask you to whack some sense into convincing anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to be part of a violent group intent on killing innocent people to instead consider a life directed towards peace, non-violence, and kindness towards others (as in, all others, everywhere, and let me say it, “Always.”).
  • Down south in the US, give Donald Trump a brain and a heart. Once again I realize this is likely beyond your mandate, but I am also betting you have a wide-ranging list of famous people in your Rolodex, so maybe you can drop a line to the Wizard of Oz and see if he can work his magic on the Donald the way he did with the Scarecrow and the Lion. I’m tempted to say the guy’s not worth it, but everyone is entitled to the full realization of all their rights and freedoms (remember the UN slogan, “Always.”) and Trump is jeopardizing that by fomenting distrust, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance on a massive scale. My friends to the south deserve better than him.

Crap this list has degenerated into a depressing set of unrealistic aspirations. I might as well wish for stricter gun laws in the US. I’m feeling the need to watch a TEDTalk to cheer me up and restore my faith in humanity.

OK we’re a few minutes later and I did watch a TED Talk and it did give me an idea. So let me wrap it up with something I know you can do:

  • Give children the ability to believe they’ll make this world a better place than the one plenty of adults are screwing up now. To take but one example on how to achieve this, Sweden plans to provide each 16-year old student a copy of the book We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Sweden is arguably not the weakest country in terms of achieving gender equality – there are worse places – and yet they want every 16 year-old to read that book. So pack a few extra copies in your sleigh and pass them around the planet (try to get your hands on different translations. Again, you have contacts, so I’m not worried.). The book probably weighs about the same as a video game (it’s under 70 pages) and would likely have a longer lasting effect on its readers than playing a video game. As we wrap up a global 16-daycampaign to end violence against women, it’s pretty clear that we still have a long way to go, so please help out.

Thanks Santa.

Peace (always),
Paul