Bringing Change to East Africa
A talk given at the International Convention of the TS, December 2014
Usha Shah, MBE, Convenor of the TOS in Kenya |
There is a very poignant memory I have of a Hindi song from a film called Boot Polish. Two young children in the song are asked what they are holding in their closed fist and they answer “In our fist we are holding our fortune. We are going to control our own destiny!” The song goes on to say that there will be no hunger, no misery, no sadness and all will have a crown on their heads!
This dream of the songster remains to date as words only! The stark reality is that today our world in East Africa is reeling under increasing crime rates, pollution, poverty and a decline in moral standards. Materialism has gripped the hearts and minds of people, leaving no space for spirituality.This is, of course, true of many countries on the planet, alas.
Human beings quite naturally want adequate food, shelter and access to educational and medical services. Sad to say, though, the majority of the people in our part of the world only manage to eke out a miserable living, stay in miserable slums and study in miserable conditions. They receive no assistance from governments which seem to be rudderless ships in a stormy ocean. Corruption amongst politicians, administrators and in the business community is rife.
Given modern technological and scientific advances, it shouldn’t be very difficult to improve the standard of living for all, should it? More can be produced by using less. For example, on a small piece of land a farmer can grow cash crops, rear bees and grow herbs for health products and thus maximise the use of land. It is relatively easy to initiate projects that will ensure adequate food production by introducing water conservation and bringing water to arid lands by building dams and digging water boreholes. Basic health care can surely be made available through small clinics. Today technology has ensured building of cheap housing units made up of materials which can withstand all kinds of weather and provide adequate and comfortable shelter. Education at a relatively low cost is slowly becoming a reality as many sponsors assist in paying fees and in building schools. In fact, TS and TOS have through the years sponsored students by giving fees from primary school level to university level. Only last week a truly touching letter was received from a student who was assisted by TS and TOS with the partial payment of her fifth semester medical course fees at the Nairobi University. She said, “I had knocked on many doors for fees but unfortunately none was opened! By God’s Grace when I knocked on your door, it magically opened! I have no words to thank you except to say, ‘God bless you’.”
Needy East African women in particular can be given vocational training and taught income-generating activities like tailoring, stitching, embroidery, beadwork, catering and other skills like bee-keeping. This kind of work will help out until our women are sufficiently educated to break the bonds of such vocational confinement and gain access to the wider spectrum of professions. TS and TOS have organised such projects successfully, and there are women who have benefited through them and are becoming financially independent by doing catering, providing hairdressing services and other beauty treatments from home. Others have secured employment in establishments giving such services.
All these projects and many others can alleviate social ills and to a certain extent reduce poverty and its dehumanising effect. This is one positive step towards giving people self-respect and dignity and allowing them to discover their potential.
When people are empowered and have a good quality of life, there is less tension, less inclination towards crime and violence and the society on the whole becomes a partner in good governance of a nation. In other words, these types of reforms ultimately give back to the general population. It’s a circle.
Our governments are missing the boat by not seeing this as they are more concerned about their own financial enrichment rather than enriching the very people who have elected them. The resulting corruption from the top then seeps down the line till everyone is ‘eating’ which means they take their cut from any project be it for road construction, agricultural, medical, housing or educational. There are funds allocated for these projects by either the government or non-government organisations but sad to say, the people at the bottom rung of society who should be getting the benefit of these projects rarely do so! This is then how slums are created, this is how people are dehumanised and this is how people are robbed of their dignity and self-respect.
There is surely nothing more directly conducive to understanding the theosophical teaching of evolution than seeing the downtrodden and oppressed realise their capacities. When you work with deprived youngsters and see the miraculous transformation that a little education and opportunity permit, you want to weep with the beauty of it – and the tragedy of it. What can be more heartwarming than the hugs of children and their smiles of delight at things we have always taken for granted? In working with the needy, the heart spontaneously utters a prayer of gratitude for the opportunity to serve – no, for the privilege of serving!
At the end of last month the TOS and TS organised a Christmas party for children from two slums in Nairobi. Apart from the bouncing castle, tarpaulin, slides and entertainment programme, the children were given a meal. As they arrived and saw the play equipment, their eyes shone with wonder and amazement and these were a sight to gladden even the hardest-hearted person! They played to their hearts’ content! With the meal, each child was given an ice cream cup. Many of the children tasted ice cream for the first time in their young lives and this brought tears to my eyes!
When solar lamps were donated to a village, one elderly lady came to me the next time I visited the village, hugged me and told me that now she could see her grandchildren having their meal even at night! That hug has given me mental peace in my times of stress and has taught how little for me means a lot to the other person.
The TOS in East Africa has done much to meet some of the basic needs of the people and improve the quality of their lives by sponsoring education, drilling boreholes and installing pumps for water, teaching how to maximise land usage and improve irrigation methods, organising vocational training and income generating programmes and also activities that bring laughter and joy in their not-so-happy lives.
While most creature comforts can be given to those who need them, it just scratches the surface of the real problem. The real problem is the continuous erosion of values. We have lost our true identity! We have become self-centred, selfish, uncaring, cruel and absolutely loveless human beings! Ours has become a materialistic world. Material comforts and personal enjoyment are at the top of our list of priorities. We humans search for happiness and bliss outside ourselves and forget what all religions teach us: Look Within!
How can we bring about the kind of change that will make universal brotherhood a reality? How will we make people look at one another as one entity, as the children of one Supreme Being? How do we ensure religious tolerance? How do we ensure that peace prevails in the world? How do we ensure that our mother earth suffers no more violation?
Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania share a common history and borders, but these East African countries have different ideologies and forms of government. Whatever the ideology or government, we need leaders who are selfless and strong. Ethical leaders will only emerge if change is begun at the grass-roots level and addresses the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of human beings.The task of bringing about the uplifting of human consciousness is a daunting one. Even when people have all the material comforts, they still hanker for something else that is missing in life. This is the eternal longing of the true self to unite with the Supreme. As Theosophists, we have all experienced this divine discontent in different ways. In the effort to bring about a change in human consciousness, we must start with ourselves, of course. We need first to grasp the principles and practices of our theosophical path.
With this long-term perspective in view, the TOS can step up its programmes to provide education and vocational training for our countless needy. It can undertake more projects for the conservation of the environment. It can push for the introduction of compulsory ethics and good citizenship classes in public schools. It can support the TS in bringing people of various faiths together to talk, discuss and find similarities in the preaching and teachings of all scriptures. It can help the TS by offering yoga and meditation courses to a wider audience. It can pave the way for spiritual growth by taking Theosophy out to the people and showing its practicality.
I have begun to think about practical ways of spreading the good values. I feel if TOS and TS train JUST 100 people to spread the message, it will make a huge difference. Our international bodies have to brainstorm and see if this suggestion is practical and viable. I am just wondering if the TS could consider setting up formal, TS worker training like the training conducted at the Krotona School of Theosophy in California but for an international group of members. Our goal could be to train one hundred members within five years as community outreach workers for the TS. The TOS could help run the service-side of the training.
Perhaps the General Council could also consider identifying a project to develop in full collaboration with the TOS, inviting TOS and TS branches all over the world to participate in it. How about this topic for the collaborative project: “A hundred creative ways to inspire children and young people with wholesome, spiritually uplifting values?”
But the crucial question in our countries is getting a leadership that is spiritual, and has imbibed good moral values and social ethics. These leaders will be honest, true, patriotic, committed and dedicated to governing sincerely and bringing prosperity and a high quality of life for every citizen in our countries. To get such a leadership means working out an educational programme that puts special emphasis on imparting social ethics and morals to children. The religious study should encompass the common principles of all religions so that the learners value their own faith and accept other faiths as equally valid pathways. In fact such an education should start even before the babies are born so parents-to-be can attend classes for learning comparative religions and social and moral principles! Both the parents must attend these classes as part of their ante-natal training. Fliers should be prepared in the nation’s prevalent languages with stories teaching morals so that people have access to such literature. This is in addition to all that has to be taught in schools, that is, languages, sciences, arts, literature, music, physical education, etc. With the above, hand in hand will go the teaching of yoga, meditation and self-realization practices.
Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. If we can have children armed with moral values and social ethics, we will have a nation that is spiritually uplifted. Who knows? If this revolution takes off successfully (with help from the Supreme and all the enlightened beings), East Africa may emerge from its cocoon and show its brilliant colours to the world. It may fly high as an exemplary butterfly physically fit, mentally at peace and spiritually wide awake!