Happy Supermoon Night. The sky is flooded with white light.
I am also wishing Malala Yousafzai a happy birthday. She is seventeen years old today. Yes, just seventeen. She is in Nigeria, campaigning for those schoolgirls (an estimated 223 teenagers, who were about to take their exams) stolen from their boarding school – and their families – and now reportedly split up into groups scattered through a forested area. Now on Monday it will be exactly three months since they were kidnapped. The #bringbackourgirls hashtag campaign lasted a few weeks; then people moved on to the next global cause. But causes like women’s and girls’ rights never go away. You can’t move on from them. Malala, who was once the center of the world’s attention herself, is refocusing us. Because, no, after all the denials, protests, prevaricating and excuses, the girls have not been rescued. “If all our tweets and Instagram posts were truly driven by a desire to help these girls, then we have to stand with the people of Nigeria long after it is fashionable or trendy to do so,” concludes an article in the New Yorker by author and academic Naunihal Singh.
In Jamaica, the issue of human rights in general has not been “fashionable or trendy” for a long time, if it ever was. Ironically, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh – still quite revered in Jamaica – almost continually sang about human rights. But that was a different generation; they would be old men now. If they were singing the same songs, would anyone be listening to them now?
I am always puzzled that many Jamaicans, who endured what was arguably the most devastating and long-lasting human rights abuse in human history – that of slavery – just don’t seem to “get” human rights. I wonder how the ancestors would feel about that, if they knew – those who suffered endlessly, with no hope of release; and those who fought and died, like National Hero Paul Bogle and his over 400 followers in the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, rising up against injustice. Jamaican history is one long, agonizing struggle. Then over four years ago, the worst civilian massacre since Morant Bay occurred – the deaths of seventy-something (or is it eighty-something?) citizens allegedly at the hands of the security forces in Tivoli Gardens. We await the Commission of Enquiry with bated breath. And yet many Jamaicans would tell you that they are all bad people down there in Tivoli.
I have a strong memory. I am in Salt Lake City, Utah, on a training program. It is April, 1999 and still bitterly cold in Utah. I am confined to my hotel room with the flu, and one morning I crawl downstairs for breakfast, provided by a kind waitress with purple hair and tattoos (punk was really big in Salt Lake City at the time). One of the guests remarks as I struggle with my crispy bacon and hash browns, “Seems things are going a little crazy on your island.” There is a short report in the local newspaper about riots over a gasoline tax, announced by then Finance Minister Omar Davies. I make a frantic call to my husband, who reassures me that everything is fine; with our teenage son, he has been to several informal gatherings at the bottom of Jacks Hill. It has been exciting and interesting, and he sees good coming out of these meetings – a coming together of “uptown and downtown,” coalescing around serious issues affecting Jamaican society. It is almost like a celebration, he tells me. After several calls, I feel sorry I am not home in Jamaica. I am missing out on something important.
From these gatherings, the human rights lobby group Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) was born. Its founder was a petite middle-class pediatrician, Dr. Carolyn Gomes. Dr. Gomes eventually gave up her medical practice to serve as the non-profit organization’s Executive Director. One of the first cases JFJ took on was that of Michael Gayle, a mentally challenged young man who was severely beaten by security forces in Olympic Gardens just a few months after the “gas riots.” The story of Michael’s mother, Jenny Cameron, moved another middle-class Jamaican woman, Susan Goffe, so deeply that she contacted Dr. Gomes, who was the pediatrician for her children at the time.
Ms. Goffe eventually became an outspoken, eloquent and dedicated human rights campaigner alongside Dr. Gomes. They both remain unflinching defenders of human rights in Jamaica to this day. JFJ have been advocates for the broadening and deepening of Jamaica’s democracy through the strengthening of transparency, access to information and anti-corruption measures – testifying in Parliament, serving on committees considering democracy issues, campaigning for the rights of children in state care. They have been always influential, always relevant.
It’s hard to define what courage really is. It can be just a great physical act – the bravery of a soldier who, almost on impulse, rescues a colleague in the face of gunfire, for example. Often these heroes say they didn’t have time to even think about the danger. They just did it. Often, too, courage is about just plodding along, day after day, doing what you believe (and know) to be right. Just getting up every day to face the insults, threats, innuendoes and ostracism – and yes, also the physical danger, just under the surface. That takes courage.
People are not kind; we know this. They are cruel and quick to judge. They are also misguided and fail to understand the goodness in other people. They are often blinded, too, by ignorance and prejudice and fear. This is what Malala went through every day, as a young girl speaking out on behalf of young girls, trying to ensure that they get an education. She just went ahead and did it, anyway. This is what human rights advocates do. It is not a popularity contest.
“I raise up my voice – not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard,” said Malala once. I am sure Dr. Gomes, Ms. Goffe and campaigners for human rights around the world understand this.
An English woman whom I have always admired said: “The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” Jane Goodall is eighty years old now, but her intellect and her humanity burn as bright as when she was a young woman. I remember how people laughed at her when she began talking to chimpanzees in her own language. Now, she is a United Nations Messenger of Peace, a leading conservationist and humanitarian and, just like Malala, a campaigner for girls’ rights in Africa and elsewhere – and in particular, for girls’ education and empowerment.
So please, don’t leave those lonely voices, crying in a wilderness of ignorance and misunderstanding. Listen to them. Join them. And remember…
“The greatest danger to our future is apathy.”