The International Labour Organization’s Declaration of Philadelphia, 1944 states “Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.”
As I stood watching two lads mend the third puncture of the day. A tin, an old half litre paint tin, of glue and some rubber strips from old inner tubes now served as means to keep the air in if not the acacia thorns out. The other pieces lying around with the wheel nuts are: an old screwdriver, a stick for the glue and the inevitable iron bar for levering off the tyre. This is a toolkit when you are driving through the acacia scrub of southern Somalia in a 1950s Willis Jeep in 1993. Maybe newer tools from the Far East have replaced the old pieces but, somehow, I doubt.
With a young gung-ho driver managing to get the Jeep up to 50 or 60 miles per hour, an old Somali Army soldier hanging on to his Kalashnikov AK47 as our guard and the young lad, the Spanner Boy, we were travelling toward a place called el Garas, the town of the Garas tree, in southern Somalia.
Sections of the road were solid rock and we bounced and bumped up and down on our remade seats of blocks of dusty dirty foam with WFP sacks as covers – the owner of the Jeep is nothing but keeping up to date with the latest fashion in humanitarian wear. The tyres are finished and trying to do more than 20mph over these rocky sections drives thorns and sharp rocks through to puncture our journey.
So, we stand around waiting for the glue to go tacky as a crowd of boys miraculously appears from what looked like empty scrubland. Where there is foliage, there are browsing animals. Where there are animals, then members of the family have to safeguard them.
Thinking I am being clever, I get another stick and write in the sand ‘Nabad’ – Peace in Somali.
The crowd has a leader and he asks what the white guy has written.
‘Peace’ he is told by the driver.
The boy may not have an education but he does not lack intelligence as his immediate retort comes strong and purposeful:
His eyes find mine and he asks the question not just in words but also with a communication well beyond our different mother languages.
I answer, ‘So we can go to school and do different things’.
Again, he comes back fast and with a cutting remark to get past the aid speak bullshit I had (already) developed.
‘You think we will see changes if there is peace? Who is going to build schools here for us? What am I going to learn for? No, no peace without us having a share of all the money’.
And what can I, or anyone else, say to this? The fact of the matter is, we are standing on a road between Huddor and el Garas, places few will find on the map and fewer still will ever get to see. I remember Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘The revolution will not be televised’.
Gil Scott-Heron ‘Work For Peace’
‘If everyone believed in Peace the way they say they do,
we’d have Peace.
The only thing wrong with Peace,
is that you can’t make no money from it.’
The young gentleman summed up the sense of division and the inequity people face.
He was right. I knew he was right. I had been so busy engaged in getting food from a warehouse to villages; I had lost the bigger picture: What next for people?
The problems they faced then are the problems they face now. A generation later; but no change for the vast majority who, seemingly, only count in beneficiary numbers for the next humanitarian pledging conference. I was fortunate in where I was born and the social responsibilities we had during my formative years. The young gentleman now engaging me in a debate was not so fortunate.
I wonder what the intervening quarter century has done for him and his contemporaries? How many made it to adulthood? To do what?
Three severe droughts.
Two declared famines.
One near perpetual conflict.
Is it any wonder we have seen people seek radical and then extreme solutions? The sad fact remains:
People have been used.
Continue to be used as different agendas are pursued at different levels in different ways. What are the common threads? The main one is the one identified a quarter century ago as the glue went tacky – money and there not being equity for the many as the few profited from the money making opportunities.
People, as individuals, have been forgotten. Their absolute numbers quoted but superfluous to on-going rhetoric when, as Scott Heron says, money is to be made.
Perhaps now, 74 years later (a good three score and ten plus lifetime) the Philadelphia Declaration should be updated to read:
Poverty anywhere is the root of extremism everywhere
We need to address the realities the young gentleman on the road to el Garas was aware of. Keeping people alive without granting purpose is no real end for the people themselves. And people with intelligence and the will to succeed will find ways to get what they see as their share of the World.
I can never condone violence but, living with people in this setting, made me understand the recourse to violence. I suffered at the hands of violence, hands wielding a two metre wooden staff brought crashing down on me, and saw plenty of violence between people as we sought to have equitable distribution of meagre rations before the rains came. But what puts such acts in perspective was people’s willingness to share. People supported each other and many of my (self-centred) traits were considered strange to say the least. We ran an open fridge – Pissed me off at the end of the day when returning to find no cold soda there. The blessing of an empty fridge? I realised I could go without a soda as long as there was clean water, some food and we all had a sense of purpose.
But we all needed meaning beyond the purpose of staying alive and this we struggled with. We could not, I know I still cannot, answer the young gentleman’s call to have a share of the benefits. My team all went there separate ways. Some are dead, some have quietly gone mad as they have not found meaning. Some just settled to driving a bus in the Midwest of the USA and still wonder what could be different?
What are we to do as we see yet more divisive politics where those left behind are being condemned to be statistics in reports or cannon fodder in someone else’s route to riches? It is certainly not more of the same; real change is coming. But will it be the positive change granting hope for young people standing watching people write peace in the sand?