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Your Country Needs You

February 11, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

AMER Khan is a friend. Many years ago, he was one of my students at Harvard University. After Harvard, he studied at Oxford, worked in Pakistan for a few years before he returned to the Wharton School (U of Pennsylvania) where he received an MBA.

Since then he has been a high-flying businessman but our friendship has never waned. Perhaps, he remains grateful for the recommendation I wrote when he sought employment at the First National Bank in Pakistan; maybe he remembers the many nights we argued about politics, philosophy and religion. He introduced me to Ali Shariati, a little-known Iranian theorist then, and initiated me into the truths of Islam, a religion about which I knew little. Throughout the years, I gained from his wisdom and friendship.

Some years ago Khan became a US citizen although he retained his Pakistani citizenship. That's how these global citizens do it. As an American citizen, he joined Ralph Nader's Green Party because he believes the Democrats and the Republicans have become irrelevant to the needs of poor and working people.

He is active in the party because he believes that citizenship is a duty. It is not conferred upon one simply to become a spectator in the society in which one lives. It is a privilege that obligates us to become involved in shaping the destiny of our society.

Khan's observations made me think of my fellow-citizens. I wondered how many of us saw citizenship in the same light; how many of us believe it is not enough to talk about our present crisis but to do something concrete about it. Observing the lynching of a black man in Atlanta at the turn of the last century, W E B Du Bois, the famous African-American scholar-activist, realised that it is not enough to know; one must do. His career as an activist took shape at that point.

Recently six women announced they would hold a party to raise funds for NAEAP. Their activism touched me. They wanted to do something for our group because they like what we do and feel they cannot only talk about it. They had to do something concrete to demonstrate their support. So, they went out, borrowed some money, and will hold a major fundraiser to benefit our group. Such selflessness cannot be quantified.

This venture heartened me because so many people talk the talk but are unwilling to walk the walk. Many of our intellectuals offer opinions about everything under the sun. Some have become professional media talkers. Yet, few are willing to translate their verbosity into action. Many are content to criticise leadership; few are willing to get into the mix and democratise our social and political organisations. Many are willing to say what should be done; few are willing to do what has to be done.

Very often we feel sorry for ourselves and say nothing can be done to change our condition. Those of such little faith should read the life of Benedita da Silva, a Brazilian woman who pulled herself out of the flavelas to become the first black woman senator of her country. In her autobiography of the same name, she describes her painful journey from being the daughter of a washerwoman for Juscelino Kubitcheck, former president of Brazil, to a media star in the Brazilian political world.

When she picked up Kubitcheck's clothes, his wife would give her the old clothes and toys that belonged to their daughter, Marcia. Later in life, she recounts: "I never imagined that I would become a Federal Deputy and meet up with her in Congress—the daughter of the former president and the daughter of the laundry woman."

From the flavela, she worked her way from being a domestic servant, like my mother, to become a university student. Thereafter, she involved herself in community organisations and participated in the black power, the feminist and the indigenous movement (of Indian people). She also fought sexism and racism in her society even as she reconciled her progressive politics with her membership in the Evangelical Protestant Church. In her spectacular autobiography, she weaves all of these elements into a seamless whole. It is a book that all of us should read.

Today, T&T is at a crossroad. We are called upon to come to terms with the fact that UNC stole the election and thereby violated our essence as a people. Keith Rowley blasted UNC in Parliament recently while Ralph Maraj, a decent man, absolved himself from such treachery. Dismayed by their temerity, ordinary citizens have resolved unto themselves not to sit back and be overwhelmed with such boldfaceness.

People are not fools. They know where the UNC wants to take us but refuse to go there. They understand that citizenship confers upon them a duty that demands they stand up for what is right. Gradually, they are beginning to realise that democracy is not a spectator sport and that they must participate in it if it is to work. Stale rhetoric that repeats itself is reactionary and meaningless.

Gradually, we are beginning to realise that what went down sweet in goatie's mouth is now coming out bitter in goatie's behind; what was intended to dazzle and deceive now dulls our sensibilities and is making us sick. Gradually, we are beginning to discern the heat from the light; the shadow from the substance. If Benedita da Silva, with all of her limitations, transformed her destiny why can't we, with all of our advantages, transform our society by becoming active and responsible citizens?

None of us can afford to be spectators in our democracy. The maintenance of a participatory democracy depends on the active involvement of each citizen who, by assuming his/her responsibility, becomes a conscious, "self-acting rational intelligence". None of us should mark ourselves absent at this decisive moment of national self-awareness.

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