Monday, 23 December 2013

The Man Who Planted Water: Lessons from an “Eco-Terrorist”

In 2002 I worked for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). That was the year of the Earth Summit or the World Summit on Sustainable Development, an initiative trying to build international consensus and action to push back “the worldwide conditions that pose severe threats to the sustainable development of our people…” It was at this Summit where I met a most unusual man.
Like many government departments, DWAF had set up an exhibit to display their work in widening access to potable water, sanitation and other development-focussed projects such as the planting of indigenous trees. As a member of the communication section of DWAF, we took turns being on hand at the exhibit for any questions that conference visitors might have, handing out brochures, CDs and tap water fed through a water cooler. At the time, Joburg water was rated as the third highest quality in the world.

Enter the Earth Walker

On one of my shifts, a guy ambled into the exhibit with a rough, two metre staff in his hand that he was using as a walking stick. With his dishevelled hair, unkempt clothes and scraggly beard, he looked sort of like a Moses or Noah figure. As he came into my personal space, I stepped back a bit. He stank. I got the distinct impression that this guy had been sleeping on the streets for a good few days.
“Can I help you?” I asked as I took another solid step backward. “Paul Coleman,” he beamed back. “They also call me The Earth Walker.” I picked up a distinct British accent but none of this was able to dilute any of my scepticism. Earth Walker? Who the hell is that? “Uhuh, and you would like to speak to…” “… Minister Ronnie Kasrils says that I can rest here a bit,” he completed my sentence for me. “We are sharing a public platform tonight.” I knew that Ronnie Kasrils was unorthodox, but this one had me intrigued.

Brilliance in simplicity

He then began to explain to me that for the last Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, he walked from Canada through the United States through Mexico to Brazil on the Save the Amazon Walk. All along his route, as people discovered why he was walking, he would ask them to plant trees. On his journey, he met very interesting people who shared their stories with him. It was on this epic walk that he met the Man Who Planted Water in Mexico.
Apparently, Mexico has similar water challenges to South Africa. Like SA, they have a few big rivers that flow throughout the year from which they can dam and develop hydro-electric power but the vast majority only flows during the rainy season. For the rest of the year these rivers dry up and place the poorer communities in such areas in dire straits. In one of these villages, outside of Mexico City, the Earth Walker met a retired engineer. Alex was an octogenarian who had a brilliant but simple idea.
His concept was to build a series of small dam walls along a kilometre length of the small local river that dries up for much of the year. The idea was not so much to create an actual dam but rather, like a beaver might do, it was to slow down the flow of the river serving several functions:
1.      A slower river means that the community can use the water to irrigate the farmlands.
2.      Clothes could be washed more easily in the river.
3.      Children can now swim in it.
4.      Silt will gather and can be used to enrich the agricultural land.
5.      The river is filtered from pollutants with every dam wall it flows over as well as through the holes in the wall that are covered with rocks and twigs.
6.      Because the river is now slowed down, it will flow for longer during the year.
7.      Then when the river finally dries up, one can dig a well at the dam wall or place a water pump as the wall would have help feed the underground water system.

Government says No!

When Alex proposed this to the Mexican government, they rejected his idea. He even volunteered to fund the dams himself but the authorities would not budge. Governments generally have bought into the idea of big dams. This means working with the bigger rivers, using large acres of land so that water can be sold to municipalities or hydro-electric schemes can be established. In the biggest project of this nature, the 3 Gorges Dam in China, it meant the displacement of over a million people, billions of World Bank dollars. This dam is so massive that it has an effect on slowing the earth’s rotation (ever so slightly) and shifting the position of the poles by two centimetres!
So Alex took it upon himself to organise the building of seventeen dams for the one kilometre stretch. This the government could not tolerate so they broke down all the structures. Alex then had them rebuilt. The authorities smashed the walls once again. Alex had them rebuilt. When the government came to smash the walls once more they warned Alex, “Rebuild this once more and we will put you in jail.”
I’m eighty seven years old, I told them. I only want to bring water to the community, send me to jail. But they didn't send me to jail, because by now the people understood what I was trying to do and they'd get into a lot of trouble, so I rebuilt the dam.

The monopoly of knowledge

I reflected on this story once before. I had developed a PowerPoint from what I remembered of the story and presented it in a course on improving communications. It is this presentation that I came across recently in the search for a good input at the Rasooli Centre last 22 November 2013, ten years after I spoke to Paul Coleman, the Earth Walker. On reflection, and looking at the story with fresh eyes, I now see some really interesting insights in this story that could well be a metaphor for life.
There are the obvious insights. The one is that governments don’t always know best. They are often looking for the big solutions and do not factor in the minor (and often more critical) details. People’s interests are only taken on board when communities make it impossible for government to ignore them. Left to their own devices, governments can (and have) made extravagant mistakes. But this is also a story of how communities should make interventions for their own wellbeing. Communities know best about their own development priorities and needs.
More importantly, I think that this is a fascinating metaphor of how our modern society monopolises knowledge and information. Today, knowledge is specialised and gathered into large dams in their various industries with their own sets of specialists that act as gatekeepers. These specialised areas are not readily available for the ordinary person in the street and are expensive to acquire whether in book form or to study. One sees this in medicine, in business information and even in religion.
We create universities with their various departments, involved in their own areas of research. Libraries and resource centres fill up on a daily basis from the various dissertations and theses and papers that are written and presented at conferences. It’s not to say that these are not necessary and crucial for improving our understanding (in broader terms) of modern life and its challenges… The truth is that often these repositories, these dams of knowledge, are just for the academically-minded and remain out of reach of others, inaccessible, untranslated.
In religion, the clergy are the gatekeepers in institutions where knowledge is made scarce through denying access and rulings are made as to what is legitimate religious knowledge and information and what is not. Again, knowledge is then dammed up in institutions and structures with limited entry. Here we create apostates, heretics and outsiders of others who threaten our hold on the artificially constructed mega-dams. In this sense, science and religion are much the same.

Planting the Water

Yet, this has not gone unchallenged. There have been many Who Have Planted Water. Perhaps books are the original holes in big dam walls allowing access to anyone who could master literacy. The internet is the modern attempt to hit holes in these walls and make information available to those who have access to modern technology such as computers, the internet and smart phones.
But now there is a glut of information flowing, largely unfiltered through cyberspace. There is a big need for people-centred mediums (individuals and organisations) to act as the agents for slowing down and consequent filtering (or sense-making) of these streams of often raw data.
I think every individual is a potential “dam wall” or acts as a filter, a slowing down of information or wisdom past on down the generations from time immemorial. We do this when we recount stories from our parents, from others, from our communities. We have the real ability to slow down the river of experience and insights just enough for others to benefit, to enjoy, to use the knowledge, the technology that is the legacy of civilization.

The world is in trouble

In a world where the spectre of ecological disaster looms large, I think the relevance of this metaphor is so apt. It speaks to individuals and communities becoming agents for change where they find themselves. It speaks about positive and creative change. It talks about making interventions and ourselves becoming the channels, the mediums of transformation.
Yes, there is a need for governments to commit to policy changes, changing the philosophy of profits before people. There is a need for governments to make wiser choices for energy, for agriculture and for water resources. But these often seem insurmountable and out of reach of ordinary people. We need to slow the message down, translate it into people’s lives and empower them in the process so that communities own the change.
Interestingly, the Arabic word for the beneficent force and spiritual energy is barakah. Originally this word meant to tie the leg of the camel so that it does not run off in a sandstorm. In other words, if your wealth or sustenance has barakah it will not run through your fingers like water. It will stay, it will be of benefit as if planted. Sufi circles or circles of remembrance imitate this concept of the river dam to slow down and plant the barakah which is the flow of grace from the Eternal Source.
In the original encounter with the Man Who Planted Water, Neil Coleman tells Alex, after seeing the outcomes of his very simple idea, that “I’m going to turn you into a fairytale and I'll tell everyone the story.” I hope that this piece contributes to that promise.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Fire on Mina, 1997

I wrote this piece in 2000 for a magazine, Al Hujjaj, that is now defunct. This story will probably remain with those of us who went for pilgrimage in 1997.

When the fire broke out on Mina in the Hajj of 1997 we had just completed our Thuhr salah, noon prayer. From the bridge above our camp the Asgari (police) were shouting frantic commands to the bewildered pilgrims below. “What does he mean we must vacate the camp?” we thought. The black clouds were in the distance. We were in no apparent danger. We were wrong.

My wife, my pregnant sister, my brother-in-law and I started to gather our belongings unhurriedly. By the time we came into the street, however, panic had already swept the whole of Mina. Buses could not move as the panic-stricken river of people were competing for fleeing space. In the ensuing chaos my partner and I were separated from my sister and her husband. The sound of exploding gas stoves was getting louder and the thick smoke was getting larger.

The fire behind us, a merciless sun above us, amidst sounds of ambulance sirens, my wife and I walked that day, out of Mina in the direction of Makkah not knowing whether we would make it to Arafah to complete our Hajj. Along the way, on the outskirts of Mina, we found some shade amongst thousands of other weary pilgrims. Covered from the sun, we threw down our prayer mats and lifted our hands. We prayed to our Creator to deliver us from this day.

We prayed for the safety of my sister and her husband. We prayed that our children not grow up orphans. We prayed that our family not panic when they see the events on the news. We prayed for the safety of all the pilgrims waiting for their Hajj. We prayed the prayer that was in the hearts of all our surrounding brothers and sisters. By Asr, a strange calmness was already descending. Saudi firefighters had won the battle against the blaze. Pilgrims were already walking back to Mina. Silently we got up and joined them.

It was only the following day that my wife and I met up again with my sister and her husband. They made it to Makkah on the day of fire. We passed each other on their way to Makkah but they did not see us, nor did we see them. We followed different paths but all made it to Arafah, grateful to see we had all survived. What a homecoming!

I think back on these events with a fondness. We all go for Hajj, for the same period, in the same dress, with similar hardships – fire or no fire. We go around the same Ka’bah, between the same two hills of Safa and Marwa, to the same Arafah, and stone the same demons. We go in search of the same Allah. But every path, every journey, every Hajj of every pilgrim is different.

But that is not the only lesson. It is also that spirituality is not just about silent contemplation. Hajj is a very physical journey. It is performed amidst great crowds of people, with searing heat and trying conditions. Many Hujjaj fear the masses, they fear bad toilet conditions and fear the heat. On Hajj, you can never bank on anything except Allah. It is no coincidence that the time of Arafah begins when the sun is at its zenith. If you can overcome this, you have the resources to overcome anything.

Adli Jacobs

Friday, 26 July 2013

Elvis is still in the building

In May 2012, the South African music scene was rocked by the claim that a Zulu singer had returned from the dead. Police were investigating a man who says he is Kwakhe “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, one of the best known figures in traditional maskandi music, who died in December 2009.

The man who claimed to be maskandi musician, Khulekani “Mgqumeni” Khumalo who died in December 2009, is now behind bars. Police say that his fingerprints indicate he is actually one Sibusiso John Gcabashe but will use DNA testing for a final determination. They have also applied to have Khumalo’s body exhumed.

The fascinating aspect of the story is that hundreds of his fans had gathered in Nquthu, in KwaZulu Natal, to see their resurrected idol and his family are now divided on whether he is the real McCoy. Among them, two of his common-law wives and his grandmother and daughter, believed that Khumalo has returned from the dead.

Several of the over 30 articles running with the story focussed on the supernatural aspect. In his public address to fans “Khumalo” claims that he was captured by zombies and escaped before he could be turned into a spirit (tokoloshe). One editorial, however, considered the fact that events are not really that exceptional.

“Every now and then some nostalgic middle-aged individual will claim they have spotted Elvis Presley at some remote resort. Presley, the king of rock ’n roll, died of a suspected drug overdose on August 16, 1977.” [Moses Mudzwiti, The New Age assistant editor]

Mudzwiti may well have put his finger onto something here. He is looking at the issue from a much broader context instead and did not fall for the tokoloshe story of Gcabashe. It is tempting to heighten the occult aspect of the story as a few articles have done. It makes for quite an exotic story: a bizarre and strange account that indicates that “traditional” communities are weird and trapped in an unscientific world.

To avoid this framing of the story, many focus on the “modern”: the law enforcement officers, the fingerprints, the DNA testing, the forensics, exhuming the body and the law court. We will then have irrefutable “evidence” that this is an imposter.

But perhaps there are other discourses at play here, other frameworks that looks at our fascination with the Elvis Presleys that have not yet left the building, the inability we have of letting go. After all it is religion that gave us the “the second coming of Christ”, the rise of Lazarus from the dead, the return of the Prodigal Son. So appears as if this hankering or yearning for the return sits deep in our collective psyche.

I think, though that sometimes it actually is just a practical issue.

When the story of Khumalo initially broke, I was reminded of a movie I saw in 1984 at an Indy movie theatre in Cape Town. It was called The Return of Martin Guerre and tells the story of a French soldier, played by GĂ©rard Depardieu, who returns to his village after an absence of many years. Now there were those who had their doubts but when his wife confirms that it is Martin, the others embrace him.

The Return of Martin Guerre is set in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Imagining herself a widow, Nathalie Baye is astonished when her husband Gerard Depardieu returns after nine years. He looks like her husband and sounds like her husband, and certainly has a working knowledge of the couple's prior relationship. Still, neither Baye nor her neighbors can shake the notion that Depardieu is an imposter – especially since he's a much nicer and more responsible person than the man who marched… [From Rotten Tomatoes]

So is Gcabashe a nicer guy, nicer son, nicer husband or father than Khumalo? Or is the family who confirmed him as the original artist hoping for a return to a celebrity lifestyle? We might never find out because, since his arrest, “Gcabashe is charged with three counts of theft allegedly committed in Durban, kidnapping, assault and rape allegedly committed at Ixopo, fraud and an attempted escape from custody at Nquthu.” (The Witness)

The Return of Martin Guerre was remade in 1993 and starred Richard Gere and Jodie Foster in the American version of Sommersby.  I am sure that the French version with Depardieu did not get half the audience that Gere got in the reinterpretation.  It just goes to show that sometimes if you change the context, the main actors, the language, you will get better attention.

Gcabashe almost made it were it not for those pesky fingerprints. I mean his fans believed he was the maskandi artist including two wives, a daughter and a grandmother. I really think that if this guy could sing, he would’ve been home free!
Adli Jacobs, July 2013

Thursday, 25 July 2013

What's your story, morning glory?

Jumu’ah Khutbah (Friday Sermon), 19 April 2013, Rasooli CentreThe original title was “Changing the Narrative: Whether we desire to change ourselves or our societies, it starts with a story.”

There are these two interesting references in the Qur’an:
We relate to you their story in truth: they were youth who believed in their Lord, and We advanced them in guidance.
[Sura Kahf 18:13]
We relate to you the most beautiful of stories, in that We reveal to you this (portion of the) Qur'an: before this, you too was among those who knew it not.
[Sura Yusuf, 12:3]
If you were to ask me who I am, depending on the time, my mood and what I think you might know about me, I will tell you a story. It might be about what I doing right now, how it is that I am in Pretoria, where I come from, what I have done… But it will be a story. I would need to think too much about the story/stories because I have told it many times to different people. Even if I were to just simply say, “Adli Jacobs,” the rest of the story will play itself out in my head because I have made enough repetitions in the past; I have repeated them over and over so many times. We make a thikr (or a mantra) with the stories that we hold. I used to be so irritated when my parents repeated their stories over and over. Now I am doing the same.

But this is what we do as human beings. We are spinners and consumers of stories. No wonder the media industry with its television soap operas and movies and reality shows are so popular. These are the new storytellers! And how we love stories… We add tails to stories and embellish them to make them interesting if we find the originals too boring. I have come to believe that no one and nothing escapes the embrace of the story. In fact, right now, standing here in front of you, it is quite natural to ask yourself, “But what is his story?” Yeah, I see you looking at me…
What is his story? What is her story? Our entire lives, from when we are little, we are surrounded by stories. You could say that stories pervade everything. Our own lives, how we see others, how we see our communities, our nation, the world, are constructed in Story. Starting the South African story with Jan van Riebeek and the arrival of the first Dutch settlers is a choice we make when we recount the history of our nation. But even if we were to choose to start further back than the arrival of colonialism, or decide to include areas previously excluded, we must realise that the narrative of the nation is a construction. We make choices in how we frame a country or a people.

In a sense, we are also trapped within the stories we tell and retell. I am a mess today because my father would beat me. He was a harsh man, he never acknowledged me, always called me a loser. And as a result I am a bad father to my kids, or a bad husband, or unreliable, or whatever… Through the stories we hold to our chests, we limit our own greatness or justify our own arrogance or our own racism. We say things like, “I am always a stickler for detail, I am fussy, I don’t suffer fools…” or “Women are always bad drivers”, “Blacks have no idea how to run a business which is why SA is in a mess…” These are stories we invented partly based on truth or reality and partly based on very limited perception.
It is like driving on the highway and a car swerves right in front of you. You lean on your hooter (or honk your horn) to vent your anger. You take a quick glance at the make of the car or maybe the number plate or the gender or race and we make up a story to explain the other driver’s lack of manners. We have no idea what the actual reason was for that driver’s behaviour and may never know. But we are going to go home and repeat that story to whoever cares to listen including our one-sided analysis.

This phenomenon is also acknowledged in the Qur’an:
(Some) say they were three, the dog being the fourth among them; (others) say they were five, the dog being the sixth,- doubtfully guessing at the unknown; (yet others) say they were seven, the dog being the eighth. Say thou: ‘My Lord knows best their number; It is but few that know their (real case).’ Enter not, therefore, into controversies concerning them, except on a matter that is clear, nor consult any of them about (the affair of) the Sleepers. [Sura Kahf, 18:22]
There is this story of a guy who could not control his gossiping tongue and went to see a Shaykh for guidance. He was instructed to collect feathers and release it on windy day from the minaret overlooking the city. When he returned to declare success, the Shaykh said to him, “Now go and collect those feathers once more.” “But this is impossible,” said the man, “they are now so widely spread!” “Precisely!” said the Shaykh.

From an Islamic, more spiritual perspective, there is this idea that we are all part of bigger, sacred story that overrides all other stories. I love the Sufi notion that says that our essential story, our actual story, our only story is the fact that we were created in a timeless, spaceless place of bliss and then were sent down to discover the “hidden treasure”. We have been sent on a quest (an adventure story?) to discover this treasure and to return from where we came from. This is the story of Adam and Eve. This is the story of US. This is what is reflected in the Qur’an in Sura Tin (Chapter of the Fig, 95):

By the Fig and the Olive, (1)
And the Mount of Sinai, (2)
And this City of security,- (3)
We have indeed created humanity in the best of moulds, (4)
Then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low,- (5)
Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing. (6)
Then what can, after this, contradict thee, as to the judgment (to come)? (7)
Is not Allah the wisest of judges? (8)

So, what shall your story be?

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Mandela’s example should inspire reconciliation between South African Muslims and Jews

By Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool and Rabbi Marc Schneier
As Nelson Mandela endures a grave illness with the same courage and dignity he evinced throughout his life, including the 27 long years he was held prisoner on Robben Island, South African Minister of Public Services Melusi Gigaba said recently that even in his present weakened state, Mandela “is uniting the nation without even saying a word”.
Indeed, Mandela’s legacy to South Africa and the world is not only that he vanquished the evil system of apartheid that imprisoned him and deprived all South Africans of color of their liberty, but that upon finally attaining power, he eschewed the temptation to emulate his persecutors by persecuting them in turn. Instead, he set a new paradigm by advocating unity among South Africans of all races and creeds. By choosing the path of reconciliation, Mandela was able to end apartheid non-violently and to bequeath a better future to his nation; one in which forced separation and inequality among the races were replaced by a multi-racial society animated by principles of equality and justice.
Nevertheless, South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve Mandela’s vision of a country in which racial and religious groups come together for the common good. For example, two of the most influential constituencies in modern-day South Africa, the Jewish and Muslim communities, which once stood together in opposition to apartheid, have since become progressively estranged from each other. Tragically, in recent years, these two religious communities have focused on their differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of nurturing ties of communication and cooperation in the new South Africa.    
We addressed these issues head on last month during a breakfast at the Embassy of South Africa to the U.S. in honor of participants in a groundbreaking Mission to Washington of Muslim and Jewish Leaders from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Mission was co-sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which work together to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in the U.S. and in countries around the world.  
After remarks by both of us and by Dr. Sayyid Syeed, national director of ISNA, urging Jews and Muslims in all three countries to  put aside differences, South African participants in the Mission Adli Jacobs, co-founder and Secretary General of Call of Islam; David Jacobson, executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Rabbi Ron Hendler, project coordinator at the Office of the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, vowed to work together to end the present state of non-interaction between Muslims and Jews in their country. They expressed the hope that the two communities can again find unity and common purpose as existed during the 1980’s when groups like the Call of Islam and Jews for Justice stood together in demanding the dismantling of apartheid.    
We understand only too well that strengthening Muslim-Jewish ties is not an easy or popular cause, but one almost certain to be denounced by influential people in both communities. Yet this effort is very much worth the candle and nowhere more so than in South Africa, where ending the estrangement between these two influential communities is a vital component of ongoing efforts to build a sustainable sense of unity and common purpose among the country’s diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups. Thus, both South African Jews and Muslims owe it to themselves and the larger society they share to find a way to live together in peace and harmony.    
One way of changing the present dynamic of conflict is to realize that the point of departure in Muslim-Jewish engagement should not be the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather Abraham/Ibrahim, our common forefather and the source of our shared commitment to ethical monotheism. Both Islam and Judaism uphold the principles of peace, justice and mercy and a common moral imperative to help those in society who are most in need.
 So let Muslims and Jews break bread together in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other cities to learn about the inspiring commonalities in our two faith traditions. Let us also perform acts of loving kindness together on behalf of South Africans of all backgrounds in need of succor by feeding the hungry and homeless, repairing houses in poor neighborhoods, and going together to hospitals and nursing homes to visit sick and elderly people.
As a Muslim and a Jew committed to our respective faiths and to the larger cause of universal peace and justice so stirringly evoked by Nelson Mandela, we believe that it is essential to heal the bitter rift between Jews and Muslims in South Africa. If this can be accomplished in a country where relations between the two communities are presently conflicted, South Africa can become a beacon of hope to Jews and Muslims around the world—including Israelis and Palestinians.   
Ebrahim Rasool is the South African Ambassador to the United States and co-founder together with Adli Jacobs of the Muslim anti-apartheid organization Call to Islam in 1984. Rabbi Marc Schneier is president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  
This op-ed piece was published in the Cape Times