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In a class of his own

In a class of his own

 

Mandela belonged to a club with few members: those willing to sacrifice everything for a cause, to the point where the prerogatives of their own lives vanish into something even their worst enemies respect. Mandela’s mission was the achievement of democracy in South Africa. While other world leaders nibbled at the margins of that goal, subordinating it to more practical concerns like “constructive engagement”, it was Mandela who, in the end, brought apartheid down.

 

Years later, after apartheid had fallen, FINCA tried to establish a program there. We failed, ultimately, unable to operate in a climate where reparations were demanded of all sectors of the society, and no one repaid our loans. Security was a problem as well. One day a group of men posing as customers walked into our fifth floor office in downtown Durban and put a gun to our Managing Director’s head, demanding that he clean out the safe. He was working on his computer at the time and asked permission to save his work. I hope, one day, we can go back.

 

I never met Mandela, but what impressed me most about his life were those moments when he could have walked his career back to something more practical, which everyone would have understood and no one would have criticized, but which would have sapped away the moral authority that enabled him to make so profound a difference to the fate of millions of people.

 

The first was when he was in that courtroom in Pretoria, charged with sabotage and facing the death penalty. Against the advice of his attorneys, he admitted to his crime, defending his actions by saying that he had exhausted all peaceful means of protest against an unjust regime and its policy of repression against his people. He then told the court that he hoped he would live to see true democracy in South Africa, but, if necessary, he would sacrifice his life to further that cause. The judge, who must have sensed his own immortal soul at stake, sentenced Mandela to life in prison instead of hanging.

 

During his 27 years in prison, Mandela repeatedly refused to renounce violence, even in return for his freedom, electing instead to remain a symbol of resistance. It is said his guards wept when he was released. He then did what would have been impossible for one of less moral authority: he healed the nation’s wounds, and brought the people together. He leaves a towering legacy, both to his country and to the world.

While I was in the waiting room of my son’s dentist, waiting for all four of his wisdom teeth to be yanked, I read a beyond-grim article in Rolling Stone on how Australia is becoming the first casualty of Global Warming. The article pictured a baked kangaroo who had been caught in a fire storm caused by the drought affecting a large part of the country, even as other parts of it are being drenched by flooding rains. Most depressing to me and anyone who has ever known the rapture of floating over one of the Pacific’s technicolor coral reefs was the news that these will all be gone — bleached to death — by 2050.

The article concluded with a quote from some scientist who said that Australia was basically supplying the climatogological rope to hang itself with by selling zillions of tons of dirty burning coal to China, which that country will use to stoke its furnaces and send zillions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the air which is THE main cause of Global Warming — which some say, if eliminated, would eliminate the problem.

And we won’t stop burning dirty coal…..why? Oh, well, you see, China and India won’t do that until their economies catch up to the U.S. And the U.S. won’t do it because that would kill jobs. And better to kill every living thing on earth in the long run than lose a few jobs in the short term. Makes sense, right?

Yeah, I know, I can talk, at least I have a job.

With the failure of the latest environmental summit down in South Africa, and the semi flop of the latest Eurozone talks, it becomes more and more apparent that the fate of the planet hinges on whether the nations of the world can sacrifice their short term interest in favor of the greater good of survival.

So far, the answer is a resounding NO!!!!!!!!!

The FINCA train rolled into Lusaka, Zambia, this week for our annual board meeting. We always do one of our four FINCA International board meetings at one of the affiliates, alternating regions, allowing the board members a break from the powerpoints and a chance to meet the clients and our employees in the flesh.

Today we plunged into Lusaka’s largest market to meet with the members of the village bank “Tutalike” (“Let’s start”). The village bank was organized by three women in 2002, and has grown to over 30 women and men who meet in a dark wooden building with a roof of corrugated tin in the heart of the market amidst the stalls selling everything from children’s clothing,to dried fish, to CDs from Zambian rappers. We received an enthusiastic reception: the women danced, sang and ululated a song composed in our honor, gyrating their “sitting facilities” in ways that I’ve never seen outside of Africa. When they pulled me out onto the dance floor to join them I did my best rendition of the “Funky Chicken” — but let’s face it, if White Guys can’t jump, we’re even more inept at dancing.

Listening to the village bankers describe their businesses, it was hard to imagine that from this humble launching pad some of them routinely travelled to Tanzania, South Africa, and even China to purchase goods for resale. Others knitted shawls or school sweaters for children, or had grocery stores. Many of the clients had started, 9 years ago, with $60 loans, but with the expansion of their businesses were now borrowing many times that amount. Their gratitude to us an FINCA was, at times, embarrassing. After all, all we had done was make loans to them, which they had repaid, with interest. But they all said the same thing: if not for FINCA, they would never have been able to obtain the working capital to build their businesses.

Sadly, many had lost their husbands to the AIDS epidemic, and were raising their children alone. One was even raising her deceased sister’s children alongside her own.

But there was no hint that the people in this village bank viewed their lives as anything but blessed.

It took us a while to find our way through the maze of narrow footpaths between the market stalls and back out into the street. I looked around, and every one of us was smiling.

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