Peace by practice: Mandela Day 2011

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Friday, 15 July, 2011

Ahead of Mandela Day 2011, Ela Bhatt asks how we can live up to Nelson Mandela's example and discusses the power of "thinking local" to change our communities and create a better world.

To me, Nelson Mandela is a supreme symbol of freedom’s struggle. Next week, on 18 July, he will celebrate his 93rd birthday, a day that around the world people now recognise as ‘Mandela Day’.

Let us take this opportunity to reflect on the life of a man we have come to know and respect as a great leader, one who sacrificed his own freedom for the freedom of his people. How best do we honour his achievements? What can we do to live up to Madiba’s example?

Looking for a solution

It is often said that the problems facing our world are too overwhelming or intractable - that you find endless conflict, injustice and poverty.

I agree that if you want to fix the world’s problems, you have a mighty task. In my own country, India, the scale of the poverty we see is enough to break your heart. After decades of independence, freedom has still not come to every citizen – discrimination has taken new forms, and the poorest of the poor live on the margins, the invisible engine of our so-called ‘Tiger economy’.

When we see such suffering, it is natural to wish to solve everything at once. We turn to our governments for a solution, and feel frustrated when they fail to act. But I have never been one to argue that governments have all the answers.

Change is up to us

Our greatest source of strength is right under our noses; the families, work-places and communities that give us strong foundations, on which equal societies are built.

Thinking local, we can turn power upside down. In my work with Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), I have seen some of the poorest, most vulnerable women transform their lives and the communities they live in. From being home-based workers, landless labourers or illiterate food vendors they have claimed their rights and have become the owners of their own resources, the beneficiaries of their own land. They meet resistance from the authorities at every stage but they stand firm, together, saying “We are poor, but so many!”

I believe strongly that to bring widespread change, we must first make that change ourselves. Another great teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, imagined this as ripples in water, small circles of change that grow ever wider. Our actions have an impact we may never even see.

Peace by practice

Rather than find yourself immobilised by the scale of the world’s problems, look around you. Even when a problem is right under your nose, it is easy to ignore it – we curse fate, blame tradition or say “it’s God’s will.”

But you will not have to search far before you find people who are hungry, lonely, downtrodden, persecuted – sometimes we just need a reason to reach out to them.

When Nelson Mandela founded The Elders, he invoked the idea of ubuntu: that we are human only through the humanity of others. What he describes is more than charity, it is a certain outlook or way of life. By serving others, we actually fulfil our own humanity – these actions are full of faith, a form of prayer.

This Mandela Day – a day for personal, local action – let us spend our energies serving our own communities to honour the 67 years Nelson Mandela dedicated to fighting for a better world.

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