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April 11, 2016

Doesn’t God Have an Amazing Sense of Humor?

The following is a speech by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu given April 8, 2016 at the inauguration in Cape Town by Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health of the Desmond Tutu Professorship in Public Health and Human Rights.

12985515_793643907446277_475419346271717790_nDoesn’t God have an amazing sense of humor?

After a lifetime of struggle, standing up for the rights of others, I have reached the stage of life that simply standing up is a struggle requiring great forethought and planning.

To be honest, I’m not sure whether your asking one as decrepit as I am to address you would be more accurately described as an abuse of human rights or a public health issue?

More than 70 years ago, Tuberculosis came very close to taking my life. The loving care that I received made a deep impression on me, and although I had fallen behind with my studies, I resolved to become a doctor.

I worked very hard to catch up, applied to Medical School – and my application was accepted. But our family didn’t have the resources to pay the steep fees, and I was unable to nail down a bursary. So I qualified as a teacher, instead.

Of course, I later gave up teaching to study theology and join the ranks of the clergy. But that’s another story.

The point of this story is that although I have been blessed to lead a wonderfully fulfilling life, to travel widely, meet fantastic people – and even receive a few honorary doctorates – there has always been a part of me that would have preferred to be a real medical doctor.

Your establishing this professorship combining my passions for human rights and health care is therefore especially meaningful to me. You are, as it were, helping an old man assuage a childhood itch.

Thank you.

Thank you Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

i. Thank you for honouring our work by inaugurating a professorship in my name.

ii. Thank you for acknowledging the indelible links between human rights and public health.

iii. Thank you for recognising the exceptionally capable and compassionate Chris Beyrer as the first bearer of this professorship. I am very proud to be associated with him.

iv. And thank you for taking the trouble to travel all the way to Cape Town for this ceremony, to allow this old man to bask in your glory.
I should say: Welcome Home to Africa. Because many years ago – before my time, even – human life started here. Our abilities to reason and to love started here.

There is an old African idiom that says: Wisdom is like a Baobab tree – no one individual can embrace it.

When enough of us link hands, hearts and minds – when we realise that we are all, ultimately, members of one family, God’s family – we make the undoable doable, the impossible possible, and become an irresistible force.

In South Africa, soon after the dawn of our democracy, HIV & AIDS taught us very painfullessons about the links between human rights and public health.

Poor South Africans were denied treatment for several critical years, leading to the unnecessary loss of hundreds of thousands of our people – many of them mothers and fathers at the most productive stages of their lives.

What was a public health crisis became a human rights crisis – and we thank God for the role that civil society played in eventually forcing our government to provide life-saving medicines.

To the north of us, in Zimbabwe, the collapse of the health care system (with the economy) eight years ago led to our collaborating with Dr. Beyrer for the first time.

The Darfur genocide in Sudan, the plight of political prisoners in Myanmar, the aftermath of the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe and the homophobic policies and practices of various African countries have been some of the theaters in which we have since cemented out ties.

Human rights is a universal measure. It was Martin Luther King who said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

To which we add the words of our extraordinary founding father, uTata Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

When we deny people access to health care on the basis of their class, ethnicity, sexuality or political allegiance we are in fact denying our own humanity.

Conversely, the manner in which we uphold the dignity of others is a measure of our humanity. It exposes who we really are, the essence of our being.

I know that with Dr. Beyrer in the chair, the Desmond M. Tutu Professorship in Public Health and Human Rights is in exceptional hands.

The struggle for human rights is in good hands.

Thank you.

God bless you all.