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October 30, 2011

Pink Chaddis – Mightier Than the Sword

The greater transparency afforded by the Internet and social media, when it comes to political and social affairs, can be an effective counter to bullying by groups who would impose their own moral agenda on others.  A striking case in point is the Pink Chaddis campaign.

Pramod Muthalik

Pramod Muthalik

One evening in January 2009, in the city of Mangalore in southwestern India, a group of  religious fundamentalists named Sri Ram Sena (SRS) attacked a group of women at a local bar called Ambient.  The women were assaulted and driven out into the street.  The Sri Ram Sena (which means “Lord Ram’s Army” in Hindu) is known for its use of violent moral policing tactics similar to those of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other people at the pub captured the events on their video-enabled cell phones.  These were uploaded to YouTube and widely viewed.  Pramod Muthali, leader of the Sri Ram Sene, vowed that his organization would attack anyone who chose to celebrate Valentine’s Day, which it viewed as an inappropriate Western celebration too focused on romantic love.

Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan, a resident of Mangalore, decided to make a public response and rally women to her cause.  She  organized a campaign to combat the threats from the SRS.  She set up a Facebook group called “The Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women.”  She asked the members to mail pink chaddis (Hindu slang for “underwear”) to Muthalik’s office address which she published.  The campaign was an instant success.

In an article she later wrote for the Guardian, Nisha noted “One day, the campaign had 500 members; a week later, it had 30,000. A 75-year-old woman from Delhi sent us panties. A Bollywood lyricist wrote a poem in honour of the rose-coloured chaddi. Amul, India’s best-known brand of butter, put up a billboard featuring a pink chaddi. More than 2,000 chaddis arrived at the SRS office.”

pink-chaddisThe police and politicians of the city, sensitive to the large public response, took heed and brought Muthalik and some of his followers into custody for several days around  Valentine’s Day.

Online tools make it easier to coordinate non-violent protests against groups who promote their ideologies through intimidation and bullying.  But it still takes the courage and creative spark of one or more determined individuals to make it successful.


October 24, 2011

Bunker Roy and the Barefoot College Revolution

Bunker-RoyIn rural India, one man – Bunker Roy – has embraced the potential of the poor and built a college that is for them.  He has been living and working in the rural areas of Rajasthan, India, since 1967 and started the Barefoot College in 1971 in the village of Tilonia. The goal of the college is to improve the quality of life of the world’s rural poor living on less than $1 a day.  It is constructed on the knowledge that the poor themselves already possess; its focus is on how to move out of poverty.  Since its founding, the Barefoot College has trained more than 3 million people for jobs in modern society, from teachers and doctors to solar engineers.

The Barefoot College website characterizes its mission as “. . . a non-government organization that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. These ‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorized into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.”

In 2010, Bunker Roy was named to TIME magazine’s annual list of 100 people who most affect our world.  As Greg Mortenson noted in the article, “Roy combines humanitarianism, entrepreneurship and education to help people steer their own path out of poverty, fostering dignity and self-determination along the way. His simple formula holds a key to what nations and aid organizations might do to build a more just world.”

In the video below, Bunker Roy tells the story of the founding of the Barefoot College and how his idea of a college dedicated to ending poverty has spread from India to other parts of the world.

Bunker Roy: Learning from a barefoot movement

October 6, 2011

Silencing the Dalai Lama?

The attempt to silence His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an exercise in futility akin to trying to block the flow of eternal spiritual truths. Yet this is what the government of South Africa is trying to do. Their refusal to grant him a visa to give a lecture in Cape Town in honor of his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s eightieth birthday is ironic at best and, at worst, hostile to free speech and religion.

These two iconic human beings are honored in much of the world for their willingness to speak truth to power out of the spirituality of their respective Buddhist and Christian traditions. Tutu’s fearless defense of the voiceless and the inclusion of all people is an expression of the abundantly generous love of the God he believes in. The Dalai Lama’s insistence on the inter-connectedness of all beings arises from his Buddhist tradition. He says that his religion is one of kindness. These two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates share a common spiritual and pragmatic insistence on the power of forgiveness over retribution.

There is nothing kind, inclusive or generous about the obfuscating responses of the South African government as they dither about whether to succumb to China’s pressure to keep the Dalai Lama out of South Africa.

In 2009 the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to give a lecture in South Africa with News24 reporting that the government admitted its move was made “in order not to jeopardize ties with China.” The Sunday Independent reported that the South African Embassy in New Delhi had not received the Dalai Lama’s visa application. On August 22, 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman was quoted by Phayul News saying, “The Dalai Lama’s visa issue is not only administrative but political and diplomatic in nature.” In others words the South African government is considering colluding with China in an attempt to silence His Holiness’ voice in South Africa.

The irony lies in the history of apartheid giving way to a robust democracy in 1994. Many members of the current government were silenced by the apartheid regime under which freedom of expression and association was unknown. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s voice against apartheid that could not be silenced at home or on the global stage. Calling for the end of apartheid and for justice he insisted that the human family is made not for separateness but for togetherness. He calls it Ubuntu – we are only human beings in the context of others human beings.

The long fight for freedom of expression, association and democracy in South Africa is called into question by not granting a visa to His Holiness to deliver the inaugural Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in honor of his good friend’s eightieth birthday today, October 7, 2011.

Driven by the spirituality of their respective traditions Tutu and the Dalai Lama tirelessly work for freedom, reconciliation and the inclusion of all. In addition to the Tutu invitation, the Durban based Gandhi Development Trust intends to honor His Holiness in South Africa with the 9th Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.

Robert V. Taylor , His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Archbishop Tutu

Robert V. Taylor , His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Archbishop Tutu

Dumisa Ntsebeza, Chair of the Desmond Tutu Peace Center in South Africa, expressed a generous hope saying, “Although uncertainty over the visa has proved challenging…the Peace Center is confident the visa will be granted.”

Archbishop Tutu and The Dalai Lama will not be silenced by any government. The question is why, given the remarkable history of South Africa’s journey, it would even consider trying to keep the Dalai Lama’s voice out of the country?

It is a futile flourish that the old Apartheid government would have been proud of. Perhaps it is the South African government that is in need of reconciliation – the reconciling of a country’s liberation and constitution with a visa that will welcome one of the great religious and human rights crusaders to its country. What is to be feared from these two Nobel Laureates celebrating their voices and those of humanity in the quest for spiritual and human freedom?

Editor’s Note  On Tuesday, October 4, 2011, His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, withdrew his request for a visa to visit South Africa.

October 6, 2011

A Life of Truth

An active global citizen who embodies the values and virtues that the world needs now, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has chosen to stand up for the vulnerable. He has chosen to speak out against injustice. He has chosen to confront those who provide poor leadership. He has been committed to the values of environmental sustainability and he has galvanized a whole generation of activists to work for good environmental stewardship and an end to poverty.


Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela

Birthday Controversy

Archbishop Tutu’s birthday celebrations have been marred, as his friend and fellow Nobel laureate, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama was unable to attend. The South African government failed to issue the Tibetan spiritual leader a visa, in what critics say was a move to placate China, a major trading partner.

In typical fashion, Tutu was vocal in his criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), vowing to pray for its downfall, just as he did for the demise of the Apartheid government in the 1980’s.  He summarized the situation by saying, “We betrayed our struggle. All the people involved in our struggle are turning in their graves.”

Still an Untiring Activist

Desmond Tutu continues his activism and rarely refrains from criticizing the South African government’s policies, whether on HIV/AIDS or the ANC’s dominance of politics.

His concern for human rights and democracy extends beyond his own country.  He demands freedom for the people of Myanmar and promotes the rights of Palestinians, often irking pro-Israel lobby groups. His latest campaign, championed through The Elders, a group of fellow global leaders, is to ban child marriage wherever it is practiced.  Under Archbishop Tutu’s leadership, people around the world have grown up, and now demand an end to ancient, primitive practices that are widely abhorred, like child marriage.

The Tutu Legacy


Archbishop Desmond Tutu and daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu

Recently, Rev Mpho Tutu, the youngest daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, returned to South Africa to become the founding director of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.  The foundation will preserve his papers, regulate the use of his name and continue to provide an honest commentary on moral issues.

She has also published a biography of her father entitled Tutu: The Authorized Portrait. Mpho interviewed dozens of world leaders for the book.

Across the world, people of all religions, races, ages, ideologies and social classes have been touched directly or indirectly by Desmond Tutu. They have been impacted by his actions. Their lives have been changed by his choices. Even now his legacy continues, influencing generations to come.

Desmond Tutu is a leader who has elevated truth to its rightful place at the top of the list of human virtues.  Without seeking the truth and always speaking the truth, even in the face of danger, we cannot know courage or effect the changes needed for survival.  Archbishop Tutu reaches out now, as he always has, to the new generation with his powerful, timeless message of global peace.  His example is one of showing that to pursue this noble goal takes a tireless commitment to, and a deep respect for, all life.  People around the world can join in celebrating our great good fortune of Desmond Tutu’s birth and remarkable life of 80 years so far.  May the future bless us with his presence, wisdom,and inspirational leadership for years to come.

October 6, 2011

The Goal – A True Union of Hearts and Minds

When awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was called “One of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” She has said that one of her inspirations was South Africa’s successful struggle to end apartheid led by peacemakers like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others who never stopped working to make South Africans free from oppression.


Aung San Suu Kyi

At the beginning of this week, on Monday, October 3, 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s (Myanmar’s) pro-democracy leader, expressed worry about the hope of reaching unity and democracy in her country. She explained that the challenge remains to bring Myanmar’s many diverse ethnic groups together. Like so many other leaders in the non-violent civil disobedience tradition, Suu Kyi has sacrificed much in the cause of bringing Myanmar out of its 20-year isolation into the bright dawn of democracy. After 15 years of detention, she was finally released in late 2010. She also suffered the cruel punishment of not being able to see her beloved husband one last time before he died as the government denied his request to travel from England to Burma in the last few months of his life.


General Aung San

Suu Kyi’s story is one of personal activism in the present-day that is a model for people who value the ultimate goal of worldwide peace, beginning with what they can do within their own cultures to instill the tradition of non-violence. It is not surprising that this daughter of Aung San, Commander of the Burma Independence Army until 1947, would be focused on creating and supporting a democracy in her homeland. Her father was assassinated in 1947 when Suu Kyi was just two years old, and soon after, her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, became active in politics, resulting in her appointment as Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960. It was there that Suu Kyi began a stellar academic career that took her to Oxford University in England for an undergraduate degree and then on to Kyoto University as a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. During this time she published significant work in academic literature, met and married her husband, Professor Michael Aris, and started a family with the birth of her two sons.

Suu-Kyis-husband-Michael Aris with their sons Alexander and Kim

Suu Kyi's husband Michael Aris with their sons Alexander and Kim

In 1988 Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon from her home in England to care for her mother who had been stricken by a stroke. While there, she observed the unrest around her and began her public life, making speeches protesting the government’s ban on more than four people gathering for a meeting as well as making arrests without trials. By September 1988 when the National League for Democracy was established, Suu Kyi found herself serving as General-Secretary, with a national platform from which she could support non-violent disobedience as the way toward democracy in Burma. In December of that same year, her beloved mother, Daw Khin Kyi died, and Suu Kyi committed her life to the service of Burma, following in the footsteps of both her mother and father.

Aung San Suu Kyi could easily have stayed in England, as a successful academic contributing important work about the political and economic cultures of Asia, but she chose the more difficult path of personal activism. Instead of staying safely out of harm’s way in England with her husband and children, she took a step requiring a very special kind of courage—to put the good of the many above her own needs, mirroring the commitment her parents demonstrated toward freedom for all within Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi sepaking to crowdWhen she spoke this week to students in Johannesburg, she asked that the World watch events in Burma closely, and speak out as part of the global community against the atrocities reported to be happening at the hands of the army right now. Aung San Suu Kyi assures us that “We are determined to make a success of our struggle for democracy. We are not just going to sit. We are going to move to get to where we want to go.” Given the great courage Suu Kyi has shown over more than two decades since she returned to Burma to care for her mother, it is safe to say that she is a leader with unwavering purpose. She counts among her friends other great peacemakers like Archbishop Tutu, Nelson Mandela, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, and Gro Harlem Brundtland. Aung San Suu Kyi, like her friends, is an inspirational light shining on the path of peace for us all to take together into the future.

October 6, 2011

Ushahidi – A Stroke of Social Genius

“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”
– Freeman Dyson

Social networks have been much in the news recently as tools for political change that helped bring to an end brutal dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Facebook and Twitter were cited for their pivotal role in helping citizens in these countries coordinate their protest activities and maintain an open communication channel to the outside world when mainstream media could not. But there are other, less publicized social tools which have been deployed in response to intolerable conditions. Consider Ushahidi.



Ushahidi was first conceived by political activist and blogger Ory Okolloh. In December 2007, she was blogging about the government violence that followed the disputed election of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki. The mainstream media was banned from reporting on the crackdown. Okolloh collected reports of the government’s misdeeds and reported them on her blog, the Kenyan Pundit. It quickly became a key source of information for the outside world about the violence occurring in the country.

Overwhelmed by the large number of reports being e-mailed to her, Okolloh posted an idea about a tool that could be used by citizens to report incidents of violence and have this information displayed on a map in near real time. Okolloh christened it Ushahidi, which is Swahili for “witness” or “testimony.” Her vision became reality when her post was read by two programmers, Erik Hersman and David Kobia, and turned into a web-based application.

Today, Ushahidi is a powerful social platform that aggregates information and provides it on a map as a way to get an immediate sense of a situation – e.g., the pattern of violence during ethnic conflict. But the real genius of the tool is that its creators made it flexible enough to apply in many critical situations. For example, Ushahidi has been used to:

  • Monitor violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Track election fraud in Mexico and India
  • Record supplies of vital medicines in several East African countries
  • Locate the injured after the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile

logo-ushahidiUshahidi describes itself as “a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.”

The recent events in the Middle East and the evolution of tools like Ushahidi make one thing clear. The interactive nature of social media is transforming us from consumers to collaborators; from audience to actors. As our tools become more powerful, we have the opportunity to effect positive social change on a scale never imagined.