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October 26, 2013

Liberia Marathon Commemorates a Decade of Negative Peace

Despite a rainy forecast on August 25th over a thousand runners turned up in Monrovia for Liberia’s second organized marathon since the end of the civil war. The “Liberia Rising, Together” marathon is one in a series of events that have been held this year in commemoration of 10 years of peace in the West African country.

Liberian Race Ellen Johnson Sirleat MarathonAmong the runners was President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Flanked by members of her staff and close associates, Johnson-Sirleaf jogged a stretch of the course along Tubman Boulevard as a gesture of solidarity with marathon participants.  “I am running in the spirit of celebrating this year of peace,” Johnson-Sirleaf said as she caught her breath to waive to passing runners. Alluding to the nexus between sports and development, the President added, “A healthy body means a healthy mind.”

Liberian Race Winner Nathan Naibei MarathonThe marathon also attracted international runners, including the winner of the men’s marathon, Nathan Naibei. A native Kenyan, Naibei completed the marathon in 2 hours and 33 minutes. “I’m happy, although this race was not as competitive as other marathons. The weather was also not that favorable to make a better time,” Naibei, who has won three other marathons, opined.

A race for all Liberians

Apart from the full marathon and a 10K alternative, a race for disabled persons was arranged for participants in wheelchairs and crutches.

Liberian Race Alex Kerkula MarathonNursing blisters on his hands chafed from maneuvering his wheelchair to a fourth place finish, Alex Kerkula expressed deep satisfaction for having surpassed his sixth place finish in 2006, “I thank God, I’m happy.” For Kerkula, a sense of accomplishment is a rare feeling. As an aspiring Hipco (Liberian rap) musician, Kerkula spends most of his time hustling on the streets to save up money to record his songs. Among the songs he has released is “Equal – Don’t Hit Me, I’m a Human Being,” in which he raps about the challenges of being disabled in Liberia. “In Liberia, we suffer hard. Nobody helps us,” Kerkula laments.

Coming off a first place finish in the crutches race, a shy smile crosses Emmanuel Nyumah’s face as he imagines how proud his family will be when learning that his arduous two-week long training paid off. In the book-selling business, Nyumah plans to use the cash prize awarded to the winners to invest in more books.

Nyumah feels as though he has come a long way after that fateful evening of Christmas Eve 2004 that resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Nyumah was traveling overnight in a truck carrying fish on the notoriously pothole-ridden road connecting Monrovia to Gbarnga when the vehicle overturned. During the three months he spent at the JFK hospital, Nyumah recalls, “I felt like I had lost the whole world.”

Negative peace in Liberia  

Recognizing that there are still many obstacles to overcome after Liberia’s gruesome 14-year civil war, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Eugene Nagbe, maintained that the marathon represents “a vote of confidence in the Liberian people.”

Echoing those sentiments, one 10K participant named Omaru stressed, “You need these types of events to make people know you are on the rightful path to peace.” In a country where most unemployment rate estimates hover between 80-85 percent, Omaru notes that, for the youth in particular, the race offers an opportunity to contribute to society in a positive manner.

johan galtungFor a brief moment, the marathon provided ordinary Liberians with a distraction from their daily struggle to survive. It was an opportunity to celebrate ten years of interrupted negative peace in the Galtungian sense.  Johan Galtung is widely regarded as a driving force behind the development of an academic discipline for Peace and Conflict Studies. Among many notable theories attributed to him, Galtung made the distinction between positive and negative peace along with developing the concept of peacebuilding. Negative peace refers to an absence of large-scale violence, while positive peace goes beyond that definition to include provisions against structural violence which hinders, among other things, democratic processes and social mobility.

While the marathon infused many Liberians with a sense of accomplishment and confidence, most Liberians are still reeling from the legacy of the war and the reality that the benefits of development have been disproportionately felt in the country. The gap between rich and poor continues to be unacceptably wide and so is a source of much resentment. That a marathon was held in one of the poorest post-conflict countries in the world is a massive feat, but not necessarily a sign that the country is out of the woods quite yet.

Not unlike Nyumah, when he goes home Kerkula expects to receive accolades from his family. And tomorrow he will be back on the streets, hustling to get by.

October 7, 2013

Life Lessons Inspired by Desmond Tutu

Note:  This article was originally posted on the Ann Curry Reporting Our World page of NBC News.

Desmond Tutu and Robert V. Taylor, May 2012

Desmond Tutu celebrates his 82nd birthday on October 7th. I’m often asked what I’ve learned from this tireless peacemaker over three decades of knowing him. Alongside the wisdom that his life, work, teaching and spirit exude, five life lessons stand out which are transformative to the life of any person when they are allowed to be in dynamic inter-action.

Undergirding everything I’ve learned is Tutu’s witness to the philosophy of Ubuntu.  It is an African wisdom tradition which says that a person is only a person in the context of others.  Or to put it another way “I am only me because of you.” Everything that he says and does is a reflection of this fundamental belief in our need of one another combined with the teachings of his faith tradition about love, forgiveness and justice.

Trust. Tutu speaks often about his belief that we are made for goodness, in fact he’s even written a book about that. The belief is lived out through a striking willingness to trust others and a sense that when given the chance most people will ultimately make decisions that are good. It is a fundamental trust in the goodness of others.

Fifteen years ago I asked Tutu what made him offer to help me get out of South Africa in 1980—when he barely knew me—to avoid imprisonment for refusing to serve in the military. He thought for a moment then said, “I trusted you and wanted to help.”  This combination of trust in the goodness of others and the willingness to act on that guiding belief create a dynamic, interactive way of life.

Playful Delight. Like his dear friend the Dalai Lama, Tutu has lived with the threat of violence against him and witnessed some of the most wrenching atrocities in the world. At a breakfast conversation I once hosted at which these two men spoke about compassion the audience was mesmerized as they teased and poked one another in the ribs while on stage and then collapsed into peals of laughter.

In the midst of responding to the needs of the world Tutu is grounded in a playful mischievous delight about life that begins with making fun of himself. It is a choice to walk lightly through the world while being fully present to life and others.

Honoring Your Word. In a world of often glib promises I’ve repeatedly witnessed Tutu honoring the commitments he speaks about. In the late nineteen eighties at the height of the anti-apartheid movement I asked him when he might speak in support of LGBT rights. “Once apartheid is overturned” he said without missing a beat. Today he calls the struggle for those rights the moral equivalent of ending apartheid.

There is a theme to how he honors his word. The magnificence and belovedness of every person are, I believe, what drive his insistent words about the need for girl’s education, women’s leadership, the Girl’s Not Brides campaign, the environment and LGBT rights. It is about living an integrated life that honors one another and especially those who are denied equality.

Steadfast Loyalty. The varied expressions of loyalty that I and so many others have experienced and received from Tutu is a reminder of the steadfastness of his friendship with others irrespective of their successes or failures. I’ve come to understand that this gift is only possible because of his profound self-awareness of human foibles and frailty and his heartfelt empathy with others.

Overjoyed by his willingness to write a generous introduction to my recent book, I was completely unprepared for his enthusiasm about travelling to Los Angeles to participate in a book launch event for the same book. It is a reflection of a steadfast loyalty that is another reminder of the Ubuntu wisdom tradition at work.

Grounding Practice. Tutu has engaged many and offended some by declaring that “God is not a Christian.” He understands his God to be more loving, expansive and generous than the wisdom of any one tradition points to. Yet it is his daily practice of celebrating Holy Communion every morning wherever he is that grounds his life and informs it.

I’ve learned that no matter your tradition the ability to engage in a regular practice of meditative or prayerful mindfulness each day is foundational to being an aware participant in your own life and the human family. The particulars of what kind of practice you choose are less important than the practice itself.

While I’m profoundly grateful for all that I have learned from Tutu over the decades I am not unique in learning such life lessons from him. These five things are accessible to anyone wanting to live an integrated mindful life in the spirit of Ubuntu.  Above all, they reflect Tutu’s generosity of heart, mind and spirit. It is a generous way of living that beckons any of us.

October 5, 2013

3rd Annual Tutu International Peace Lecture in Cape Town, South Africa

You are invited to take part in a series of events occurring in South Africa to mark the celebration of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 82nd Birthday. Archbishop Tutu’s birthday is on Mon. October 7th. We encourage you to send the Archbishop birthday greetings using the Twitter hashtag #Tutu82bday.

Highlights include an evening keynote speech from former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan speaking at the 3rd Annual Tutu International Peace Lecture in Cape Town, South Africa and all-day Peace Symposium with Archbishop Tutu, special guests from around the world and leaders of Tutu-named organizations.

Monday, October 7, 2013: You are invited to watch a live streaming video of Mr. Kofi Annan’s speech broadcasted on SABC’s (South Africa’s Broadcasting Company’s) website on Oct. 7, 2013 at 7PM in Cape Town (GMT+2)  or 1pm EDT in New York.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013: Desmond, Leah & Mpho Tutu, Rev. Robert Taylor and other conversation participants will participate in the Tutu Legacy Foundation’s first international “Ubuntu Train” peace symposium for representatives of Tutu named organizations.

This live stream should run on Tues 8 October from 2-3:30pm (Cape Town time) which translates [8am-9:30am NY EDT & 5am-6:30am PDT].  The link for the live stream is:


Please note Archbishop Tutu will be opening the session at 2pm (Cape Town Time) and Robert Taylor will be one of the speakers.

You can participate in a Twitter chat by sending your questions and comments to the Twitter hashtag is #Tutu4peace2013.  We will be engaging & sharing #Tutu4peace2013 comments from 4pm-4:45pm (Cape Town time). The topic is Creating a Better Tomorrow.


October 5, 2013

Gun Violence by the Numbers

navy-yard-shooterRecently, Americans witnessed another mass shooting, this time at the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capital.  Thirteen people were killed and another 14 were injured.  The shooter was well-armed, with among other guns, an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle.  He also had a history of violent behavior and mental illness.  Such incidents bring the debate over gun control back into the spotlight, and raises the questions of why does this happen, and what can we do about it.

One of the reasons there is so much gun violence might simply be the large number of weapons owned by Americans.  The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there is substantial evidence that more guns means more murders. A more recent study of gun violence in the United States corroborated this finding.  The study was conducted by Professor Michael Siegel at Boston University and two coauthors, and published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Siegel and his colleagues compiled data on firearm homicides from all 50 states from 1981-2010 to see whether they could find any relationship between changes in gun ownership and murders using guns over time.  The authors employed the largest-ever number of statistical controls for variables in this kind of gun study: age, gender, race/ethnicity, urbanization, poverty, unemployment, income, education, income inequality, divorce rate, alcohol use, violent crime rate, nonviolent crime rate, hate crime rate, number of hunting licenses, age-adjusted non-firearm homicide rate, incarceration rate, and suicide rate were all taken into account.  The conclusion:  widespread American gun ownership is helping fuel America’s gun violence epidemic.

americans at gun showThe U.S. stands out in the sheer number of guns owned by its citizens. According to the Small Arms Survey, the estimated total number of guns held by U.S. civilians is 270 million, or 88.9 firearms per 100 people. The country with the second-most guns is India, with an estimated 46 million guns in private hands, or about four firearms for every 100 people.  The U.S., with 4.5 percent of the world population, accounts for about 40 percent of the planet’s civilian firearms.

Political gridlock and a deepening political divide in the U.S. almost assures that there will be no legislative solution anytime soon.  While mass shootings usually evoke a large public outcry at the time of their occurrence, public pressure for comprehensive gun control legislation wanes over time and political will seems to melt under the relentless lobbying of the National Rifle Association.  Although there is often sustained support for specific types of legislation, e.g., preventing those with a history of mental illness from owning guns, to date such efforts have generally not resulted in new gun laws.

gun-ownership-declining-in-usaThe good news in this otherwise gloomy prospect is that statistics show that gun ownership and violence overall are declining in the United States, though both are significantly higher on a per capita basis than in other developed countries. Perhaps the ultimate resolution lies in the story those numbers tell.  The problem of gun violence will dminish as the culture of guns continues to wane and guns become meaningless relics of the American imagination.

October 5, 2013

Pruning Branches on “Peace”

Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:

How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King  Jr.

I didn’t post earlier in the week because I wasn’t quite ready to write about peace. After the Boston marathon bombing and the ensuing manhunt, I felt like I couldn’t “authentically” comment on peace since I was struggling to find it within myself.

I didn’t feel “at peace.”

I felt overcome — sorrowful and tormented that the tragedy resonated so deeply. Similar to my feelings after the Sandy Hook shootings last December, I felt stuck in a state of empathy that truly ached.

As a parent, I am experiencing the joy and sacredness of my children ‘daily’ as they discover who they are – fresh with the light and energy of innocence.

At the same time, I am discovering who they have the potential to be. Where can peace be found in the face of that kind of loss?

Searching for explanations only raises more questions: disconnected young men, misguided ideologies about freedom, faith, and religion. As a society, where do we go from here?

Where is peace in all of this, and what can we learn when we feel as if God is absent?

However, in the same moments I have ached over Newtown and Boston, I have also rejoiced that cancer no longer invades the bodies and lives of several dear friends, and the beauty, celebration, and complexity of life continues.

The paradox is that God is present in all of these moments, and peace and patience come to fruition with that understanding. Irish poet John O’Donohue says that somewhere within us, a ‘dignity’ presides that ‘trusts’ the form a day takes, continuously “transforming our broken fragments into an eternal continuity that keeps us.”

Trusting the ‘form’ that each day takes (the good and the bad) requires the understanding that within each moment, we can choose to move forward in patience (with love or generosity) or in haste (with indifference or hostility).

The act of patience reminds us that we are not in control, and staying ‘in the struggle’ allows us the opportunity to improve our world and ourselves, rather than accepting the easy answers of apathetic approaches or adopting attitudes of intolerance.

In the New Testament, Paul reminds us that human beings cannot help but see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections.

If we allow ourselves to trust the form each day takes, and choose to accept that grace essentially explains that life happens within the arms of God (as 16th century poet St. John wrote), then we get a glimpse of heaven on earth.

Being still and patient in those moments of struggle reveals the notion that “when we are . . . aware of the inadequacy of our table, it is to that, uninvited, the guest comes” (Thomas).

Through patience, we are acquiring peace of the spirit, so that we can trust the form each day takes.

October 5, 2013

Because a Story Was Shared in a Far Off Land

Thank you to all who are responding to the question we, along with the International Storytelling Center, are asking at their upcoming festival, October 4-6, 2013, in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Early responses are already coming in for our question:

How might the art and power of storytelling contribute to global peace and collaboration in a troubled world?

Shortly before my Pop died, I was working on a play with a Christmas theme. I’d had him over for dinner and just offhandedly asked, “Well, Pop, you got any Vietnam Christmas stories?” not expecting an answer, because he rarely talked about his three tours in Vietnam.

What happened next in the story he shared allowed me to understand the true, life-saving power of story, and how because of story, I did not become an orphan during the TET offensive, when I was born and his life was saved— all because someone knew his story.

It was November of ’67 and Pop was in Quin Hon, Vietnam. A Refrigerated ship pulled into port– the kind that holds lots of food. My dad and his buddy Bobby Noble had the task of “inspecting” the ship. They loved that job, because infractions on refrigerator ships were quickly and magically fixed with a supply of turkeys and steaks. My dad and Bobby found enough infractions to provide a feast. They didn’t bring the food back to the other guys at the base. But– it’s not as bad as you think. My dad was Catholic, and there was a Vietnamese priest there- they called him Father Paul because his real name was hard to pronounce. He spoke English, and Dad would go see him sometimes. They’d share stories about their lives, what it was like for each of them growing up. Dad showed him pictures of my mom, my sister, and talked about the upcoming birth of their new baby, which would happen pretty soon. Father Paul ran the orphanage, and my dad would often bring candy bars and other things there, and sometimes play with the kids. On this day, Pop and Bobby took the food to Father Paul at the orphanage, so the kids, who usually get nothing but rice every day, could have Christmas dinner. In fact, it was enough food for several weeks.

Dad remembers going up the hill that day, carrying the load. He would always call out to let Father Paul know not to worry, but he forgot to this day and he heard father Paul call out. “Ai do! Day la nhung gi? Who’s there? What’s this?”

Pop just shouted up to him, “Xin Chao Cha! Hi Father! It’s Magic Turkey. Give me a hand.” And Father Paul and a few of the older children began taking the boxes into the gates of the orphanage.

Father Paul of course asked, “How is your wife, and the new baby?”

“No baby yet. It’s due in a couple of weeks. Maybe it’ll be a boy this time.”

Of course, they were talking about me.

Father Paul tells him, “When you hear, you come tell me. We’ll celebrate with a steak dinner. I save this one for you.”

Pop replied, “Will do. Gotta get back to my unit. Merry Christmas.”

The orphans and Father Paul had a real feast that Christmas. A few weeks later, there was a huge Offensive by the Viet Cong. The TET Offensive. Dad’s unit was getting hit from all sides. The Viet Cong surrounded the village, even came to the orphanage gates. Father Paul held them off with nothing but a 38 caliber pistol. The Viet Cong soldiers saw him defend the children and left the orphanage alone. My dad survived the offensive. He went up the hill to check on Father Paul once fighting had let up.

Pop called up as usual, maybe not as loudly. “Xin Chao Cha?” and Father Paul appeared. “It’s good to see you safe, father. I heard you had visitors.”

Father Paul met him and said, “I held them off with pistol.”

“That rusty old thirty-eight?”

Father Paul stood firm and explained, “They will not come onto property without a fight from me. Come, I show you why.”

“I know Father, the children. I told you before, I can’t bring any of them home. I just had another baby, two weeks ago. The Red Cross couldn’t find me. Just found out today. What a world to bring a kid into, huh? So you don’t need to show me…”

Then Father Paul cut him short—“Look down hill!”

Pop said he stood speechless for a minute when he realized what he was looking at. “That’s…my unit.”

The Viet Cong thought, and dad thought, that Father Paul held off the soldiers to save the children. Father Paul knew the Viet Cong wouldn’t hurt the orphans. But he also knew that the orphanage sat on a hill with a clear view to dad’s location. The Viet Cong could have completely wiped out the platoon. My dad had been kind to the orphans. He also knew Pop had a child at home and another on the way. Father Paul wanted to return the kindness, so Pop’s children would not be orphans, too. For every small gesture of peace, a miracle happens. For every small story shared, understanding and possibility is created in this world. Because a story was shared in a far off land, in a different culture, during a time of war, I got to grow up with a mom and a dad, and two more brothers and another sister, who then gave me 20 nieces and nephews, and 3 great-nephews. I owe my family, and my father owes his life, to a story.