Society

Felix

What’s so wrong with being an individual?

That is something I have often thought about since meeting Felix Chughuda, a musician from Tanzania who I met while he played his guitar under a tree in a Cape Town park. There is no mistaking his sense of individuality and uniqueness, one of the many ways he chooses to express himself. And yet, despite being one of the friendliest people I met on my travels through South Africa, as we chatted he told me of his many experiences of prejudice based solely on the way he looks. “People just assume I’m out to rob them or something”, he said, “but I just love to play my guitar and watch the world go by.”

One of the things I have always found most fascinating about meeting people from all over the world is how we can all be so similar and yet different at the same time. It’s a contradiction which can be seen all across society - we want to stand out from the crowd but we want to fit in as well, and we ostracize those who dare stand out just that little bit too much. It seems that we judge people as much by the clothes they chose to wear, as the lives they chose to live.

The question is, why?

Why do we allow ourselves to be so governed by these complex social rules, which seem to make so little sense and yet have such a powerful influence on how we lead our daily lives? After all, there are already so many genuine barriers which stand between us, why do we allow artificial barriers, such as the way we look, to further divide us as human beings sharing the same planet.

I say, let’s celebrate our individuality as people, let’s rejoice in our uniqueness, instead of using these small differences between us to divide us. After all, don’t we already have enough division in our world?

International Women's Day

We shouldn’t need an International Women’s day.

We shouldn’t need to set a reminder, telling us that March 8th each year is the day when we recognise the achievement of women. We should be recognising those achievements and contributions every day of the year. And yet, we don’t.

Why is that?

We can’t blame ignorance. We can’t say we didn’t know how much women have achieved, because we do.

We can’t blame the media. We can’t claim they aren’t doing enough to highlight the role of women in the modern world. That shouldn’t need to be highlighted.

And we can’t blame society, because every society simply reflects the values and opinions of its members.

The reality is that we don’t adequately value the achievements of women because we simply choose not to. That isn’t to say tremendous improvements haven’t been made. Women have access to more opportunities today than ever before. And yet we still need to do so much more. The glass ceiling is still as much an issue today as it ever has been.

And so, on International Women’s day 2018, we once agin take the briefest of moments to consider the achievements of women all over the world. But, in doing so, let us recognise the real women in our society. Not the celebrities, whose fame is glorified every day. Instead, let us consider the actions of the everyday women, who do so much to contribute to our communities.

Women like Soobawti who, at 70 years of age, is still working from sunrise to sunset, to provide for her family.  When I first met her, she was carrying an seemingly impossible load of grass on her head, which she told me she had cut that morning for the family goats. She doesn’t do this for the recognition or the rewards.

And yet, it is exactly women like Soobawti who we should be rewarding, who we should be recognising, until the day finally comes when we no longer need a special day to do just that.

Why?

We need to have a conversation about homelessness.

All across the world, from New York to Cape Town, London to the Kiev, people hurry about their daily lives, hardly noticing as their fellow human beings prepare a bed of cardboard boxes and plastic sheets.

Although often blamed, neither over-population nor a lack of space are the cause of homelessness. Rather untreated mental health problems, the break down of families, drugs and alcohol abuse, and a thousand other tragic issues cause people to find themselves living on the streets.

Throughout the development of our modern society, we have seen humanity accomplish some truly amazing achievements. And yet, somehow putting a roof over the heads of those most in need is not one of those achievements.

The conversation we need to have is, why?

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Watching the sun rise over the rounded incline of Sugar Loaf Mountain, it is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere of Rio de Jeniero.

Home to around 6,000,000 people, Rio is definitely not somewhere to get away from the crowd. Isolation is an impossible dream with so many people crammed into a single city. But there is something about the vibe of the city which makes everyone your friend.

Even in the dark, sat on top of a desolate mountain top waiting for the sun to make its appearance so I could take this photograph, I was soon joined by the small group of people passing by for a morning walk.

Sharing their coffee with me, we soon found ourselves in such an engaging conversation. I very nearly missed the shot I had been waiting for.

That was my experience all over Rio de Jeniero, where the carnival spirit lives on as much in the hearts of the people as on the streets of the city.

Friendship

The summer heat of Dubai can take your breath away. It grabs hold of you from the moment you step out of the comfort of air conditioned buildings, and just won't let go. But wandering around the old souk region of Dubai there is a much greater warmth to be felt, the warmth of the people going about their daily lives.

It was still very early in the morning when I set out to meet the people of the souk. The sun had hardly risen in the sky, and people all around were greeting each other on the street before starting their day. That was exactly the scene when I met this group of friends sitting on the curb side, drinking hot tea.

They told me they were from Bangladesh, attracted to the city of Dubai by the opportunities it offered them. Life was a struggle, the hours long and the work arduous. And yet despite this they were still able to laugh and tease each other as only friends could, the warmth of their friendship seeing them through.

Nana Viv

The quietly spoken matriarchal elder of an Aboriginal family, which can trace it’s roots back far before any Europeans arrived on the shores of Australia, Nana Viv has dedicated her life to the preservation of Aboriginal culture and history.

For over 40,000 years, the Nyungar people have called the lands of South West Australia their home, but today only a tiny fraction of the inhabitants this vast region are of Aboriginal descent. In just 200 years, their population has been decimated by disease and war brought by the colonial settlers from the west.

For generations, Nana Via and her family have been fighting for the recognition of the Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution. But it is not ownership of the lands which drive  them. Seeing themselves as the guardians of the coastal lands, the gateway to their sacred ocean, the Nyungar feel it their responsibility to protect the land for future generations.

"They are like children who don't understand what they are doing to the land all around us", Nana Viv tells us, speaking slowly to allow our western minds to understand, "we have to protect this land. This is not something we chose to do, it is something we have to do."

Time and time again, the history of the world is littered with examples of humanity charging in without fully understanding the consequences of our actions. We rip fossil fuel from the land and the ocean, we cut down the ancient rainforests, push back the ocean to create more space to build upon, and pump huge volume of chemicals into the atmosphere, all in the name of the advancement of humanity.

But to Nana Viv, and many of the other ancient peoples and civilisations, our actions are simply those of impatient children, tearing up the world without thought for the future.

As the governments of the world look towards an uncertain future, as we begin to better understand the damage our actions have caused, I am left to wonder whether perhaps Nana Viv has a point.

Freedom

In Amsterdam, it the bicycle which rules the streets not the motor car. It is pedal power which moves the city, not oil.

Cars have become so entrenched into our daily lives, it is hard to imagine that they really are a very modern invention. Our world has existed for millions of years. Humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years. The motor car has existed for just a hundred years and yet already it dominates our planet.

Huge road networks now span the globe. Planning where to park all the cars now dominates the thinking behind every new building. And the fumes pumped out by the billions of cars we own have made the air virtually unbreathable in cities all over the world.

And yet, despite all this, we remain totally addicted to our cars.

We have become so obsessed with them, we use them for journeys which make no sense. We will sit in a traffic jams for an hour to make a journey we could walk in 20 minutes. We will sit in them alone, side-by-side with other people all alone in their cars, all travelling to the same destination.

We know it makes no sense, and yet still we do it. Why?

There is no doubt the motor car is a wonderful invention. It has brought us so much convenience, helping bring people together, helping people to explore. But like all technology we have to learn that sometimes is it ok not to use it. That sometimes pedal power makes more sense.

It is a lesson they have certainly learned in Amsterdam and personally, I envy the freedom it has brought them.

Spirit of the Samurai

Tradition still runs strong in Japan.

Despite being at the forefront of technological advancement for decades, all across the neon lit, modern city of Tokyo, people are keeping the old ways alive. They haven't forgotten their heritage.

People like Kazuhisa, who I met early one rainy Tokyo morning, practicing his traditional sword play in the park. I asked him why he still practiced the long outdated skills of the Samurai. "Because I am Japanese" was his simple answer.

The glory days of the Samurai may have long passed into the history books. In the 21st century, there is no place for people walking the streets with killing swords in their hands. And yet their memory lives on through those who keep their traditions alive, ensuring their spirit remains an every day part of the identity of modern Japan.

We are all products of our past. And yet so often we forget where we have come from, ignoring our personal heritage as we race towards the future. After all, how can we know where we are going if we don't know where we have been?

The traditional ways may not always have an obvious place in our modern day lives, but it is worth considering whether the best way to know who we want to be in the future, is by understanding of who we were in the past.

For that, perhaps we could all benefit from searching for our own sprit of the Samurai.

The Spirit of Determination

Guillaume Thierry is one of the most determined people I have ever met.

The first time I saw him was on television, as I watched him represent Mauritius at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. He was competing in the decathlon, and I can vividly remember cheering him on for the pole vault event.

It was only some time later, after I met him in person, that I found out what a challenge that pole vault event had really been. “That wasn’t my pole,” he explained. “Somehow my pole was sent to a different stadium, so I had to borrow a pole at the last minute.”

As can be imagined, in an event as technical as the pole vault, simply picking up another pole and using it to project yourself five metres above the ground is not the easiest thing to do. But that is the mark of Guillaume’s determination. When faced with a challenge, he just got on with it.

I have found this determination running throughout Mauritius. When faced with a challenge, people will simply get on with it. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail – but, regardless of the result, their determination remains as focused as it ever was.

Smile

Despite being widowed for over 10 years, Beeponee wanted me to know she wasn’t lonely. Her son lives close by and she has other children and grand children. In this respect, she says has more than many.

Still, life isn't easy. After a lifetime of working, she still has to work to support herself, growing vegetables in her small garden to sell by the side of the street.

But the thing which struck me most, as I listened to her story, was her amazing smile.

I saw it from all the way down the street. It was a smile of pure defiance, a smile that declared to the world, no matter what, this is a woman who intends to live a full life. It is a smile I will never forget.

Cooperation

Space is a valuable asset in Tokyo.

With billboards and brightly lit signs occupying every available inch of the buildings above, and people jostling for room as they bustle along the crowded streets below, the entire city can prove a serious shock to the system.

And yet there is a sense of order within the chaos.

In such a densely populated city, people have had to learn to work together to bring order to every day life. Japanese society has practically been built on complex social rules with which govern virtually every aspect of everyday life. Whether is it knowing when to walk and when to stop, or who goes first and who gives way, everyone just seems to understand what to do. Where elsewhere in the world, we are so caught up in our own lives and thoughts, completely unaware of the people around us, in Tokyo co-operation has become a way of life. They have understand the simple truth, that by thinking about others, everyone can benefit.

Perhaps it is a lesson we all benefit from learning.

Pride

With the wind in her hair, she looks out over the ocean which surrounds her island.

Her eyes are old, but they are still bright. They have seen so many changes over the years; some good, some bad. Her body is weaker than as it once was, but her smile is as strong as it has ever been. She doesn't fear the future, her spirit for life keeps her seeking out each new dawn.

Because she is a woman of Mauritius, and when she stands, she stands tall with pride.

Appreciation

The people of Havana really know how to look after their cars. They have to. With Cuba economically cut off from the rest of the world since the late 1950's, the cars on the road today are exactly the same cars which were on the road way back then.

In a country where almost nobody has ever seen a new car, the few which are on the roads are meticulously maintained and repaired. Spare parts don't exist, so the people have had to learn how to improvise.

They fabricate new parts by eye, and find ever more ingenious ways to keep their own engines running. Most of all, though, they really take pride in their cars. They clean them, polish them, and appreciate them in ways we have long forgotten.

We have become so accustomed to our modern conveniences of life, we completely take them for granted. Our telephones, our computers, our televisions are so common, we simply see them as disposable items. When one breaks, we just assume we will pick up another to replace it.

But in Cuba, where even picking up replacement eggs means queuing for hours, people know what it means to value the things they have.

And so they look after their cars, and the other conveniences they are able to enjoy, because they know what it means to go without. Perhaps that is a lesson we could all do with learning.