An Enduring Legacy

A few days ago, I put a picture up with reference to our trip to the Diodi Primary School in Soweto. The focus of my post was headed elsewhere, and I really didn’t feel that I did justice to a picture and a place that were incredibly powerful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Soweto area of Johannesburg is one of the poorest in the city. As we drove to the schools, the Western-style shopping malls and retail centers rapidly gave way to handpainted signs and low slung brick housing which in turn gave way to shantytowns of steel shacks on the dust covered plain.

39% of the students at the Diodi School are HIV positive.

39%.

When Caryl Stern, the chairwoman of the UNICEF US Fund, offered that stat on the bus ride over, I assumed she’d misread the fact sheet.

That can’t be right…can it?

I should’ve known better, people as driven and successful as Caryl do not make mistakes with statistics like that. The stats were spot on, and my view on the world quickly began crashing down around my ears.

Suddenly Africa became real. It was no longer a place simply transmitting tragic but ignorable news. Suddenly it was a real humanitarian crisis complete with faces and names.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we entered the school, it was an amazing scene. I would guess that there were roughly 300-350 kids waiting for us in the center of the grounds, screaming and shouting to beat the band. Our group included the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, players Greg Monroe, Andre Kirilenko, and various executives from the NBA and NBA Cares Foundation.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

And me. I was there too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a brief introduction, we broke up with about 75 of the kids in 3 classrooms, leading a small group discussion on “dreams.”

I’ve talked about dreams worth having on this blog. Living to the age of 30 is likely to be an unfulfilled dream for many of these kids.

And you thought that Lexus was important.

I was picked to be a group leader. The kids should’ve been rightfully disappointed that they got me instead of an international sports star, but I was still treated like some sort of combination of Elvis/The Beatles/Shaq.

We got down to business, talking about these kids aspirations for the future and the importance of education in achieving those dreams. Several wanted to be basketball players, an obvious choice given the group, but one little girl wanted to be a fashion designer.

We drew out our dreams (nothing like being embarrassed artistically by a group of South African 9 year olds) and then went around the table to discuss them. At that point, I had to choose one child from our table to present on our behalf, and Judith, with her unique dream of fashion designer was the ticket.

She and I walked up to the front of the class, as the NBA players presented with their kids. I felt 3 feet tall and invisible as I presented my dream of being an author, and talked about the role of education in my dream. Judith got up, shy as anything, and looked down at the ground as she whispered to the large group.

About 10 seconds into this, I stopped her, stooped down to look her in the eye and said, “Judith, you have a dream to be proud of. Look up and tell these people about it.”

Suddenly it was like a different little girl emerged from the one standing before me. Her voice became magically magnified, and she looked directly at the audience. When she walked back over to take her place in front of me, I whispered good job, and she beamed like she’d just been drafted by the Pacers.

We walked outside and the kids showed us some of the games that they play. Basketball wasn’t among them as the court was a rusted mass of 4 broken down hoops, but they taught us their form of dodgeball/cricket/Jenga and some chalk games that can be played with whatever rocks are around.

As Noah and I were playing, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Judith had been searching for me since we’d left the classroom. She very shyly said, “I want you to have this.”

It was the picture she’d drawn of her dream as a fashion designer.

I’ll attribute it on the dust kicked up by the game, but my eyes got awfully watery.

Judith walked away as I tucked the picture into my pocket. I scanned the grounds and came upon this little boy, very literally on the outside looking in. I walked over to him, unsure of what exactly I was going to say, but just wanting to reach through that tangled mass of barbed wire to let him know that someone saw him.

The resulting picture is as haunting as I’ve ever taken.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the West, much is made of racism. In America, it is truly the one thing that a public figure can never come back from. Ray Lewis was implicated in a murder, and retired a secular saint. Michael Jackson was a pedophile in all but criminal record, and at the time of his death was mourned publicly as if he were Mandela. Ted Kennedy left a girl to drown due to his own drunken recklessness, and died a respected senator.

However, if the charge of racism is leveled at you, look out. Paula Deen went from beloved TV personality to absolute pariah in roughly 20 minutes. The mere mention of racism is enough to make most politicians detach a hand from the constant wringing while they wet themselves. Donald Sterling, the NBA’s longest tenured owner, saw his team taken away for racial slurs stated in a “private” phone call with his decades younger mistress.

I think that much of this has lost the point of what racism is. Racism isn’t about a derogatory term, a slur or a joke. Racism is about the dehumanization of a group. Seeing people not as brothers and sisters in humanity, but instead as a lesser creature, the same as you’d look at a squirrel or monkey.

It is that dehumanization that allows conflicts like the one in Gaza to go on decade after decade. It is the legacy of that dehumanization that still haunts the African continent today.

That is racism, the true corrosive kind that adversely affects human lives.

Donald Sterling shouldn’t have had his team taken away for stupid remarks to his 20 something mistress. He should’ve had his team taken away for the systemically racist policies that he was found guilty of using as a Los Angeles landlord.

One instance was words spoken in private, betraying an absurd ignorance of life and technology but not actually impacting anyone’s life. The other kept actual people from receiving housing based on the color of their skin.

The difference is, one can be made into a soundbyte and played in 15 seconds. The other… requires a more nuanced analysis than Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless baying at each other like a pair of hungry hounds.

As I look at the legacy of European dehumanization on this continent, I am shocked at the level of racism that still exists in this world. Everywhere in Johannesburg has a wall topped with barbed or electrically charged wire. Sometimes both.

Riding home from dinner last night, I was talking to my driver about this. He was 10 years old when apartheid fell, and he told me that there was hardly any walls and barbed wire before that. This was largely because if you were black walking into a neighborhood of whites, you’d better have a work permit or you could be sent to jail or even shot.

As the institutionalized political walls of apartheid fell, real physical walls appeared.

Just like an alcoholic who puts the cork in the bottle without dealing with his addiction, the underlying problem remains. The legacy of dehumanization merely took on a brick and mortar face, as opposed to the hateful ones of politicians.

Unfortunately, that makes the next step in the struggle for equality that much harder. It is easy to rally international political support against a regime which systematically disenfranchises large portions of a population. It is much harder to whip up the same intensity in the face of endless, unnamed walls.

As I saw that little boy on the wrong side of the fence, the problem hasn’t been solved, it has merely evolved.

I’ve seen a lot of the world in this trip, but the most important part of my personal evolution has been the elements of the human condition that I’ve been exposed to. To stand in the middle of abject poverty, next to millionaire basketball players is a surreal experience.

The differences could not be more stark, nor the need for action greater.

For all the gutwrenching emotions that such a scene can bring, I couldn’t be more happy that I’m here, in the land of Gandhi and Mandela, seeing this with my own two eyes.

The world is not set into neat teams, us vs. them. We are all brothers in this shared condition we call humanity. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves of that. These kids depend on it.

Horror and Hope in Cambodia

On a trip like the Conquest, there are countless moments that take your breath away. Whether a sunset on a deserted Australian beach, a pristine waterfall in the middle of no where in Vietnam, or a 9 year old firebreather on the streets of Saigon, the world has endless wonders with which to surprise and amaze.

Young firebreathers

Young firebreathers

Unfortunately, the cosmic scales don’t tip endlessly to the wonderful. The other, darker side of the coin exists, balancing out the good with the most reprehensible evil imaginable. Here in Cambodia, I saw one of the most horrific atrocities that humanity has ever perpetrated against itself.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

A few levels of bones, they go 17 levels high.

I still remember vividly the day that Pol Pot died. It was my 11th birthday, and I was in the car with my dad who invariably had NPR tuned onto the radio. In the crackling monotone of AM radio, a voice came across and said “Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge and perpetrator of one of the worst genocides in history is reported dead in near the Cambodian border with Thailand.”

I had never heard of him, and when I asked Dad who he was, he simply replied, “Crazy bastard in Cambodia who killed almost half the population. Sure as hell didn’t deserve to die of old age.”

It was a sparse but totally accurate depiction. 16 years later, after exiting the boat in Phnom Penh after a 3 day ride up the Mekong from Saigon, I found myself in a position to deepen my understanding of one of the most nightmarish periods in human history.

Pol Pot was born the wealthy scion of an upper class family in Phnom Penh. Educated in traditional French Colonial style, he was sent onto further his education in Paris, where he studied Radio and Electronics. During his time in Paris, he became enamoured with the local Communist group, and took up their ideology.

After his failing his exams 3 consecutive times, he was forced to come back to Cambodia. There he took up teaching, a profession which he would later attempt to exterminate. He kept in contact with a close set of associates that he had come upon in Paris, and worked to further Communist aims back home.

In 1963, the French language and history teacher was voted the head of a Communist organization of less than 200 members. From this humble beginning, he forged the ferocious killing machine known as the Khmer Rouge.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

S21. Former school turned torture facility. Barbed wire to keep prisoners from killing themselves.

The aims of the Khmer Rouge were to throw off the yoke of colonialism/monarchy that they felt through King Norodom Sihanouk. They held the peasant farming class as the ideal of a Communist society, and actively fought against modernization of any kind, which they felt only exacerbated class distinctions.

After waging guerilla warfare against the monarchy and subsequent democratic government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. An estimated 3 million Cambodians would be killed over the next four years.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Rooms and rooms full of the faces of the victims.

Cambodia’s total population was approximately 8 million when Pol Pot seized power.

Choeung Ek was merely one of many “killing fields” where the Khmer Rouge disposed of “enemies of the regime.” Enemies of the regime included urbanites, the upper and middle classes, the educated, anyone with glasses, and towards the end, those whose hands were not “hardened from honest labor.” As a part of the Khmer Rouge’s rural utopian plan, the cities were totally depopulated, and citizens of every stripe were forced into near slavery conditions, laboring unproductively in the countryside.

In 1990, Choeung Ek was designated as the primary memorial site for those lost in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. Now a “stuka,” with the bones of the dead stacked in 17 levels, stands in the center of the now peaceful countryside which saw so many horrors a mere 35 years ago.

Sunset near the Killing Fields

Sunset near the Killing Fields

This was not merely men, but women and babies as well. A popular propaganda phrase among the Khmer Rouge was “to destroy the grass one must dig the roots.” Tactically this translated into bashing the heads of babies against a tree before throwing them into a mass grave.

The tree where they dashed babies

The tree where they dashed babies

The horror of that can’t be overstated. To stand next to a tree where men held babies by their feet and smashed them head first was one of the most guttural and brutal feelings I have ever received.

This was pure, unadulterated evil on the most base level.

The Khmer Rouge was eventually overthrown after 4 years of genocide by the Vietnamese, however the rest of the world still treated the Khmer Rouge as the government in exile until 1990. The perpetrators of this horror were granted a seat at the UN, strolling the streets of NYC with diplomatic immunity.

Justice apparently only has a place in the world of international politics when it is convenient.

Cambodia has largely recovered after losing 2 generations to the nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Penh is the most modern city I’ve seen since leaving Singapore, and the unfailingly positive attitudes of the Cambodian people is a big reason why. Like Vietnam, they refuse to let the past define them, but they demand acknowledgement of the horrors that happened in this beautiful country.

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

See the Killing Fields stuka in the background

The day after I went to the Killing Fields, I took a sunset 4-wheeler ride around the area. The peaceful serenity was punctuated with the smiling faces of little Cambodian children, waving and screaming hello as if I were some movie star. There were women in brightly colored headscarves driving cattle, and groups of men huddled around laughing at the Cambodian dubbed version of Baby Got Back.

As we neared the end of the trip, I noticed a large group of kids playing soccer with some homemade goals. I pulled off the road to stop and watch, and snap a few pictures. Within a few minutes, one boy, named Chanra, came over and asked if we’d like to play. I’m certainly not my brother’s equal with a soccer ball, but I figured what the hell.

Damn it was hot

Damn it was hot


We played with the kids for about a half an hour, sweating our brains out in the slowly dropping sun. I looked over, and saw the stuka at Choeung Ek looking back at me.

Of all the moments I’ve had on the Conquest this far, this was the most powerful.

Literally in the shadow of a place which saw some of the most gruesome crimes against humanity a mere 8 years before I was born, we played soccer together. Khmer, American and British Indian, laughing and horsing around.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

It was yet another lesson in not letting the past define the present.

There is only one day that we have control of, and that day is today.