November 8, 1999
In the hotel corridor I was introduced to this incredibly beautiful young Nigerian woman who was one of the participants in the fifth annual State of the World Forum, sponsored by the Gorbachev Foundation in San Francisco. Her name was Khafila Abiola and she was attending the Forum with her older sister Hafsat, who was having another conversation off to the side of this very crowded area just outside the hotel’s ballroom.
As part of his introduction, my friend Sergio explained Khafila’s family history. As he went on, I was so touched that I soon found my hand over my heart and tears welling up around my eyes.
The last time I felt so similarly moved – with the same familiar quality – was when I attended a meeting about the subjugation of women hosted by The Hunger Project in 1998. I was horrified by the stories about what atrocities routinely occur to women and young girls in so many countries. In my horror, I looked at my own role in these atrocities and saw my complicity merely by being oblivious of them. I felt such compassion, anger and gratitude – all at the same time. My compassion was for the suffering; my anger was for the conditions and systems that perpetuate these atrocities; and my gratitude was for my status as someone immune to such atrocities because of my gender, my age and my nationality. The bell had been rung and I could never again ignore the fact that these horrid events occur to half the world’s populations in India, China and many other countries.
Now, once again a year later, I was being reminded of my “privileged-ness” – the unearned station life has afforded me as a white, middle-aged male living in the Unites States. Now, standing in front of me was this young woman whose face miraculously showed no signs of her recent strife – another example of horrors that happen in the world from which I am shielded.
Khafila’s father – Moshood Abiola – had been elected President of Nigeria in June of 1993. A year later he was imprisoned in a successful coup. Protesting her husband’s imprisonment, his wife and Khafila’s mother, Kudirat, was assassinated in June 1996. Abiola was kept in solitary confinement until he died in July of 1998. Mysterious circumstances surrounded his death. The daughters moved to the U.S. and now reside in the Washington, DC area. Khafila attends school while her older sister, Hafsat, serves as Executive Director of a foundation advocating democracy in their native land while seeking justice through the Truth and Reconciliation Committee and bringing Nigeria’s previous dictatorial regime to trial for her parents’ murder.
As I listened to the story of the Abiola family, as told by my friend Sergio as part of his introduction to Khafila, I was so touched by the light that radiated from her face. Anyone who had gone through what she did was perfectly entitled to be embittered, callous and self-pitying. And, while I only spent a few minutes with her, I was absolutely clear that none of these qualities were being harbored by this young woman. She radiated, and her radiance was contagious.
Even as I exchanged recent emails with Kfahila subsequent to meeting her, asking her for confirmation of family names as part of writing this article, her words bear no malice, no righteousness. They are simply matter-of-fact and neutral. And her innocence is absolutely inspiring! This young woman inspired me to see how things are with greater objectivity and to move toward my own visions for a better world matter-of-factly without any self-importance or grandiosity.
As I become even more aware of my privileged status in this world, I am reminded of my calling, my destiny, that fortunately involves the printed word and language and the world of ideas rather the world of violence, murder and brutality.
Yes, I am grateful to be who I am, doing what I do, where I do it. And, I’m growing in my awareness of all the other venues and methods of bringing about a positive transformation for all of us on this planet so the world works for everybody. Then we can all feel privileged and all feel gratitude for who we are, what we do and where we are.
John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. To contact him call 415-437-6974 in the U.S. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.
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