Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

There are certain things that one knows to be true, and certain things that one has internalized to be true. For example, everyone knows that you should look both ways before crossing the street, and that a pan on a stove is hot. But, it isn't until you get clipped by a car or burn your hand that these lessons become internalized, something you couldn't forget or ignore even if you wanted to. You'll always examine the street and the pot extra carefully from then on out. Christopher Hitchens taught me this lesson, although probably not in the way he would have preferred.

For a significant portion of my being an atheist, there was a dearth of leadership and guidance. I suppose before 2006, the only atheist "leader" I was aware of was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whom I never really liked for various reasons. "Coming out" as an atheist is a tricky thing in and of itself, and it's much harder when there's nobody to look to as an example. It's especially worse when you don't even know of any public atheists, and the feeling of being alone just multiplies.

Without any guidance, I'm sure I said some dumb things in this period when attempting to argue my position. Or, maybe I didn't even argue at all. Both are equally likely.

As I got older, my atheism got a little bolder, perhaps even to the point of being obnoxious (remember the lack of guidance thing). It wasn't until I was out of college that I was introduced to people like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and later, many others). Seeing atheists in public was amazing to me, and it provided a framework for how to think about atheism and how to behave in a proper way to represent atheists. They were the leaders that I was waiting for during my adolescence. But, that's not the point of this story.

I came to know Hitchens through his atheism first, and from that, came to admire him. To this day, I consider him to be a superb writer and even more skilled debater. However, the more I learned about him, the more I came to disagree with his politics. Specifically, his stance on the Iraq War.

Remember what I said earlier about knowing things and internalizing them? Well, everybody knows that people you admire aren't perfect, they make mistakes, and they can be right about one thing and completely wrong about another. However, it's one thing to know this, and other thing entirely to have experienced. Challenge yourself right now: Can you name a famous public figure who has at least one stance you can completely agree with and at least one stance that you find morally indefensible?

Hitchens, in nearly one fell swoop, provided a leader for me at the time when I needed one, and then immediately taught me how to scrutinize my leaders. I learned how to distrust those that I admire, and not follow them blindly or deify them. Again, this is a lesson that everyone knows, but rarely experiences. It's a lesson that I can't forget, and one that I'm grateful to apply all the time.

So, farewell Hitch. Thank you so much for teaching me. You were incredibly smart, uncommonly talented and superhumanly industrious, but not great.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Two Madibas

This article is the first of hopefully many for Madiba Children's Outreach. MCO is a nascent charity centered in Ethiopia dedicated to providing education and better living environments for children. If you're interested in what they do, check out their homepage at

“We started because we had to,” explains Bryan Dyer, co-founder of Madiba Children’s Outreach. It’s a sentiment that has been shared by all the philanthropists and freedom fighters since the beginning of civilization, one that refuses the status quo and seeks something better. He continues telling me about his work with MCO, “We have a stubbornness to never give up.”

Bryan started his non-profit career in 2006, assisting charities during his travels throughout West Africa when help was needed. And, help was in fact needed. Far too often, Bryan witnessed what he refers to as “donor’s fatigue,” the malaise that sets in after years of struggling against an economic regime that refuses to fall. When so many are needy, it becomes far too easy to not put forth the energy needed to take care of so many people. While helping as many as he could, it was clear that another solution needed to be found. That’s when something more has to be done, to challenge the status quo and seek something better. “That’s when I started thinking about starting a charity,” Bryan says.

Nelson Mandela is a name known the world over. His was a struggle spanning generations, and one that seemed impossible to succeed. To topple an oppressive government, he spoke out, took up arms, become incarcerated, and lost years of his life. To the casual observer, the life of Mandela and the non-profit organization of MCO would have very little in common, but such is not the case. Like Mandela’s mission, there is no room for “fatigue” of any kind. In both cases, innocent lives and livelihoods are at stake. And, of course, both MCO and Mandela are facing an aggressive system designed to keep people down. In Mandela’s case, it was the indefensible, reprehensible apartheid regime. With MCO, it is the oppressive economic system that keeps so many in Ethiopia underfed and uneducated. Both of these systems are seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but, as Mandela himself put it, “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

The situation in Ethiopia, where MCO is based, is indeed dire. “It’s kind of difficult for me to explain the life condition of people in this country,” writes Beruk Amare, co-founder of MCO and native Ethiopian, “I cannot say ‘poor’ because it’s way worse than that.” According to a study conducted by UNICEF, 38% of children under the age of five in Ethiopia are underfed, and well below half of all children finish primary school. Children being the most vulnerable members of society, require the most assistance when systems attempt to stymie their growth. It is here that stubbornness to help is most necessary.

During his first day in Ethiopia teaching English, Bryan went out to celebrate his arrival and found himself in Beruk’s bar. The two became fast friends while Bryan began to start a life in Ethiopia, and Beruk continued his business ventures. During this time, Lauren Slade, third and final co-founder of MCO, was working at a local private school and eventually made the acquaintance of Bryan and Beruk. Lauren had just finished working with the Peace Corps, and would later go on to an internship in India.

“I have always wanted to do something meaningful,” writes Beruk. “Something that makes sense.” At the beginning of 2011, Beruk found himself accompanying Bryan to visit children who had become victim of “donor’s fatigue”. “They were a lot skinnier,” says Bryan. On that trip, Bryan and Beruk provided food supplies and dropped several children off at school. “When I saw the children, I knew I wanted to participate,” writes Beruk. “It felt so right.” It was through a series of conversations between Bryan and Beruk began seriously discussing the possibility of bringing MCO to life.

Lauren was completing a graduate degree in Conflict and Development back in the United States while Bryan and Beruk were planning the nascent stages of MCO. In a conversation with Beruk, she heard about the plans to start a non-profit organization. “I really loved the idea of being part of a new, local, grassroots organization so I came back to Ethiopia,” she writes.

Of course, during this time of planning and preparing to help MCO take root, life was busy happening. On February 16th, 2011, Bryan and his wife Tg welcomed into the world their first child, a baby boy. It was decided that the charity would be named after Bryan’s newly born son. “I wanted him to feel a connection to a strong role model,” says Bryan, and for his son, chose the name Madiba, after the internationally famous freedom fighter and former head-of-state of South Africa – or, as he is more commonly known, Nelson Mandela.

“Starting a NGO, I knew was going to be really difficult, but weighing the benefits and thinking about the beneficiaries I knew it was a no-brainer,” explains Lauren. “I’m most proud of MCO and our child sponsorship program because I believe we look at our beneficiaries lives in a holistic approach. Meaning, even though we are considered an educational assistance program, I’m proud that we not only consider the obvious (school fees, uniforms, supplies) but also look at the other factors that make children’s lives more conducive to learning (food support and health care support).”

“MCO is about giving hope to children,” writes Beruk. “It’s about giving life. It’s about giving a responsible educated human resource for the country…I love my country. I was a soldier and fought a war for my country. Now, my country is fighting poverty. To contribute in producing skilled labor in this country makes me feel like I’m doing something.”

“We know what it’s like to struggle. We know what it’s like for NGO’s to start out,” says Bryan. “We founded MCO knowing how incredibly difficult it would be. We have optimism, and confidence that we know the challenges ahead of us. We have anticipated every obstacle, and we have strategies.”

The obstacles facing any nascent NGO are prodigious, to say the least. It requires the planning and knowledge that years of experience provide, the need to make the world a better place. It will take that stubbornness, that refusal to give in to fatigue. There are many obstacles, but they can be overcome. Or, as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible, until…”