Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Walking the walk

It was daunting to be a keynote speaker amidst so many big names at the Oslo North-South Forum, held at Oslo Town Hall on August 28, 2004. Dr Kenneth Kaunda, the crown prince of Norway, the mayor of Oslo, Hilde F Johnson, the Norwegian minister of international development, and other dignitaries graced the occasion. No one meant more to me than Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  It was not because he was a Nobel Laureate, or a celebrated archbishop, not even because of his role in the anti-apartheid movement, though that was very important to me. It was because he was such a wonderful human being.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Shahidul Alam. August 28, 2004, Oslo.  Photo: Kenneth David Kaunda.

I am not religiously-inclined and had not expected to be so touched by a person who I’d half anticipated might have tried to point to the ‘error of my ways’. By never attempting to do so, he created a bond much stronger than it could otherwise have been. Tutu transcended religion. He described God not as an almighty being to be feared and awed but as weak, who needed our understanding. A God who found it difficult to be severe, to punish, to be unforgiving. A non-judgemental God who understood that we made mistakes and was always prepared to give us another chance. A God whose humanity showed through.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute, while bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, cited his ‘clear views and fearless stance’ reminding us that he was the ‘unifying symbol for all African freedom fighters’ which indeed he was.

My friend Scilla Elworthy, adviser to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson in setting up ‘The Elders’, told me of the powerful influence the ‘Arch,’ as he was fondly called, had on her life. Many others would have echoed her sentiments. She talked of ‘how his ceaseless sense of humour prevents even the most serious issues becoming ponderous.’

What Tutu appreciated most in my talk that day was my reference to the Bangali feminist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and her sci-fi novel ‘Sultana’s Dream’, a feminist utopia where women run everything and men are secluded, and of the biparental care habits of certain African cichlid fish which only agree to pair if they are of equal strength. It is that firm belief in equality in all spheres of life that separates the man from many others.

He talked with humour and warmth and with deep conviction in our common bonding. His examples were not those of the greatness of the greats, but of the everyday wisdom and generosity of the unheralded. While his warmth, and his incredible ability to put you at ease, was disarming, he never missed a chance to chastise those who he thought were exploiting others. The expression ‘strong words, softly spoken’ epitomised him perfectly, but the ferocity of his soft words left little room for ambiguity, and he made no exceptions. As much as he championed the struggle against apartheid in his native country of South Africa, his criticism of post-apartheid African National Congress rulers for letting down the poor blacks of his nation was scathing. While known for being gentle, he never hid behind diplomatic speak. Calling out Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe a ‘cartoon figure’ and blaming him for making his country a ‘basket case’ was something those in the South African government, clinging on to old loyalties, would never do. Tutu was cutting too, in chiding his own government for their kid glove treatment of the dictator.

This was not a man who stood on the fence when wrong was being done. No false pretence of neutrality led him to stand by and watch while the powerful hid behind vetoes and garbs of respectability. ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor’ was his clear response to the transgressions that wealthy nations unleash upon those they can get away with. Israel was not spared his wrath when he openly compared their treatment of Palestinians with apartheid in South Africa, and Tutu was one of the few world leaders to ask US president George W Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair to own up to their ‘immoral’ war in Iraq.

I had met him fourteen years after he had led his lifelong friend Madiba (as Nelson Mandela was fondly known), to a different Town Hall in February 1990. From that balcony in Cape Town, upon release after twenty-seven years of internment, Mandela had made the historic speech where he said, ‘I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.’ It was that belief in being of service to the people that united these great leaders.

When I met Arch, I didn’t know that he had already been diagnosed with prostate cancer about five years ago. Nor did I know that he had been hospitalised many times for treatment, this was something that never came up in our conversation. His pain and his struggles he kept to himself. It was the pain of others that concerned him more.

I met Madiba himself five years later, in Johannesburg, along with Bangladesh’s own Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. In 2018, when I was arrested by the government for speaking out against their brutal suppression of the peaceful student movement for road safety, Mandela was no longer around, but Tutu, Yunus and many other Nobel laureates signed a joint statement demanding my immediate and unconditional release. Archbishop Desmond Tutu signed unhesitatingly and was on the top of the list of Nobel laureates who stood by my side.

Injustice was something he would never tolerate, and never allow to go unchallenged. ‘Values of respect and solidarity need to be nurtured whenever and however possible,’ he would repeatedly say.

This was a man who never sat on the fence. He walked the walk. Repeatedly.

Originally published in New Age

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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