Irshad Manji, the fiery feminist identified by the NY Times to be “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” gently accused her Abbotsford audience of slipping into “moral complacency.” Manji recently wrote The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call For Reform In Her Faith.
Her website www.irshadmanji.com offers free downloads in several translations for readers who may be living in an area where the book is banned or censored. Her pride was palpable when she announced that her book had been downloaded over a million times. A million!
Manji was part of the Canadian Voices speaker series presented by the Abbotsford Collegiate International Baccalaureate Program. Heavy vocal hitters in the past year included Peter Mansbridge (CBC’s Chief Correspondent and anchor of The National), Dr. James Orbinski (former President of Medecins Sans Frontieres), Stephen Lewis (Deputy Director of Unicef, Special Envoy for AIDS/HIV in Africa) and Roberta Bondar (first female astronaut and neurologist in space). The speaker series has provided a dynamic forum of empowerment, questioning and insight into individuals who have created a global impact.
I think Irshad Manji was bang-on with her complacency dig. My moral laziness was emphasized when I went to see the documentary Chasing Rain (produced and directed by Dax Xenis) three days after being slammed by Manji for a bit of Islamophobia and not asking pertinent questions out loud. In a unique parallel, Chasing Rain was filmed in Uganda—Manji’s family was a refugee of Idi Amin’s Uganda. In 1972 Amin declared an “economic war” that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. An estimated 80,000 Asians were explused from Uganda, and Manji’s family found a new home in Vancouver, BC.
Chasing Rain documented an ambitious project backed by Grassroots Assistance in Rural Development (GARD). It involved the construction of a 6,000 litre water storage tank in Adakingo, Lira, Uganda. The project quickly became a monster of exasperation with brief moments of exhiliration. Like Manji’s red-hot poker words of accusation, watching Chasing Rain was like being in the boxing ring with guilt. I thought of the shower I had before going to see it—hot enough to boil 50 lobsters, and long enough to have provided clean drinking water for over at least 100 Africans.
The project was initiated by Jeff Owen, a geologist who identified a need for better water sources while working on biosand filter projects in undeveloped countries. The large-scale rain catchment system he planned began with a few gross miscalculations. Owen guessed it would take 30 men one day to clear the dirt from the proposed area. It took three and a half months.
The North American standards for clean drinking water and sanitary living conditions quickly became evident and the connection between water and health was obvious. Canadian GARD volunteers found themselves knocked flat on their backs with diarrhea that kept them permanently on the squat toilets that they initially hoped to avoid.
Camera man Dax Xenis panned the area where villagers collected water for consumption in jerry cans. The pond was the equivalent of Habitant pea soup–murky sludge that even my dog would turn his nose up at. The locals walked for over an hour at times to this source of water, children often bearing the weight of awkward plastic jerry cans on their heads.
And we reward ourselves in Canada for surving Earth Hour, a whole hour without electricity! An hour without water, I bet we could do that too—but a lifetime? UNICEF estimates that there are 125 million children under the age of five without access to clean drinking water. I thought I got the short stick because my mother wouldn’t buy chocolate milk every week.
When I landed at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda last September, the power went off three times as baggage was loaded on the carousel. In my four months in Africa, not having electricity became more common than having it. What became evident was how big my sasquatch carbon footprint in Canada was (especially after flying for 19 hours, leaving my footprints permanently in the atmosphere from Vancouver to Amsterdam to Entebbe). I blushed with shame over my pre-Africa tanning bed sessions with the 280 watt bulbs that could have powered all of Entebbe for a month.
My footprint sunk even deeper into the quagmire with all the plastic bottles of water I drank in Uganda. I responsibly attempted to balance this number with recyclable glass bottles of beer.
But now what? How do I shift from moral and earthly complacency? As I unpacked groceries this afternoon (from earth-suffocating plastic bags because AGAIN I forgot the reuseable cloth ones), I became painfully aware of my 100,000-mile diet. Rosenburg blue cheese from DENMARK, bananas from ECUADOR, an avocado from MEXICO. Those little stickers on the fruit and vegetables further cemented my laziness. But can life be lived without bananas?
My actions are a see-saw. I walk to work but I eat Ecuadorian bananas. I compost and recycle but buy wine from Australia. I will grow my own herbs this summer but I like hot baths that cover my kneecaps.
Awareness, it’s the fertilizer for growth, a therapeutic massage of my morals. What I do know is that there are bigger and better things to be done in this world, one banana at a time.