Connections

Sudan famine by Kevin Carter

National Newspaper Award and Amnesty International Award for Human Rights Reporting winner Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s current India, and formerly Africa, correspondent. She just received an honorary Doctorate in Civil Laws from King’s and this is part of her address to students:

Sometimes bad luck turns out not to be so bad.

That you learn the most from the hardest things.

That opportunities come in places where you’re not looking.

And, as Amelia Earhart said (words I later took as my own motto when I was learning to fly), “Courage is the price that life demands for granting peace.”

Something else happened to me along the way in those early years of working overseas: I think it began the first time I went to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, and really spent some time there. I came away with a whole new understanding of my privilege, as a Canadian, and of the fact that really, I didn’t know anything about anything in the world. I didn’t know what life was really like for — as I would soon start to realize — the great bulk of people in the world.

And here’s something I only started to figure out even later: that even if you spend the rest of your life right here, you are responsible for much of what happens elsewhere in the world.

For how those other people live.

Regardless of what you choose to do with your new degree, your new skills, you will be responsible.

If you have an iPod like mine, or a cellphone, or a Wii, you are connected to the 14-year-olds I have met who are enslaved by rebel groups in the Congo and who dig for coltan, the mineral that is the essential ingredient in our gadgets.

If you have a Gap T-shirt like I do, then you are connected to the Bangladeshi women who stitched it for five bucks a day, and who cannot develop their textile sector into better-paying jobs because of our trade restrictions.

If, like me, you are a Canadian citizen, you are connected to the children in Swaziland who cannot go to school today, who will never have the moment you are having today, because Canada, as a voting, policy-setting member of the World Bank, forces the Swazi government to charge school fees for their primary schools — even though ours are free.

And if, like me, you enjoy the occasional Starbucks latte, you are connected to the women in Ethiopia who earn 70 cents a day sorting their coffee beans. Ah-hah, you think. I always order the fair trade blend. Well, great. The women in the fair trade factory earn 96 cents a day. I know — I spent an afternoon on a Starbucks factory line in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a couple of years ago.

So I can tell you that those women are glad to have their jobs.

I’m not sure that’s good enough.

You are connected to these people. And you decide how much responsibility you will take for that.

Stephanie Nolan