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Finally, Kigali.

Monday 6th September 2010

Stepping out of the airplane.

Glance at the ground beneath your feet and you will immediately know that you are in Africa: it’s as if someone above decided to dress up the soil a little, dab on it a heavy layer of blush. Glance above and you will immediately know that you are in Kigali: faint silhouettes of gently rolling hills ring the horizon, becoming lighter and lighter until they dissolve into the sky. In London, buildings jostle each other for space along the sides of cramped little roads; red double-deckers bump along them, their tops scraping the branches of trees. Kigali, on the other hand, with its bare sky and undulating skyline, gives you an immediate sense of openness, and of release.

Up and down the thousand hills.

‘I wonder why no one rides a bicycle around here,’ mused Naveed during one of our airport pick-up rides to and from the hotel. As we began our ascent up on of Kigali’s many hills, realization dawned upon his face: ‘Ahhh, I see.’

Kigali city sprawls across four ridges – and across the valleys that fall in between. Squat little buildings, pale pink and green and blue, elbow each other for space in these depressions, bustling cups of civilization that seem to be clambering their way up to the very top of the hills. Our hotel is located on one such hill, the Ministry of Youth on another, Kigali International Airport on yet another. At night when it is dark and the homes in the valleys are lit, faint dots of flickering light, it seems as if a starry sky has inverted itself.


Steering Committee: Second Spotlight

Monday 6th September 2010

‘You know, you never really know a person until you’ve lived with them,’ said Kennedy sagely over lunch yesterday. (Our french fry-carrying forks paused in mid-air, Nav and I shot raised eyebrows at one another: Kennedy bunks with Quang –God knows what they’ve been up to in their self-anointed ‘Bachelor Suite’?)

Wise words nonetheless from our occasionally-philosophical Events and Logistics Lead: you never really know people the way you do after you’ve hopped from one continent to another, frantically ran across Nairobi airport, and sped up and down the bumpy hills of Kigali, ears-popping, with them. And so a second look at the Steering Committee. Read closely, Nkabomers: this way at least you won’t be able to say you weren’t ever warned.

  • I will sell my soul for a good cup of coffee.
  • Nothing will wake me up except that cup of coffee – except, these days, Kennedy’s eerily prompt seven o’clock wake up calls.
  • I apparently sleep way too much. In Kennedy and Quang’s sleepless little idyll, where dissertations are proofread at 3 AM and Bob Marley is bopped to at 5 AM, this means I sleep for more than four hours at a stretch. I know, I know, I’m a disgrace.
  • Quang has an unhealthy fascination with the last three letters of the name of our programme. Please note: it is not a good idea to repeatedly utter these letters while in an aircraft some twenty thousand feet up in the air. On the plus side, however, it is a tried and tested way of turning Nav into a helpless jelly of nerves.
  • Kennedy doesn’t realize it but he’s a walking advertisement for McDonalds: the phrase ‘I’m lovin’ it’ and/or its variation ‘I love it’, ‘I’m totally loving this, man’ speckle his conversation more often than the number of times I profess my utter, undying love for caffeine (which is, believe you me, a lot).
  • Naveed is a maestro with the scissors. Anything that needs cutting, please refer it to Room 305. He will only be too happy to oblige.
  • Nav’s deadpan deserves a section all to itself, really. But here’s a bit of a taster:

On Rwandan hospitality:

‘He’s being extremely helpful. You know, I think he’s a genuinely good guy. The thought did cross my mind that at the end of these ten days I might find myself dancing in a dodgy bar in town with little bells on my feet but, no. I think he’s actually just nice. Everyone here is.

On whether the African print bags are ‘manly’ enough:

‘This isn’t masculine enough for you? What do you want, a print with a Mercedes Benz and a bikini-clad babe draped over it?’

On The Lion King:

‘That is not the right Hakuna Matata. Stop it – stop it! Do not, I say do not, partake in this bastardisation of East African culture.’

On following his own risk assessment:

‘Do I want to eat this tomato? No, I do not want to eat this tomato.’

On His Excellency’s inauguration:

‘Why do you keep saying fifteen African heads of state are attending? Last time I checked there were sixteen – are you planning on doing something to the sixteenth?’

On being Ismaili (a sect of Islam):

‘Whenever I tell people I’m Ismaili, they think I’m saying ‘Smiley’ and that I’ve joined a cult – like the ‘happy people gang’ or something. Then they think I’m strange and then they just stay away.’

(And one from Kennedy)

‘You know, I make a pretty sexy woman. I’ve been dressed up that way before.’ (this while he puts on his Max Factor lipgloss)

  • Though they may strut about as staunch advocates of the male sex, Kennedy, Quang and Nav are all actually closet feminists and believe that the world would be an infinitely better place if it was run by women. True fact.

I cried, as a Malaysian.

Sunday 29th August 2010

The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts, stresses How Zean Shiung, our Nkabomer from Malaysia.

It is in the air. There are no disputes about it. You can feel it. You read news about it. You heard most recently, of a bunch of a certain race, accusing another man of their own ethnicity, calling him a traitor of their kind. What for you asked? For not ‘fighting’ and ‘standing along’ his ‘’own’ people. Too vague? How about when there were boar heads thrown into sacred mosques one night? Followed by homemade Molotovs burning churches the next evening? What about Hindraf human rights protest rallies, whom in the end were arrested without any criminal charges, without trials, without even a specified term of detention? There have always been signs everywhere, just this time too significant to ignore.

I just cannot understand why, after 50 years of co-existence, fellow Malaysians remember and keep in mind that I am Malay and I have to fight for the Malays, fight along with my fellow kind. I try to inquire further, fight against whom? Is it against the Chinese? The Indians? Or maybe even the Ibans, Kadazans, Muruts? No one is sure. And no one is allowed to give an answer because our Law won’t let us. They say forceful silence is justified. In the name of justice and peace, they can arrest without trial, they can detain for unspecified lengths and without criminal charges. They tell us it reflects their devotion towards keeping peace. Here, silence keeps everything in mystery, and mystery is the way things are meant to be.

So along the way, we tell ourselves that there are no such racial tensions. There are no ‘diversity’ problems existing in Malaysia. Unlike in the USA or in China, dozens of races coexist peacefully together. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be people publicly voicing the contradictory opinion? Why aren’t there protests? Up to this point, the whole dilemma is actually in thick mist, I am confused, because it seems that we simply can’t call ourselves Malaysians and Indians or Chinese or Malay at the same time. There are faint voices. There are cries and tears. There is always that indisputable feeling of hatred, suspicion and speculation of racial discrimination. Why be that arrogant fool apathetic enough to ignore these threats to your beloved nation?! It reminds me of the ostrich, the mockery brought upon by Ice Age 3, a perfect analogy of our situation now. (The part where the ostriches buried their heads into the ground while this baby ostrich knocked its head instead because he couldn’t dig hard enough…)

The Malaysian in me cried. I was raised to analyse and solve problems. I was raised to live in peace. But there are crucial problems impeding peace – what is worse, however, is that these problems are blanketed over with the sheepskin of peace. Does peace means silence? If silence brings temporary peace, should this silence be retained? If prolonged silence is a time bomb which terror it instills is no less terrifying than any war about to break, is this silence still a peace-keeper? There is no inner peace, there will not be until we are given a voice to bravely shout our problems out loud, our concerns out loud, our worries out loud. For the very effort we make these shouting shows that we care and we love, that we, after all wish to resolve the problems together, eliminate what is instilling hatred, speculations, discriminations. We after all, fight, for true peace.

Seeing the nation I love and have great faith in breaking into pieces, I realize this: progress can never come along until we start forgetting which race are we born into, what spectrum of skin we are coloured with, what race I belong to … not until, putting aside all our differences, we start calling ourselves Malaysians!

When racial issues arise, whether they are discreetly pushed under the table or make front-page news, no one is more hurt or injured than Malaysians as a whole. Fighting with other races, or even with other political parties because of their different race dominations simply reveals how immature all of us are. And I mean all of us – not any discrete party or race. It is like the right arm hitting the left leg: in the end, the body – all of us as a collective whole – gets hurt.

The point is simple: if we keep fighting this way, we can never take a same step, follow the same path and progress as ONE. The left hand must start working in collaboration with the right, and the right leg must walk in orientation with the left. Inevitably, every body part is different and has its own specialty. And this difference should be cherished and celebrated, for it makes us unique and stronger. When the left brain can calculate better, and the right can create artistically, they work together to be ONE better person! We call ourselves the wisest species on earth, but we can’t see simple theories and inculcate simple daily actions in co-existence within ONE nation.

So we as Malaysians must start helping another Malaysian as ONE Malaysia. I applaud the governmental policy and idea of 1Malaysia but I plead them to put words into practice. 1Malaysia is not about harvesting the best in physical developments and achievements but to stick to one another, forgetting that I am a Chinese and that he is an Indian and that you are a Malay and start knowing each other as Malaysians. That, is the true spirit of 1Malaysia and with this, holistic development and all-rounded achievements come along in a package. So stop walking up to a Malay and say, “Hey, you are a Malay too. So we should help each other!” “Hey, Chinese mah, own people! Must help Chinese!” These thoughts simply act as the greatest deterrents to unification as 1Malaysia, living Malaysian. The first step towards this, I believe, is that our fellow politicians, aspired and promised to lead by example… they need bigger mirrors!

Mind the gap!

Wednesday 25th August 2010

Francine Caruana, our Nkabomer from Malta, talks about the still-existing disparities between the sexes and about human rights education through the arts.  


Arresting!  Soul Searching!  Speaks Volumes! 

One sees the insensitivity of the male towards the female sex and the arrogance in the overbearing way he expresses his “might is right” attitude.  His gestures clearly show that he must silence the woman – his fist is his might; his left hand is his right to batter.  Sexual and gender-based violence – constituting grave infringements of human rights – cut across continents, countries and cultures.  Most societies prohibit such violence but the reality is that too often it is covered up or tacitly condoned.  But silence is not an option! According to the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, “It is better to scream.  Silence is the real crime against humanity.”  Such offences should not pass unnoticed.  Justice should be done with both perpetrators of such offences and also with their victims.  The images on the mural are set against the outline of a globe illustrating the universality of human rights for, as proclaimed in the United Nations Charter, human rights are for all human beings, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  They are inherent to the human being and thus cannot be denied. 

This is the whole idea behind the wall mural, painted by the Malta Human Rights Summer School participants, an annual joint project between the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies and 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World.  This ten days summer course with the theme of Crimes Against Humanity and Human Rights brought together 14 participants from Armenia, Malta, Jordan, Egypt, Albania, Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ireland, Germany, Morocco and Nigeria, all coming from a different background, be it diplomatic, academic and international NGOs.  It was an extremely enriching experience.  Apart from broadening my knowledge about human rights, during these ten days I also learned a lot from the other participants, about their own experiences and the hurdles they had to face within their own societies, some of them being witnesses to full-scale conflict zones.  It also helped me to discover myself and realise how lucky I am to be living in Malta – a small but peaceful country – where my basic rights are respected and not downtrodden. 

Wall murals are an effective way of educating the people about human rights and crimes against humanity, the latter confined to genocide, mass murder, systematic torture, and atrocious acts of warfare and terror.  Murals are all about visual forms – instead of historical word narratives – that tell a story about atrocious acts and past events, thus creating another form of memory to inform the next generation of such acts and their dangers.  Consequently wall murals serve as a bridge between the past and the present.  Because wall murals are based on images rather than writing, they leave space for personal interpretation and encourage man’s thinking process which would then ultimately lead the community along the road to change. 

The cost of war

Monday 23rd August 2010

Sri Lanka’s Andi Schubert finds hope amid ruins.

When I got the email telling me I had been selected for Nkabom, I had just left home on the first leg of my trip to the Jaffna peninsula in the North of the country. Driving through areas that had very literally been at the center of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict was for me more than just a tourist tour to the north. I was traveling to the North with my uncle, to visit his home – a home he was rebuilding for the second time. A home that symbolized to me in some senses a return to a part of my roots that I was not familiar with, in all honesty, that I was almost alien to.

I observed and learned a lot in the week that I was there. I noted the selective memorialization – how some memories were glorified and memorialized in massive monuments and plaques while others were torn down and defaced. I observed the elephant in the room: the LTTE – now militarily no more, its leaders decimated over a year ago. But their presence hung around in the most unusual places – next to an ice cream parlor, in a children’s park now guarded by armed soldiers, in the bullet marks on a fort constructed by my ancestors and in the murmurings of the people I met. I saw the incurable optimism of people like my uncle who were rebuilding their lives for the n-th time. Not just rebuilding, trying to convince others that once again this time there would be something tangible, permanent and long lasting. It’s incurable – this optimism – and it is everywhere.
But I think for me the most powerful image I’ll take away with me from this trip is the visit to this ruined Hindu temple. The construction of Hindu temples in Sri Lanka is generally undertaken by a rich benefactor in contrast to the construction of Buddhist temples which generally receive considerable State support and patronage. We came across this temple while attempting to reach Pooneryn by road (we were turned back by the Army halfway down the road). The temple belfry had the year it was constructed – 1944 – displayed just below the bell. We removed our slippers and walked into the temple premises, the thorns of the weeds growing wild on the ground pricking our feet while the heat from the searing mid day sun burned the soles of our feet. The first thing that struck us was the tin shed – in the middle of the temple. It housed the temple gods. All resplendent and regal wrapped in the choicest silks but housed in a tin shed – since the temple didn’t have a roof. We also found a Vel chariot just outside the temple proper. The sheer size of the temple and the presence of the chariot suggested that at some point of time this temple had been a significant centre for worship in this town. But this seemed a bit strange as we saw almost no houses on the drive to this temple. Where had all the people who worshiped in this temple come from?
Returning from the temple, this question was bothering me – until I started noticing what I hadn’t noticed before. I saw the foundations of houses, just the foundations, every 15- 20 feet – sure signs of a flourishing village or simple township at least. None of it remained. Just the foundations and the occasional pillar to remind those who knew no better (travelers like me) that, more than 30 years ago, life thronged through this place, that people lived here: neighbors, friends, family. Now, all that remained was a ruined temple and their gods in a tin shack. And then, in that realization, those generally hidden costs of war hit me: the loss of relationships, the violation of those personal spaces, the disappearance of entire townships, the shifting of gods from temples to tin shacks – what does this do to a people? What does victory mean?
In the spirit of that incurable optimism that I found, however, I chose to cling to that image of the temple gods in that tin shack. Why? Because it tells me that in spite of loss someone, somewhere still thought it important enough to do that. That somewhere life was taking root again…

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test:

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away. – Mahatma Gandhi

Steering Committee Spotlight: Naveed Somani

Sunday 22nd August 2010

Over the last three months I have had a crash course in environmental peace-building, learnt about Rwanda’s turbulent yet ultimately successful road to peace, and most importantly had my eyes opened to the powerful and integral role young people can play in creating peaceful societies. So aren’t I glad I decided to apply to be on the Nkabom 2010 Steering Committee!?

Just to introduce myself, my name is Naveed, or Nav for short, and I am the Finance, Fundraising and Sustainability Officer for Nkabom. When I applied to be on the committee all those months ago, peace-building was an area I only had a cursory knowledge of, but my family background provided sufficient motivation for me to submit my application. My childhood was riven with stories of political turmoil and social conflict. My father was one of the thousands of Ugandan Asians expelled from the country: A young man told to leave his home because his ethnicity, the colour of his skin, was seen to be the source of all society’s ills. My mother grew up in Pakistan, part of the first generation to have been born in the fledgling nation after it emerged from centuries of British rule and the violent partition from India. So while I have been fortunate enough to have grown up in a relatively stable society here in the UK, I am acutely aware of what conflict can mean, and the consequent need to perpetuate peace wherever possible. I have approached my role with this in mind, and as a result I have been inspired by the admirable ideals Nkabom is trying to instil in all of us involved in the programme and beyond.

So what do I actually do, I hear you cry? Well, I make sure the programme is properly costed and comes within budget – not an easy task with such an international bunch! To assist with this, I have also helped Claire and Meera with fundraising. It has been really encouraging to see the number of different donors, all with differing priorities, who have been willing to donate money in recognition of the potential Nkabom has to act as a catalyst for peace all around the world.

The sustainability aspect of my role is two-fold. First is environmental sustainability. I hope some of you have had a chance to look at the green page on the Nkabom website. If so, you will have read about some of the efforts we have been making in reducing the environmental impact of the programme. If not, go check it out now! This year we have decided to offset the carbon costs of all the flights by investing in conservation initiatives in Rwanda, and there will be an opportunity for you to plant trees during the programme.

The second aspect of sustainability is concerned with network building and creating an alumni association for the programme. It is really important that all of us are involved with sharing the knowledge we learn in Rwanda after the ten days and I am currently in the process of putting together a plan with ideas of how we can do this. You will be receive further info on this during the programme, including a jazzy membership card. I also drew up the Memorandum of Understanding drawing upon my legal skills, and I have done a risk assessment on the programme to make sure all you future leaders stay safe while we are in Rwanda!

Most recently I have been involved in peace-building through sports…well actually I beat my fellow committee members at the local bowling alley last week! In a cruel twist of fate though, I sprained my wrist, which just goes to show it is not always about being victorious, but more about forming long-lasting friendships with those around you. After reading your applications, I am really looking forward to meeting you guys, and forming new friendships with all of you!

In the name of God

Wednesday 18th August 2010

In this profoundly personal post, Pakistan’s Mehwish Zuberi affirms the value of peace.

It was a Friday afternoon. As usual, Ami had forbidden us from turning the TV on until everyone was done with their Friday prayers. As I was about to begin reciting a chapter of the Holy Quran, the phone rang. Ami picked it up.


I don’t think I will ever forget the look of utter horror on her face.

“Turn the TV on!”

I did as I was told.

And there it was all over the news. Another bomb blast in my city. A terrorist attack in a mosque. And not just any mosque, the Parade Lane mosque. The mosque that was across the street from my Uncle’s house.

“Abdullah and your baray Phupa* were in the mosque!” Ami shrieked incoherently.

Abdullah, my 16 year old cousin and his grandfather, my Phupa, had been inside the mosque for Friday prayers when the Taliban attacked it.

“They’ve taken your baray Phupa to the hospital, but Abdullah can’t be found anywhere!” Ami continued, her features distorted with panic.

I was having difficulty breathing. This can’t be happening. Not Abdullah! Not baray Phupa! This can’t be happening!

An agonizing half hour later, my Phupa was pronounced dead and Abdullah’s lifeless body was discovered at the hospital.

Later that night, we arrived at Parade Lane which was the military residential area where my Uncle lived. Wailing could be heard from every house in the colony. Because most of the roads were blocked, we had to walk through the street in front of the mosque that had now been reduced to ruins. I remembered how happy my Uncle used to be at having a mosque so near their home. “We go out and a minute later we are in the mosque,” he would tell us proudly. Bullet piercings marked the few remaining walls that still stood. Splatters of blood and gore everywhere. The shoes of the worshipers were scattered. I had to tiptoe so I wouldn’t step on anything that was once human or belonged to one. The overpowering stench in the air was a mixture of blood, gunpowder and roses. It is customary to put roses on the deceased’s grave. The scene inside my Uncle’s home was even more distressing, if such a possibility could exist. If there is a hell on Earth, it is for a parent who has lost a child.

The incident took place around 1 in the afternoon on December 4th, 2009. The muazzan had just recited the call for prayer. As usual, Abdullah and my Phupa had gone early to get a spot near the muazzan. This simple act of wanting to please God had cost them their lives. Abdullah’s father and two younger brothers had just stepped out of the door when the first blast was heard.

The attack that involved grenade throwing, firing from guns and deadly explosions martyred at least 40 people, 16 of which were kids. Every house in the area was in mourning. Families lost fathers, sons, brothers, husbands.

This was just one of the hundred and hundreds of terrorist attacks that have pulverized my beloved country in the past 3 years, leaving more than 8,000 dead, 20,000 wounded and countless lives afflicted. The country that was carved on the world map as a valley of peace and religious freedom is now on the US Department of State’s list of most unsafe places in the world.

It is a new low for the Taliban, for these cowards who fight “in the name of Allah” are in fact nothing but traitors of Islam and the message of peace that it brings. It is because of them that the word Muslim is being treated with disdain, that a Pakistani is treated with a doubtful glance on international airports for carrying that green passport, it is because of them that I can’t leave my doorstep without my mother anxiously fretting until I get back. But I am no longer afraid. No longer do I fear for my life. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” It is not bombs or grenades or guns that terrorists use as weapon. It is fear. They can only be successful in their vile scheme if they are able to manipulate people’s fears. The nations of the world need to unite and look these terrorists in the eye and tell them that we are not afraid. We will attain peace at any cost, for no cost will be too high.

It is platforms such as Nkabom that seek to unite the world against threats that affect us all, to listen and to share. I am honored to be representing my country at Nkabom and join forces with such an incredible crew of youth ambassadors. I sincerely wish that the least that comes out of this program for me is a better understanding of what I as an individual am capable of. For I am Tomorrow.