Meet Razia Jan

Afghan born Razia Jan moved to Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1970, where she ran a small tailoring business, and served as President of the town’s Rotary Club. Following the September 11th attacks, she arranged to send 400 home made blankets to the Ground Zero rescue workers and went on to organise the sending of 30,000 pairs of shoes to Afghan children.

Razia then set up the Ray of Hope Foundation, raising money to build a school for girls in Afghanistan, and in 2008 moved back there to run the school.

Razia and the school have faced numerous difficulties and threats, the same day it opened another girls school in Kabul was attacked with hand grenades, killing 100 of the girls.

Before her school opened Razia was visited by four men who gave her ‘one last chance to change this school into a boys’ school, because the backbone of Afghanistan are our boys,’ to which she replied ‘Excuse me. The women are the eyesight of Afghanistan, and unfortunately you all are blind. And I really want to give you some sight.’

Winner of numerous Rotary Peace Prizes, and now nominated as a CNN Hero, Razia and her staff continue to provide education to girls in Afghanistan, hopeful of creating a more equal society and a better future – one girl at a time.


Photo from The Ray of Hope Foundation

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Eggs and Bunnies ?

A friend of mine has written under under the religion section of her Facebook page: It’s all about the eggs and the bunnies, right ?

Whenever I see it, it makes me smile.

Most Christians would agree that It’s all about Easter, if not exactly eggs and bunnies, and that Easter is pretty much all about forgiveness.

Our Western culture often seems far more focused on revenge than forgiveness. Our films and TV is full of examples of getting even and journeys of self-righteous vengeance. In sports people talk about settling scores and payback against the opposition. The debate on prisons and reform tends to focus on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. I know it’s hardly science, but type revenge into Google and you get 276 million hits, forgiveness gives 56 million.

This shouldn’t be a surprise – revenge is part of our basic human nature, indeed it’s one of our strongest emotions. In primitive tribal societies,without any other systems of justice, revenge served as both a way for wronged individuals to achieve emotional satisfaction, and also served as a visible public deterrent to others.

But in our modern complex societies, with rule of law, our desires for personal revenge usually result in far from positive consequences – perpetuating cycles of violence, entrenching division and splitting families. After all, it’s not as if those being ‘punished’ always resign themselves to a rap on the knuckles and changing their ways – frequently the response is further anger, resentment, and a desire to retaliate against the person doing the ‘punishing’.

As neighbours fall out, relationships break up and community relations break down, escalation can easily occur – in some cases leading to frosty avoidance or internet slanging matches, in other cases slashed tires or physical violence. It’s estimated that around 20% of the murders in the Western World are motivated by revenge !

Obviously societies need to have justice, and sometimes actions need to have consequences – but forgiveness is really about something else.

It’s the emotional process of letting go of personal feelings of injustice and resentment. It’s what we do in our own heads and hearts.

Research by Dr R Enright and others indicates that people who are more inclined to forgive others are typically happier and healthier, experiencing less stress, less depression and less disease. Forgiving those who we perceive have wronged us also means we’re less likely to carry unresolved resentment and anger into new relationships and situations.

It’s not so much what we’re granting the other person, but what we’re granting to ourselves that matters. Freedom to move on – letting go of hurt, loss and bitterness. Ultimately forgiveness is a choice.

Sometimes it might seem impossible.

But we can learn forgiveness, the best teachers being those who have themselves been able to forgive some terrible wrong done to them, such as with Abiola Inakoju or Linda Beihl, or in Sierra LeoneNickel Mines USA or South Africa and many other places around the world. Many more inspiring and remarkable stories can be found on the website The Forgiveness Project.

The two videos below might also provide food for thought – with the journalist and author Naseem Rakha on the left, or the Christian writer and minster Rob Bell on the right. Many more videos about forgiveness can be found on the Fetzer Institute Youtube Channel.


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Photo by prakny.przewodnik via Flickr

Some Reflections on Kony 2012

With 70 million views in the last five days, if you’ve somehow missed the online controversy about the Kony2012 video you must have been orbiting a distant planet . . .

The 30 minute film, produced by Jason Russell, co-founder of the Organisation Invisible Children, describes the use of child soldiers and other harrowing aspects of the ongoing conflict in central Africa. In particular it takes aim at Joseph Kony, indicted war criminal and leader of the armed group The Lord’s Resistance Army. The video campaigns for the ongoing support of the current US military mission to Uganda, with a view to enabling the capture of Joseph Kony, in order to prevent his ongoing abduction and killing of children.

If you haven’t yet seen the video it is a very impressive piece of film making and well worth 30 minutes of your time.

The video’s popularity has resulted in a significant backlash and controversy.

Critics variously claim that: Invisible Children is simplistic regarding the complexity of the conflict; that they’ve selectively chosen to focus on Kony – even though many others, including the current Ugandan regime, are believed complicit in atrocities, that they are naive to promote a desire for peace by supporting the involvement of US military advisers, that the West has no right to get involved in Africa’s conflicts or disenfranchise Africans from decision making on their behalf, and that only limited percentage of donations given actually goes to fund work in Africa.

Opinion across the web now seems sharply divided, with many organisations, individuals and celebrities now expressing a range of views: The GuardianThe Telegraphthe BBCDaily MailBlack Star NewsCNNNational GeographicAl JazeeraJustin BieberWill SmithRihanna,Katie CouricStephen FryChris Blattman and President Obama.

Invisible Children have also respond to their critics on their website.

Like everyone else, when I first saw the Kony2012 video I was faced with an immediate decision – do I share and promote this across my social media, and perhaps support it further, by donating etc - Or not ?

Unless we’re intimately connected or knowledgeable about any given issue, when encountering it for the first time we don’t have the full facts available to us. We are unaware of the ‘backstory’, don’t know the motives of those involved, have only a limited grasp of the wider context, haven’t considered issues of president, practicality, cost, or the likely consequences, or possible unintended consequences . . . the world is complicated, and has complicated problems. Rarely are simple solutions available. A point I make in this site’s manifesto.

So what should we do ?

Mostly we turn to our search engines, and quickly discover there is another side to the issue, and more often than not several. But it’s impossible to read everything that exists, the shear abundance of information on the web mean nobody can be fully informed, only partly informed, based on the limited information we’ve read . . . and this applies as much to issues like climate change and the occupy movement, as it does to the Kony2012 campaign !

I’ve no detailed knowledge of the situation in central Africa. Like most of us, all I can do is read as widely around the issue as I can, educate myself, and attempt to form an opinion. Inevitably this limits the degree of confidence I can have that my own interpretation is the ‘right’ one.

But I believe strongly that we shouldn’t let such doubt and lack of certainty drive us into becoming detached observers.

Of course we should do our research and check our facts, but having done so I’m of the view that in most cases it’s far better to work towards an imperfect solution, than sitting back waiting for a perfect solution to emerge. Analysis and research are great, but by themselves they won’t change anything.

So this said where do I stand on Kony2012 ?

It seems clear that some of the criticisms of the campaign have some merit – there is an over-simplified, and fairly one sided presentation of a complex situation. The campaign does give the impression that the West can and should dictate solutions to Africans when in reality the West’s historic involvement in the region have created some of the conditions for the conflict. There is also a significant moral question about encouraging the world’s youth to campaign for the continuation of US military presence in Uganda, and the ambition to achieve what some might suggest is ‘peace via war’.

But we mustn’t loose sight of the key issues – Joseph Kony and his group are clearly some of the world’s bad guys, they are responsible for a catalogue of appalling atrocities, have been indicted by theInternational Criminal Court and unarguably should be brought to justice (as of course should other equally guilty parties engaged in the conflict).

The Kony2012 campaign has managed to shine a spotlight onto a remote conflict forgotten by most of the world, and has made tens of millions of people, in particular young people, debate peacemaking in Africa, child soldiers, the role of the West, poverty and development. It has managed to do in five days what the rest of the world’s humanitarian organisations have struggled to do in the last twenty years !

It might not be perfect, and it’s fundamental objectives - to help and protect those in need by raising awareness, lobbying democratic decision makers and raising funds to continue to do both – might be naive, but are surely not so very controversial !

My considered view is that the campaign seems a worthy thing to support – at least as far as promoting the video, and encouraging further debate of the issues.

There might be better alternatives to achieve a lasting and just peace on the ground in Central Africa, but from my armchair and laptop it would be arrogant in the extreme of me to suggest I knew what they were. We are all vulnerable to misinformation, propaganda, and manipulation – but we must think carefully how much we risk letting our reasonable questioning and skepticism, turn into cynicism and ultimately detachment.

For me, like most of us, the choice is not between voicing qualified and nuanced support of the Kony2012 campaign, and some other alternative solution, but  between qualified and nuanced support of Kony2012, and doing nothing.

While writing this I found myself thinking of the words of the last line in guitarist and activist Tom Morello’s song Maximum Firepower;  “You’ve got three more seconds to choose sides”.

It somehow seemed apt.

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Photo from Invisible Children

Half the Sky

March 8th is International Women’s Day – one of the aims of which is to highlight the discrimination and oppression that continues to affect millions of women worldwide. The three books below all powerfully describe the challenges faced by many women living in poverty around the globe.

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

There is a Chinese saying that ‘Women hold up half the sky’, but in many parts of the world women are treated as anything but equal to men – experiencing violence, abuse and exploitation. Half the Sky tells the stories of women across the developing world facing such challenges, but rather than being upsettingly depressing, it remains positive and upbeat, focusing on the advances and victories that have been obtained, and the often inspiring stories of the women who achieved them.

Sheryl WuDunn and her husband Nicholas Kristof had previously jointly won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting of the Tianamen Square protests, and has gone on to win numerous other awards since. They argue in their book that ‘the oppression of women worldwide is the paramount moral challenge of the present era’.

The Washington Post described Half the Sky as ‘one of the most important books we have ever reviewed – a call to arms that asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue’.

The Half the Sky Movement works to empower women and girls to fight poverty and extremism across the world. [Amazon]

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz tells the remarkable story of how, after donating an old blue sweater to charity while at college in the US, she was amazed ten years later to see a young boy wearing her old sweater in Rwanda, where she was working as an aid worker. Stunned at how inter-connected the world is, she went on to write The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between the Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

The Blue Sweater describes Jacqueline’s trial and error approaches to supporting African woman through micro-loans and other means in her early days in Kenya, efforts which were very often unsuccessful and not appreciated by those she was trying to help. Over time and with reflection Jacqueline and her colleagues realised that more than just access to capital was needed if they were to transform the lives of the women they were seeking to help – women who have always been excluded from financial affairs, and must also find time in their day to struggle to care for their children, provide food and clean water and obtain basic health care, often with little support from men.

Jacqueline has gone on to found the Acumen Fund, which aims to use entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problem of global poverty. [Amazon]

Bite of the Mango by Mariatu Kamara and Susan McClelland

As a small child in a village in Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara lived a peaceful life with her family and friends. One day during the civil war, the rebel soldiers came, many themselves children, and 12 year old Mariatu was captured and attacked. Having killed most of her family and friends, the soldiers decided to release Mariatu, but not before cutting off both her hands. Later, a she hid in the jungle she was faced with the challenge of how to feed herself and considered simply giving up, but she was determined to survive and finally managed to take a bite of the mango, she’d been given, holding it between her forarms.

The book tells of Mariatu’s experiences after the attack, and the difficulties she needed to overcome to adjust to life without her family or the use of her hands – including time spent in refugee camps, and begging on the streets of Freetown. Eventually she was able to secure a new life in Canada.

In recent years Mariatu has been named UNICEF Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, and has set-up the Mariatu Foundation to provide a much needed refuge for women and children in Sierra Leone. [Amazon]


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Photo by Afghanistan Matters, via Flickr

The Imam and the Pastor

A guest post by Carol Kingston-Smith. Carol and her husband Andy spent several years working with the church in Bolivia, and now teach justice and advocacy at Redcliffe College, and blog at

I’ve just been watching a documentary film about the work of two Nigerian faith leaders – one a Muslim Imam and the other a Pentescostal Christian pastor.

Culture Unplugged, who are screening The Imam and the Pastor online give this synopsis below:

The Imam and The Pastor depicts the reconciliation between Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, and the peace-making initiatives which have flowed from it.

The film, narrated by Rageh Omaar, shows that it is possible for the perpetrators of inter-religious violence to become instigators of peace. It is both a story of forgiveness and a case study of grass-root initiatives to rebuild communities torn apart by conflict.

In the 1990s, Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye led opposing militias in Northern Nigeria. Now the two men work together bridging religious conflicts that have killed thousands. In recent decades, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been killed in communal clashes between Christians and Muslims. “We formed a militia to protect our people”, states Pastor Wuye. “My hate for the Muslims then had no limits”. The victims of his militia included Imam Ashafa’s spiritual leader and two cousins. The Imam spent three years planning revenge, then one day, a sermon on forgiveness changed his life.

The two men met and “gradually the relationship began to grow”. They played a leading role in negotiating a historic peace accord. As Imam Ashafa explains, “even though we differ in some theological issues, we will make the world a safer place”.

At its first screening in Parliament, London in 2006  Iman Ashafa noted that “Differences arise out of ignorance of own tradition and of the other traditions. We studied our scriptures together and found 70 values in common and 25 areas of disagreement on core values that cannot be compromised. We reject the word tolerance because of its negative connotations. What is needed is acceptance of the other for what he is.”

Pastor James emphasised that  “Nigeria is a very religious country. The conflict entrepreneurs use faith as the medium to inspire violence. We’re using faith to de-programme violence.”  They both affirm that at the heart of both Christianity and Islam the message is one of non-violence and that teachers of both faiths need to dig deeper and teach more faithfully the message of peace.

In the last week, Iman Ashafi and Pastor James have been sharing  their model for inter-religious peacebuilding at a workshop in Cairo, Egypt. In An African Answer, the sequel to this documentary, their work is tracked through their involvement in peacebuilding workshops in Kenya which was racked by renewed inter-religious violence post-elections.

Pastor James says: “We are like a husband and a wife. We must not divorce. If we divorce, our children…(the next generation of Nigerians) will suffer.”


Photo from FLT Films

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