In time of distress, count on a good neighbour to lend a hand

Thursday May 14 2020

A street art graffiti mural, showing the logo

A street art graffiti mural, showing the logo of the NHS (National Health Service), and an image 100-year-old veteran Captain Tom Moore who raised over GBP 30 million for NHS charities, is pictured in east Belfast on May 5, 2020. PHOTO | PAUL FAITH | AFP 

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The ongoing Covid-19 devastation (medical, economic, political, psychological, ethical and cultural) has revealed to us the heroes and villains among us, and it has reminded me of a small linguistic point.

The word villain, which in English we usually associate with the ‘bad guys’ in a Hollywood story, actually means ugly in French. Which, of course, is proper.

But on those ugly customers we have gotten used to on our TV screens I shall not dwell, limiting myself only to the heroic women and men who have demonstrated unbounded courage and unswerving dedication to the calling of serving fellow human beings in conditions of grave danger to themselves.

To save other peoples’ lives when some of those whose duty it is to do just that are more preoccupied with how many dollars they are losing and their chances of re-election at the end of the year. These are the ugly, the ones I am ignoring for now.

The good came from Ireland, where hundreds of the Irish have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars destined to members of the Navajo Nation in the US who have been hard-hit by Covid-19, with close to 3,000 infections and a climbing death toll.

It is a singular act of generosity on the part of the Irish people to think of an ‘Indian’ tribe somewhere deep in the US when they must have their own virus problems.


Choctaw nation

But it happens that the Irish are returning a favour done them by the Choctaw Nation back in the 1840s when the Irish had lost almost a million lives through famine and disease caused by the Great Potato Famine.

The Choctaw ironically heard of the Irish famine through agents of the US federal agency in charge of resettling them in Oklahoma, after they had been expelled, en mass, from their ancestral lands on the Mississippi River (in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida) to make room for White settlers.

Some of these agents, again ironically, were of Irish origin, who saw nothing bizarre in asking for assistance from a people who they had actually cruelly uprooted from their homes and who had just come out of the long trek of what is known as the ‘Trail of Tears,’ during which thousands perished.

Knowing something of what famine meant, having been put through it by the American government, the Choctaw stepped up to the plate, and contributed some $170, estimated to translate into $5,000 in today’s value.

Now, the actual monetary value hardly matters, and I suspect the Irish people today are not counting the zeros on the cheque that was sent across the oceans 170 years ago.

Rather they are contemplating with wonderment the next-to-impossible thought of what took place back then: An Indian tribe, recently uprooted from their lands, kicked, punched and bayoneted, raped, scalped, their dwellings torched, their animals maimed or driven off to beef up white-owned ranches, broken, starving, dying, hearing of starving white people on the other side of the ocean giving their remaining dimes to save those white people whose brothers are even now busy kicking them out of their homes to resettle them in barren foreign savannas.

I read the heart-warming story of the Choctaw and their Irish brothers and sisters. Yes, the two nations are united by their history of extreme suffering and what human solidarity can do.

When, two 2000-plus years ago today, a young Palestinian teacher was asked by his disciples, ‘‘And, rabbi, tell me, who is my neighbour, who you say I should love?’’ he gave them the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Some English and American bigots from the era of the Great Famine had the simplemindedness to believe that the Irish, held by the English to be lacking in moral, civilised behaviour, were being punished for their ‘sins’.

Having caused the Potato famine in the first place (through their bighted agricultural policy impositions on Irish farmers) the English did not qualify to be the neighbours of Ireland.

If that Palestinian teacher had been around in 1840s Ireland, and had been asked the same question by a Patrick McGuiness, “Who is my neighbour?” I have no doubt Jesus’ answer would have been, ‘The Choctaw.’

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]