The Third Way: Secret of Progress

Published on 30th May 2006

This is Salem Ben Nasser Al Ismaily's speech during the Africa Unity Day Celebrations in Muscat-Oman on 25th of May 2006. He is the Executive President of the Omani Centre for Investment Promotion and Export Development (OCIPED).

As a child - I was fortunate enough to be brought up in Africa.  It was there in the past - where I started my basic education - that molded my present values and ethics. I know - since my departure from Africa, some three decades ago, many things have changed. Some for the better, but unfortunately, others for the worse.

I know it is not easy to remember the values of the past when we are overwhelmed by the forces of the present. Today the capitalist values dominate the world we live in more than any other time in our history.

We are told that good governance is based on market forces, where everything is supplied, wherever there is a commercial demand, with the easy movement of people, goods and services. The donor countries consider this rule holier than any religion that one might embrace.  You either reform based on these values - or risk to loose foreign aid. They are so self confident - of this social and political system - that they are bonded to and believe that they have conquered all of the life’s challenges with it.

Unfortunately, this century started tragically. Few discontent people struck a blow by waging a war of terror. Their attack was not only at the institutions of global capitalism, but to the very belief that all of our problems are solved by it.

Such attacks have brought the strong consciousness, of physical vulnerability to nations, that, despite their isolation, they can no longer live a lone within this global village. Ironically, the methods and tools that are used by those who wage war of terror are symbolic to our new century - in another crucial way.

The defining features of today's world - are the aggressive forces of globalization, the ease of communications and travel, the shrinking of boundaries, the flow of people of all nationalities and colors across the world and the swift pulsing of financial transactions - with the press of a button. The planes, the mobile phones, the computers, are the tools of our time. These very forces, which in a more pleasant moment - might have been seen - as helping drive the world towards progress and prosperity, are the forces that are used by others - that do cause so much deaths and destruction.  

In today’s global village, it should always be remembered – that a fire that starts in a remote hut in Africa, or in a dusty tent in Arabia, can melt the steel columns of the tallest skyscrapers, at the other end of our village and vice versa. 

The 21st century will be the century of "one world" as never before, with an understanding - that the tragedies of our time, are all global in origin and reach, and that solving them is also a global responsibility - that must be assumed by us all.  

What leads surprisingly large numbers of young people to follow the desperate course of violence and destruction? Exclusion, oppression and marginalization of some people because of their beliefs, race, religion and color. Living in poverty and despair in a world of plenty could also cause this. Everyday over 36,000 children die quietly, around the world from starvation, unclean water and preventable diseases. Why is it that in a world of plenty, only few are willing to give? Some might argue that we do not have enough, in terms of material, that we can give.  

Three decades ago when I was in Africa, material was not plentiful but we were content with what we had. A person was not judged by the material value. Whatever you did not poses, you could always get from your neighbor. Sharing was a ritual not only within our communities but also with total strangers. We were taught - to talk to strangers and invite them to our houses. We always kept the best we had for our guests. Blessed are those who give without remembering and take without forgetting. Unfortunately, today we have forgotten the rewards of giving.

For a change, we could learn the art of giving from our children.  Of all the dear sights in the world, nothing is so beautiful as a child when giving something. When a child gives, it opens the world to you, as if it were a book you had never been able to read. A child has so little that it can give in material, but it never knows it has given you everything, by just being there. 

Why is it that today we put so much value on material acquisition? After all, material value is limited, but spiritual value, nourished with love is unlimited. It is love among the families that knit the fabrics of African tribes within their villages. Loving one another is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks. It is the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which - all other work is but - preparation. If we want to learn the art of giving, we have to first learn the art of loving. Love builds highways out of dead ends and grows best when it is watered with kind words.

One of the most important values that I learnt in Africa was the treatment of people. Young or old, rich or poor, locals or foreigners were given the same treatment, highly respected and with a lot of kindness. Kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see. You cannot do a kindness too soon, because you never know - how soon it will be too late.

Teachers had special places in our communities. Teaching was one of the professions that earned a lot of respect. As the prophet Mohamed (SAW) said; The Ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.  If one were to become a teacher, we were taught, we must not view young people - as empty bottles to be filled, but as candles to be lit, as they are the ones that would shine our future. A child may catch a dream from you. You will never know when a little word or something you may do may open up windows of a mind that seeks the light. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they never failed to imitate them. 

The teacher that made the most impact in my life was my mother. While my father traveled between Oman and Africa during the 6 months of the monsoon, my mother would always be there, never failing to nourish me with her wisdom. The female members of our communities - had an important role to play – they started the first process of our education at homes by bringing up the children. After all, when educating a man, you only educate an individual, but when you educate a woman - you educate the whole society. As his majesty the Sultan once stated; “…to exclude women from playing meaningful role in the life of their country, amounted in essence, to excluding half of that country’s potential”

In the African town that I spent my childhood, there were many people of different races, colors, and beliefs. However we all learnt to live and celebrate our differences with tolerance. We were brought up with a belief that there would be no lasting peace on earth unless we learnt not only to tolerate, but also to respect each other’s faith as our own. 

As members of the global village, despite our tribes, we cannot afford to live in isolation, confined to people who only understand our culture or speak our language. We need to be proactive in our approach and reach out to other cultures, understand their values and speak their languages. Only then might we stand a chance of being understood.

A world in which it is easier to meet strangers must also become a world in which it is easier to see strangers as no different from ourselves. We should not see in strangers, foreign values, as walls of separation, but we should seize them as an opportunity to celebrate our differences. When we have nothing else to give, we should at least give hope. If a society cannot offer its people hope of a better life, how can such a society have any future? There is no medicine like hope, no incentive so great, and no tonic so powerful - as the expectation of something better - tomorrow. Of all the forces that make for a better world, none is so indispensable, none so powerful, as hope. Without hope - people are only half alive. With hope, they dream, think and work. We all have our darkest hours in life but let us not forget that the darkest hour, is only 60 minutes.

For a long time we were told there were only two ways in life: the communist way and the capitalist way. Communism has failed to inspire most of us, while capitalism has succeeded in creating wealth but at the expense of the basic values that have woven our families together.

There might be another way we could live our lives. The way where material is not the main foundation. The way where sharing, caring, giving, loving, kindness, respect, tolerance and hope are the pillars. May be there is a third way, the African way. Why don’t we give it a chance! May God bless Africa.

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