Tag Archives: death

A Life Well Lived

When I was an awkward 13 year-old ill at ease in my own skin and self-conscious about my eczema scars, this poem changed my life:

Phenomenal Woman- Maya Angelou
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman


Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.


Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
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How to get respect should you die in the public eye

Always on the lookout for new poetry. This, by Musa Okwonga, is sharp: How to Get Respect Should You Die in the Public Eye.

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I can think of no finer tribute to Maya Angelou than her own words, written for other heroes that have gone before.


For Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass


I lay down in my grave

And watch my children


Proud blooms

Above the weeds of death.


Their petals wave

And still nobody

Knows the soft black

Dirt that is my winding

Sheet. The worms, my friends,

Yet tunnel holes in

Bones and through those

Apertures I see the rain,

The sunfelt warmth

Now jabs

Within my space and

Brings me roots of my

Children born.


Their seeds must fall

And press beneath

This earth,

And find me where I

Wait. My only need to

Fertilize their birth.


I lay down in my grave

And watch my children grow.”

– Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

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All God’s Children need travelling shoes

Maya Angelou died today and I’m not sad. Well… a bit sad. There are some lights in this world that leave us poorer without them. She is one of those.

And yet, upon her death, I find myself struck by how much she gave the world. Her words, her voice, will outlast her. Her poems will continue to enlighten and inspire young girls (as I once was) the world over. Her life was so rich, so layered, so well lived that it seems almost churlish to demand why we couldn’t have had longer with her.

Her family’s statement stressed that she died at peace, in her home, without any loss of her faculties. That is a fine end to a life lived with such passion and wisdom and courage.

I first encountered her work like so many others, through her poetry and specifically her poem, Phenomenal Woman. An awkward 13 year-old, I learnt it by heart and recited it to myself to exhort myself to be braver, bolder, more confident. I read all her books, poetry, essays – I devoured her work. Just two days ago I started on her latest memoir, Mom and Me and Mom. I read the introductory page and stopped, arrested by her words:

“This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb to impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths”

I couldn’t go on. I wanted to savour that thought, as always with Dr Angelou, so succint and beautiful and elegant and wise. I’ll read the rest eventually. Right now I’m a little buffetted by love and I don’t think I can cope with it. But I will.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Thank you for your words, which will warm us for the ages.

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Decision time at the AU

Today the African Union may withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which will effectively collapse it. Two days ago Desmond Tutu appealed to African nations not to do it, warning that:

“African leaders could kill off a great institution, leaving the world a more dangerous place.”

He launched a petition urging African countries not to break the ICC. The AFP news agency reported:

Tutu said the ICC was the world’s first and only court to try crimes against humanity, and accused the leaders of Sudan and Kenya, “who have inflicted terror and fear across their countries” of trying to “drag Africa out of the ICC, allowing them the freedom to kill, rape, and inspire hatred without consequences.”

This is all true. However, the ICC’s fate should not rest with Africa. There are some notable countries not party to the Rome Statute, not least America. Furthermore, the system of referrals means that some states will never appear before the court because they have signed up to it or have a defender in the Security Council protecting their interests. (SC members get to refer States and they all have to agree. See the problem?)

The reason that African countries feel persecuted by the ICC is because, well, they’re the only ones there. However, they deserve to be there. For African countries eager to shake off the shackles of the ICC, the question remains: what are you* going to do about justice? Lest we forget, the reason Kenyan politicians ended up there is because they failed to prosecute the perpetrators of the election violence in 2007 and 2008, as per the mediation agreement brokered by Kofi Annan. They handed him a sealed envelope with the names of the people responsible for inciting or facilitating violence, which was to be handed over to the ICC in the event that Kenya failed to hold these people to account on its own terms. Kenyan parliament could not agree to prosecute.

Meanwhile progress on the AU alternative to the ICC is slow and I don’t know** if it would be able to succeed where national systems have failed. Will African states club together to get Bashir et al off the hook at the ICC only to turn them over to another court, albeit an African one, eventually?***

In the midst of all this though is a tragedy, not remarked upon by the mighty AU, that illustrates why international justice matters for Africa: the hundreds of lives lost in Lampedusa recently. And not just the most recent tragedy; this has been going on for years. A lot of refugees are fleeing regimes like Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, but the AU isn’t concerned with that. It’s worth reading Simon Allison’s take at the Daily Maverick: Lampedusa tragedy: We were all African refugees once | Daily Maverick.

These are the people a court concerned with international justice should defend. It could be an African court; but until that is a reality, and a working reality at that, I’d rather have the flawed ICC than nothing at all.

It shouldn’t rest on Africa to keep the ICC alive, maybe it’s time the rest of the world started to take ownership of it and, I don’t know, get some of the many, many other global war criminals in there. But until African states are even remotely bothered by the mistreatment of Africans by fellow Africans (or even their own people) and the imperatives of justice for the persecuted, I don’t think we should kill the one mechanism that tries to grapple with the issue.

*Call me a cynic, I just don’t think they care.

** I doubt it

***see above

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I still don’t know. I’ve watched and listened as two polarised camps  – both staunchly pro-intervention and those against – have thrashed it out in the media, especially following the vote in parliament on the issue.

When it comes to the vote, David Cameron’s government showed its usual ineptitude and depending on who you talk to, Miliband showed his opportunism/leadership, but politics aside, I’m left with more questions than answers.

1. Why now? Chemical weapons are so awful that there are international prohibitions against using them. And yet, the thousands who have died by bullet and regular bombs – innocent men, women and children – matter too. I realise that the “red line” is a useful political marker in the sand but in the face of the wholesale slaughter of innocents in Syria in the last two years it seems arbitrary. Nick Clegg claimed furthermore that chemical weapons have been used on 14 occasions previously. So, the 14 times are regrettable but 15 is just not on?

2.  What will targeted strikes achieve? Assad is not above placing his weaponry in civilian areas, it’s not possible to strike without claiming more lives. How likely is it that military strikes will make the situation worse?

3. How can a diplomatic solution be sought while all talk is of the certainty of military strikes? In this sense, I’m glad for the UK parliament’s hesitation. I don’t know if it’s possible to do both at the same time. It appears, for the moment, that the battle is finely balanced and a negotiated diplomatic and political solution is the only one that will make Assad stop.

4. Is this about assuaging our consciences or about saving people? It seems like the West suddenly wants to be seen to be doing something when it’s still questionable how this will help ordinary civilians or stop Assad in his murderous tracks.

5. If Responsibility to Protect is a UN mechanism, how can a few states circumvent the UN to intervene on their own initiative? This means any state could do the same and international governance, such as it is, will continue to crumble if we don’t work within the framework.

6. How do we make the UN better? The US is right on one thing – the UN consistently fails, and it’s about time Russia and China were challenged on their continued obstruction. I sympathise with why the US wants to go around the UN, but this isn’t a permanent solution. I don’t think the US can afford to be world policeman. Nor can Russia and China continue to claim a place at the big boy table and sit on their hands.

I am glad that I don’t have to make the tough decisions and while I don’t agree with many of the parliamentarians, I’m glad for their caution. This is a grave decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. And for those positively hysterical that UK is abdicating it’s place on the world stage – that may be so, but the UK can’t police every nation. Why Syria and not North Korea? Where do you draw the line? We have to make the UN work better. Secondly, those from the Tory camp who have mouths full of human rights when it comes to Syria but who champion the repeal of the Human Rights Act and withdrawal from European Convention on Human Rights – that’s a hypocrisy too.

But at the end I’m still left thinking of Syrians. No matter which way you cut it, they continue to suffer. How do we fix this?


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Mandela Spoiler Alert

Newsflash: Mandela is going to die. One day. I hope that when that day comes, as it will to us all, he will go in peace and not suffer too much, and have all those he loves around him. The media circus that accompanied his recent sojourn in hospital for a lung infection was ghoulish.

“Fears for Mandiba’s health” the headlines screamed. Fears? The man is old. I wish him all the best but what should we fear? That he’ll die one day? Well, he will. And so will I… and you, if you’re reading this. (spoiler alert)

I wish the media and all of us would leave him alone. He’s old, he’s retired from public life and while we value his life and work we don’t own him. Time after time he’s wheeled out when public figures visit South Africa, and I’ve watched as he goes from an old man standing tall in the pictures to an older man gradually ever more stooped, leaning for support on those nearby, and finally, seated in a chair; then most recently, seated in a chair with a blanket over his knees.

He’s given so much, why don’t we let him be? Let a great man spend his remaining time in peace and quiet with his family while we relish his life and work; and when the time comes, let’s celebrate him. How about an end to the ghoulish hospital vigils and hysterical concern? Not likely.

For my part, when he passes, I’ll focus on savouring all the good that he did in his life. What a gift. What a legacy.

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