What is it that enables some leaders to continue to be inspirational and not lose followers even when their decisions may not be to their follower’s liking? This is a very critical dilemma of leadership, of walking the tightrope between populist actions and doing what needs to be done and risk losing popularity. In today’s political environment of playing to the gallery, leaders are often held to ‘ransom’ by their followers who give or withdraw support because they don’t like what the leader’s decision. Or don’t understand his wisdom. In modern times, the example of Al Gore comes to mind, where Americans chose George Bush over him for President of America. One can fantasize about how the world would have been different if the author of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, had become President. But that is water under the bridge.
So, what is it that sets a leader apart where even when he proposes to do what his followers either don’t understand or don’t like, they still support him and commit to his way and he doesn’t lose trust in their eyes?
The two finest examples of this in Islamic history are the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah. Let us see the challenges that the leaders faced in each of them.
I won’t narrate the history of this very famous treaty as it is well known. I will list the challenges that Rasoolullahﷺ faced. They were perhaps the most severe challenges that any leader could have faced, especially one who was the Messenger of Allahﷻ and so the recipient of Wahi (Revelation). He took the people with him on Umrah, naturally with the intention of performing Umrah but thanks to a series of events which obviously he could not have anticipated, he was now in the process of signing a treaty that was so one-sided as to be humiliating for the Muslims. Two of the most difficult to accept clauses were:
1. They must return to Madina without making Umrah
2. If a Muslim left Islam and went over to the Quraysh of Makkah he/she would be given refuge and need not be returned to Madina. But if a non-Muslim accepted Islam and went from Makkah to Madina, he/she must be returned to Makkah and must not be given refuge.
To add to the difficulty, Abu Jandal bin Suhayl the brother of Abdullah ibn Suhayl and son of Suhayl Ibn Amr, the orator of Quraysh had accepted Islam and consequently had been imprisoned by his father, escaped and came to Hudaybiyya having heard that Rasoolullahﷺ was camped there. His father Suahyl ibn Amr was the representative of Quraysh, negotiating the treaty. The clauses of the treaty had been agreed upon but had not been written down yet. He demanded that his son should be handed over to him to be returned to Makkah in chains and Rasoolullahﷺ agreed. He advised Abu Jandal (R) to be patient when he complained that the Quraysh would punish him for accepting Islam. The Sahaba were horrified because what was happening was directly against the custom of giving refuge to a victim and in this case to a fellow Muslim. Yet Rasoolullahﷺ was honoring the clause of a treaty even though it had not yet been signed. He was honoring his word which had been given, the writing of which was merely detail. The Sahaba were very sad and angry.
Sad about not being able to enter Makkah and make Umrah and angry at what the Quraysh were demanding. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) even went the extent of questioning Rasoolullahﷺ. Once again, I will not go into the details here as these are well known. However, I would like to say that his questioning was really the unconscious expression of the doubt in the minds of many others, if not most. It was a cry of anguish in the face of the apparently placid and submissive acceptance of injustice. Yet when all was said and done, the Sahaba stood behind Rasoolullahﷺ solidly and followed him and did as he instructed them to do. And that is the bottom-line and the question that I raise here, ‘What was it about Rasoolullahﷺ that inspired them to follow him, even when his decision was not to their liking?’
To better understand the challenge from the perspective of the followers (Sahaba) let me list some of the obvious doubts that this entire incident raises. I am not saying that the Sahaba had these doubts. Allahﷻ knows what was in their minds and hearts and that is not the subject of our discussion here. This is an objective analysis of one of the most severe tests of leadership in history which is important for us to understand. I call this the ‘final exam’, which qualified the Sahaba in the sight of Allahﷻ to lead the world and Heﷻ opened for them not only the doors of Makkah but the whole of their world. Hudaybiyya was the toughest exam because it was not a test of bravery or physical prowess, but a test of faith and trust. The Sahaba passed it with flying colors.
The doubts that the incident raises are:
1. They believed in Muhammadﷺ as the Messenger of Allahﷻ who received Revelation (Wahi). They believed that one of the forms in which Wahi was received was in a dream. Rasoolullahﷺ had seen in his dream that he was making Umrah with his companions and so, had invited them to join him to travel to Makkah to make Umrah. However, now he was agreeing not to make Umrah that year and was going to return to Madina with them without fulfilling the intention of performing Umrah.
2. They had been taught and believed that Islam was the truth. They had been taught and believed that standing up for the truth and fighting against falsehood was a sacred trust and duty. Yet here they were apparently giving in to blatant injustice.
3. They now faced the prospect of returning to Madina to the taunts of the Munafiqeen who would no doubt cast aspersions on the prophethood and veracity of Rasoolullahﷺ.
4. For Rasoolullahﷺ himself were the questions, ‘If Allahﷻ wanted him to make Umrah, why did this barrier come about? Why did Allahﷻ not open the door for him to make Umrah after directing him to do so in his dream? Why was Allahﷻ wanting him to sign such a humiliating treaty with his enemies? What ‘face’ would he have with his followers who believed in his Messengership? What about his personal credibility as the Messenger of Allahﷻ?’
Truly Hudaybiyya was a test, difficult beyond belief. That is why I call it the ‘final’ exam of the Sahaba.
Wars of Riddah
Before we discuss the reasons for the Sahaba remaining steadfast in their support for Rasoolullahﷺ let me mention another similar incident in early Muslim history which was a landmark for the future of Islam. This was the refusal of many tribes to pay Zakat, after the death of Rasoolullahﷺ. They refused on the grounds that they used to pay it to Rasoolullahﷺ who was no longer present and so Zakat was not due any longer. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) the Khalifa reminded them that Zakat was not a personal payment to Rasoolullahﷺ but was a Rukn (Pillar) of Islam about which Rasoolullahﷺ had declared that anyone who separated Salah from Zakat had left Islam. It was on this basis that Rasoolullahﷺ had refused to accept the Islam of the Banu Thaqeef of At-Ta’aif when they came to him and offered to accept Islam on condition that they be made exempt from paying Zakat. Rasoolullahﷺ refused and declared that both Salah and Zakat were Pillars of Islam and equal in importance and that leaving of either would be tantamount to leaving Islam. On this basis, Abu Bakr Siddique (R) declared war on those tribes who refused to pay Zakat.
The Sahaba were very perturbed about this as it appeared that the Khalifa Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was planning to make war on Muslims. Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) asked Abu Bakr (R) how he could consider going to war against Muslims. Abu Bakr (R) said to him, ‘What has happened to you Omar, that you were very tough when you were not a Muslim but have become soft after entering Islam?’ He then reminded him about the ruling of Rasoolullahﷺ about separating Zakat from the rest of Islam and said, ‘Even if they refuse to give a single rope of a camel which is due, I will fight them.’ And that is what he did. In retrospect, it was this single unshakable stance of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) which preserved the integrity of Islam after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away. If he had not taken this firm stand, Islam would perhaps have disintegrated with people deciding to follow whatever suited them. But ask, ‘What is it that made the Sahaba support him even when they disagreed with his decision?’
In the case of Rasoolullahﷺ at Hudaybiyya, one could say that his position as being the Messenger of Allahﷻ was sacrosanct and when you believed that he was receiving Revelation, it was perhaps easier to follow without question. However, Abu Bakr (R) was not receiving Revelation. He was one among them, albeit first among equals, but an equal. Yet they obeyed him even though some or many didn’t agree with his decision, initially. Not only did they obey him, but they put their own lives on the line and enrolled in the conscript army which was the army of the time. Nobody stayed back. Nobody said, ‘I don’t agree and so I am not going to risk my life by joining the army.’ What made them do that?
I believe there were two major factors that operated in both these incidents; i.e. Hudaybiyya and the Wars of Riddah.
1. Trust: An unshakable faith beyond question in the personal credibility of the leader. This faith was based on the character of the leader which his followers had seen throughout his life and which inspired total trust and respect in their hearts. So, while they may have disagreed with the leader in a matter, his personal credibility, his intention that he wished the best for them, his objectivity, truthfulness, commitment to the goal (Islam), impartiality, lack of selfishness, sincerity, desire only to please Allahﷻ were never in question.
2. Respect: The belief that the leader was more knowledgeable, committed and sincere than any one of them. That he understands a situation better than the follower. That his track record shows that even in the past he had been right, when he differed with his followers.
As you can see, these two factors are dynamically linked. One supports the other. And both arise out of one’s conduct. When you live by your principles, you don’t have to keep talking about them. People see them in your life and emulate them in their own. The converse is equally true which we tragically see in our modern-day leadership. Leaders who don’t walk their talk may be obeyed out of fear but are never respected and loved. There is no way that a leader can divorce his personal conduct from his stated principles and expect followers to respect and follow his lead.
Personal credibility which translates to high respect. People trust those they respect. And they don’t trust those who lose respect in their estimation. A leader’s life is public. Every statement, whether made in seriousness or jest, is public. Every action, private or public, personal or involving others, is public. And they all contribute to the overall picture of the leader that people hold in their minds. Image and personal credibility of the leader is built on his walking the talk. People listen with their eyes and don’t care what you say until they see what you do. This is the Brand of the leader. They care less about what is being said, than about who is saying it. ‘How’ also matters, but only after ‘Who’. If people don’t respect the individual, what he/she says doesn’t matter. First the who, then the how and then the what. Seems strange but that is human psychology for you. People must first trust a leader. Then they listen to how he puts across his proposal. Then they think about what he is asking them to do. If the first two, especially the first one (high personal credibility), is strong, people will even go to extraordinary lengths to follow their leaders.
In times of stress, success of the leader depends on the ability of followers to recall and remember the brand. And still obey and follow the leader and commit themselves even when they don’t fully understand why they should commit. And even when they may not agree with some of what the leader is doing. Please note that what I am referring to is not what happens after the leader has explained what he is doing and why he wants their support. I am talking about a time when the leader may not have the time, opportunity or may for reasons of confidentiality, decide on a course of action without consulting his team. Will the team still follow him and commit fully to him and his course or will they hold back, rebel and not support? That is the meaning of faith in the leadership. Like all good things, maybe easier said than done, but like flying, if you want to fly, you must be aerodynamic. There is no alternative.
In 2005, I wrote an article titled, ‘State of the Nation’, after a trip to South Africa at the invitation of the Jamiat ul Ulama where I met and addressed hundreds (perhaps over a thousand or more in total) of Ulama, businessmen, scholars, teachers and parents in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. I also met and addressed exclusive groups of political, community and business leaders in these cities. After that trip, I documented my impressions and made an analysis of the situation of Indian Muslims in South Africa (with a special focus on Gauteng Province) in the hope that it would be useful to those who cared to read it. I am attaching a link to that article for anyone who is interested in it. It makes for interesting reading as a comparative article to what I am writing here to see what has changed in the past 12 years.
Since then, I have travelled to South Africa every year, with two trips in some years (including this year 2017). I have spoken at two National Conventions of the Association of Muslim Schools, the National Convention of IMA, at several meetings organized by Al Ansar, Minara Chamber of Commerce, University of Kwazulu Natal (Business school), Jamiat ul Ulama, MJC and delivered more Juma bayans than I can recall. During these trips, I have once again had the privilege of meeting and speaking to a cross section of South African Muslim society that most South Africans don’t have access to. Of special note is my meeting with the late Ahmed Kathrada who spent over two hours talking about his experiences in the Freedom Struggle and the challenges that Free South Africa faces and asked me many probing questions. At the end of that meeting, he said to me, while giving me a signed copy of his memoirs, ‘You are a very peculiar Maulana. But we need many peculiar Maulanas like you.’ I cherish the memory of that meeting and consider his comment as a badge of honor.
During all these trips, I have listened more than I have spoken, learned more than I have taught and benefited more than I could have imagined. I therefore feel it to be a responsibility on me to share that learning and my analysis of what I see happening in South Africa in these past 12 years. As that is half of South Africa’s lifespan as a free, independent nation, I believe it is important. I leave it to the reader to decide.
n Please read the article on this link:
n Then ask:
n What has changed since 2005?
n Which of these recommendations have been acted upon?
Leonardo Da Vinci says, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
I believe it is time – it was time 20 years ago – high time, for South African Indians to wake up and take stock of who they are, what their value and relevance is to society and what they need to do about it. And to remember that value is determined by the receiver, not the giver. Value is a factor of market perception. If you want to know your value, you need to ask others.
I would like to begin by giving an example of the Parsee community in India.
Parsees of India
n < 1%
n Highly respected, highly influential
n Highly educated
n Top 5 employers/tax payers
n Top 5 wealthiest
The key word here is ‘contribution’. What goes without saying is that the contribution is done in a way that is clear to all concerned, highly visible and highly appreciated. In one word, if one were to ask, “If the Parsees of India and all that they represent, disappeared from the land, would that make a difference to the people of India?’ I don’t think that is a question that takes much thought to answer, if you live in India. Just to drive home the point totally, imagine India without Tata and Godrej; just two Parsee names. I rest my case.
I would suggest that you do the same analysis with South African Indians. Ask the question, ‘If the Indians of South Africa disappeared from the land with all their assets, signs, symbols, culture and religion, what difference would that make to the South African Black people?’ If you wanted to use just one name and not two, ‘Guptas’, then the answer would be clear. But bad jokes apart, you know what I mean. Indispensability is critical to survival. You must ask, ‘As a community, are we indispensable, irreplaceable, critical to survival of South Africa?’ Forget the past. Ask this question in today’s context. Human memory is notoriously short. Think today because it is today, not yesterday, which will influence tomorrow.
Some data you may need to do this analysis:
Extent of Indian businesses in South Africa in terms of:
1. Business volume (Billions of $) of Indian businesses.
2. Nature of business (strategic: large scale farming, infrastructure development, power, finance, mining, health and education) versus commerce (retail, FMCG, restaurants – generally service sector with some exceptions).
3. Extent of employment created by Indian businesses (Tata Steel alone employs 74000 people and is worth $25 billion).
4. Tax paid by Indian businesses in South Africa.
5. Cost of replacement of Indian businesses and Indians in society.
6. Employee satisfaction of people working for Indian businesses, households (you may like to compare all of the above with White Owned Businesses to get some comparative data). Has anyone ever done an Employee Satisfaction Survey nationally, especially with domestic employees?
7. Do you have a source that is unquestionable and comparable, demographically and in terms of GDP for this data? Questionable data, partisan reporting does more damage than good.
Remember that contribution is a number. It is measurable and if it is not measured or unmeasurable then it is not visible and will not be appreciated. I know that you are going to say that you don’t have the means to measure the things that I have mentioned above. I say to you that, that in itself, is your answer. Once again, I rest my case.
You will notice that I have not mentioned the role of Indians in the Freedom Struggle. That is not accidental. The harsh reality is that today, it doesn’t matter. I mentioned the role of Indians in the Freedom Struggle in my article in 2005. Twelve years have passed since then. Memory was dim then. Today it is almost gone. The generation walking the street in South Africa, the generation which will go to vote in 2019, the generation that is listening to those using the plank of race and xenophobia is a generation that didn’t see apartheid. They don’t know what it meant to rush to find some means of transport to get out of a White area where they went to work, before dark, because they had no permit. They have never seen ‘Whites only’ signs on park benches, toilets, entrances and exits and in every part of their lives. They don’t know what it meant to pay the same amount of money but get third rate service only because you were Black, even if you were in Africa. They don’t know what it meant to be Black in a nation ruled by Whites and be treated as subhuman in your own land. They don’t know any of that. True, that they have forgotten that this is because of the sacrifices of those who fought for independence (Black, White & Indian) and gave up their present for the future of this generation. Yes, they have forgotten. That is sad, that is bad but that is the reality.
On the other hand, they know what it means to be Black in a nation ruled by Blacks but still not have jobs, still be treated badly, still be poor while you see others with more than you have. They neither have the wisdom to see that this is not the fault of Indians. It was not Indians who deprived them of jobs or who made promises that couldn’t possibly have been fulfilled. It was not Indians who didn’t tell them the truth that gaining independence was merely to cross the threshold of freedom. After that it takes the next two generations to build a nation. It was not Indians who hid these facts from them. All this they don’t understand and nobody, least of all those who want to use them for their own ends, will tell them. All that they know is that they are suffering, that they are angry and they need a target for their anger. That target is the one who has more than they do, who flaunts it, who shows it off in his lifestyle and who really has no power or strength to protect his assets. That is like taking ice cream from a child. That you are going to be hungry again, once the ice cream is gone, is not something that they are willing to reflect on. That it is much better to learn how to make ice cream is not something that they are willing to think about.
Yes, I know all the reactions that I am going to get to the statement above, “We didn’t get this for nothing, we worked hard for it, our parents sacrificed their lives so that we could have what we have today. These people don’t want to work hard, they want it all on a platter, they have an entitlement mentality, they think they can simply wish for wealth and it will fall into their laps, one day they will find out.”
I say to you, ‘Right on all counts. But they will discover that after you have disappeared from the land.
We have the history of several other African nations as evidence that the strategy of xenophobia; using a prosperous community as a target for the anger generated from broken promises of the government; works. It is highly successful in winning elections. We have several examples of that globally, not only in Africa. There is no reason to believe that it won’t work in South Africa. It is emotion not fact that generates mass action. And it is emotion that is the tool being used. One of the most powerful of emotions, far more than love, is fear. More than fear is hatred, that comes out of fear. So, fear and hatred mongers will get elected. The target community will enter the hallowed halls of history and the public will face some more broken promises, but that will be of no use to those who were used and discarded.’
Let me begin with my SWOT analyses of South African Indian Muslims. I would suggest that you do the same for South African Indians collectively. The beginning of the solution lies in an objective, even brutal, analysis of facts as they are. Not as we would like to view them. So, please be completely frank. If you have any doubts, talk to the other side, face to face. And listen to them. Don’t argue. Listen quietly. Go, do it.
SWOT Analysis of South African Indian Muslims
n Homogeneous, compact, consolidated (changing now)
n Relatively wealthy
n Legacy of the Freedom Struggle (getting diluted rapidly)
n State is supportive (changing now)
n Ulama & Maktabs and community support for them
n Harmonious relationships all around (changing now)
Warning: Strengths you ignore become weaknesses
n < 1%
n Changing population demographic & dynamics
n No presence in strategic business areas
n Racist attitudes & intolerance for any critical perspective
n Low/no presence in politics, government, judiciary, executive, military
n Poor education – Resultant myopia & rigidity
n Internal conflicts are a cancer but which is funded, encouraged and enjoyed
Warning: Weaknesses you ignore can destroy you
n Continue to live with dignity, prosperity and grace
n Retain and build on the legacy of the Freedom Struggle
n Be perceived as highly beneficial, essential, irreplaceable part of society
n Become icons and benchmarks for the Muslim world, of how to live in a pluralistic, multicultural society
But only opportunities you leverage can help you
n Become redundant, irrelevant and soft targets
n Used to further other’s agendas and discarded when usefulness is over
n Racism, rigidity, isolation and ignorance leads to annihilation
n Become the subject of a Harvard case study in AD (Accelerated Demise)
Threats ignored… well, let me leave it at that
History has the potential to teach us great and valuable lessons without the pain and cost that those who lived those times, paid for them.
However, as someone said, ‘What we learn from history is, that we learn nothing.’
And as someone else said, ‘Nations that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’
I say, ‘The choice is yours.’
History lesson: Indian Example
I believe that South African Muslims are repeating the mistakes that their counterparts (and ancestors) made in India. Indian Muslims were at the forefront of the Freedom Struggle in 1859 and then again in 1930’s – 40’s which resulted in final independence from the British on August 15, 1947. Indian Muslims with their Ulama in their vanguard, paid a heavy price in blood and lives to win freedom. After that, they retreated into their Madaaris, Khankhas and Darul Ulooms and the common Muslim people went back home and continued with their lives. No attempt was made to consolidate the gains of the independence movement, to be active politically, to fill positions in the administrative services, military, judiciary and police. No attempt was made by Muslims who had considerable wealth to get into industry, not even to invest with other industrialists. Madrassas and Darul Ulooms consciously remained apart from universities and strongly discouraged (forbade) the learning of English, science, math and other modern subjects. Even with Aligarh Muslim University, to this day, there is no active academic relationship and an atmosphere of caution.
I won’t go into the reasons, real and imaginary, for all this but the fact remains that this resulted in Indian Muslims being sidelined everywhere, their contribution in the independence struggle forgotten and them as a community being used as a vote bank and then discarded once they had fulfilled their purpose. Extremist Hindu parties used (and continue to use) Indian Muslims as a target to fuel hatred and get some cheap votes by making inflammatory speeches, which make the speeches that some of the extremist Black politicians are making in South Africa sound like love stories. These speeches routinely result in pogroms and since 1947 literally thousands of Muslims have died violently at the hands of roving mobs. And this continues. Nothing happens to those who create all this except that it helps them to get elected. Those who advised Muslims to stay away from politics and to ignore the world are as responsible for this tragic state of affairs as those who did and continue to do the killing.
The Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi has some horrific data about the issue of so-called ‘Communal Riots’, which is the euphemistic name given to anti-Muslim pogroms. https://www.iosworld.org/ . The lynching of Muslims by roving mobs of so-called Gau Rakshaks (Cow Protectors) is another case in point to show that it is emotion, not fact that fuels action. That no action is taken against these vigilantes is a message for South African Muslims and Indians to reflect upon.
The thing to remember is that the number of Muslims in India is ten times the total population of South Africa. There are four Muslims in India for every man, woman and child of any religion or color in South Africa. Yet these numbers can’t help us. I am stating all these tragic facts here because I see a reflection of our history in the current events of South Africa. For the past twelve years I have been trying to say to you that South African Indians and Muslims are making the same mistakes in a newly independent (now over 20 years) South Africa, that Indian Muslims made in an independent India 70 years ago. Same actions give the same results. That is why I want to briefly quote the lessons from India so that South African Indians can learn from them and not repeat our tragic history.
What we learn from the history of Muslims in India’s Freedom struggle is:
n Strategically wrong decisions led to abiding hostility and the squandering of the gains of the Freedom Struggle
n Apathy led to filling of the vacuum by others
n Divided voting = lost advantage
n No strategic focus, game plan or action to date
n Internal conflicts = collective weakness = suicide
n 200 million Muslims became irrelevant
I quote from the speech of Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (RA) at the inauguration of the Tabligh Markaz in Dewsbury, UK. He gave some very important advice which is relevant to Indian Muslims who migrated to other countries, including South Africa.
n This is a new land – don’t transplant your controversies from India & Pakistan
n Don’t isolate yourself because it is your Akhlaaq (manners) and Mu’ashira (society) which is the most powerful means of Da’awa
n Participate in politics because only those who participate in the process can participate in the decisions
In a democracy, the only thing which counts is the vote.
And everyone, including your domestic worker, is a voter.
I believe there are some harsh realities that South African Indians in general and Muslims in particular must face, own up to and change. I say Muslims in particular because these are attitudes which run counter to Islam. If South African Muslims displayed the Akhlaaq of Rasoolullahﷺ and the Sahaba, we would not have a situation like the one we have now. However, instead of that you seem to have brought across the seas, attitudes of your villages in Gujarat and elsewhere, with your shortsighted, narrowmindedness, your prejudice and your racism. India is a very racist culture. Indian racism goes back thousands of years and is ingrained in and is a part of the Hindu culture in its caste system.
Muslims who should have rejected it, because there is no caste system in Islam, embraced it and created a caste system of their own in Indian Islam (Ashraf, Ajlaf & Ardhal) that doesn’t exist anywhere else. This caste system was created and supported by Indian Ulama and that is the case to this day. Apart from other things, it is a system that is based on discrimination on the basis of color with ‘fair’ (nothing to do with justice) being the first requirement, seen as good, superior, desirable and dark being inferior, undesirable and looked down upon. Just look at the matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers and find me a single one that says, ‘Wanted: A bride who is dark in color’, and I will place my turban at your feet.
That attitude was also brought with Indians and Indian Muslims to South Africa. In South Africa of the apartheid era this worked very well and was supported by local laws, segregation regulations and housing. Indians lived in their towns separated from Black townships and White areas, always aspiring to be considered equal to Whites and apart and superior to Blacks. Even someone as enlightened as Gandhi made comments comparing Indian and Black people which are highly embarrassing to put it politely. At the cost of sounding apologetic, this was a factor of the Indian cultural mindset of which Gandhi was also a victim as was almost everyone else. To say that Indians are not racist is a lie. To try to justify it by asking, ‘What about the tribalism of Black people?’ is to try to say that one wrong justifies another.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. The purpose of saying this is not to blame but to identify a critical problem so that we can cure it. Especially for Muslims, racism is Haraam and a great sin that if not dealt with, will result in great humiliation when we meet Allahﷻ. No matter what happened in the past, it is something that needs urgent attention and must be rooted out. The place to begin is in our homes and schools.
n This is a Black country and you are not Black – not because Black people rejected you but because you rejected Black people
n You are seen as a highly visible, enviable, resource rich, ostentatious, insensitive, inward looking, weak, defenseless, non-beneficial minority
n You are a propagandist’s dream – a soft target i.e. the fuel which can be used to further their own ends
Ignoring reality is the fastest way to become its victim
However, you can still live here as ‘different’ but highly respected and valued – but only provided you do the right things which begins with putting your own house in order.
Face the Reality
n Strategic Focus is like air – without it you will die painfully and quickly
n Learn to work with others different from you in every way – except a common destiny
n Internal conflicts are cancer – must be eliminated urgently
n Those who cause them must be hunted down and axed out
The time to tolerate negativity is over
What to do?
Change your mindset
Any system, left unattended degenerates into chaos. Gardens, families, marriages, countries, organizations, all follow the same pattern. They all need regular attention.
- Recognize that racism is a life-threatening issue (quite literally)
- Create a high visibility impact & do it fast to demonstrate that you are taking action
- Avoid getting isolated and get everyone on board. Stay silent and you become the next victim.
- Spend enough time, money and energy to make an impact. (Key word: Enough)
- Find leadership which can bridge boundaries
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Find Inspirational Leadership
n Find leadership:
n Which is inclusive and can transcend boundaries
n Which can communicate and build trust with diverse people
n Which is trusted by all parties to be just and impartial
n Which has the humility to learn from others
n Which has enough strength to ensure compliance
Warning: Internal Conflict just got upgraded to cardiac arrest status
I don’t think there is a single leader of any faith community among Indian South Africans who can fit this bill. The alternative is to find an organization which can perform this role. In my opinion, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation is such an organization. I leave it to you to collectively decide. But let me say right now that unless it is a genuine collective decision which is supported wholeheartedly by all sections of the Indian South African community, it won’t work. Some South African Muslims have a rich history of backstabbing their own leaders, of loose cannons who go off half-cocked and create all kinds of confusion and disruption, of being hypocritical in their speech and actions. I submit to you that the time for playing these games is over.
Speak to the opposition
n Take the wind out of their sails by acting urgently on matters that need action
n Show the opposition how they will damage their own political goals if they take the route of xenophobic violence. Find someone who can talk to them and who they will listen to. You need someone with credibility with them.
n Build a popular front for nation building by including everyone in it – Black, White, Indian or Coloured
n Reject the language of race which still divides you. If you think you are South African, stop referring to each other by color. You are human beings. Not pawns in a chess game.
Immediately put your own house in order
n Accept publicly that things have gone wrong and that you (Indian community) will put your own house in order
n Set up an Ombudsman Desk in every city where people can report human rights violations. Investigate all cases objectively and ensure (enforce) proper compensation. There is no excuse for breaking the law of the land.
n Conduct Cross-Cultural Sensitivity & Understanding programs and preach race equality everywhere, especially in religious institutions and gatherings.
n Start a Community Dialogue between Black & Indian people. Include others.
Don’t give fuel to others to light a fire under you
On-going with long term focus: Build a credit balance
- Talent Search (among underprivileged): pick highly talented youngsters irrespective of race and tutor & mentor them
- Build state of the art schools in Black areas
- Educate one Black child for one Indian child in your own private schools
- Start Entrepreneurship training & startup funding for young Black entrepreneurs
- Invest in long term development projects (not charity and food packets): housing, health care, clean water, sanitation, kitchen gardens, livestock management, child care, sports and adult literacy.
- Get into the executive, judiciary and military – Remember that it takes 35 years for to make a General, Judge or Minister
- Become active in politics at all levels, from voting to working as political activists to standing for election. Set up a fund to help those Indian political candidates who have the talent, ability and willingness but not the funds for campaigning.
- Set up Chairs in all universities for business, politics, education, health, environment and Islamic studies
- Stop all public criticism & pamphleteering – you are a bad joke. Attacking people, you disagree with, only shows your own ignorance and bad manners. It is not enough to talk about Adaab-ul-Ikhtilaaf. You need to practice them. This must be demonstrated especially by the Ulama. The present situation is totally unacceptable and a serious disservice to the community. Beware that if the present situation doesn’t change, it will result in a total alienation of the community from the Ulama.
- Get into media – at all levels – urgently. Create a media which is fair, intelligent, proactive and courageous. Not the propaganda machines that we see today in the name of media.
Treat it like it is – investment in YOUR future
Finally, most important of all is to remember that the window of opportunity is fast closing
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein
The Adhaan for Tahajjud was just called. I know Tahajjud is very important but sometimes I’m lazy. Nothing will happen if I don’t go. No punishment. There’s no punishment here for anything. Except if you tell lies or do anything dishonest or immoral. Then the punishment is expulsion. And that is something that none of us want. We love being here too much.
I get out of bed and make the bed. That’s one of the non-negotiable rules here. We always make our beds and line up our shoes beside them. On that subject, we clean our own dorms and toilets and bathrooms and our own classrooms. We do that because this is our home and you keep your home clean. Nothing remarkable about that, though visitors usually look very surprised. One asked me if I didn’t feel bad to be made to do this. I replied, “Nobody makes me bathe but I do. It’s just like that.” Keeping yourself clean includes keeping your environment clean. It’s as simple as that.
Our four huts, the Dorm Parents hut and the common room are all built around a central courtyard with grass and a shady ornamental or fruit tree. Bird feeders and nesting boxes are attached to building gables or placed safely in the tree. Each hut has a veranda on the courtyard side. The whole complex is surrounded by an 8-foot-high Bougainvillea hedge with a chain link center; very secure and impenetrable. There is a gate near the Dorm Parents hut. The whole complex is called a ‘Kraal’ and the fence is the ‘Boma’. There is a gravel pathway around the whole complex inside the hedge to give access to all the huts. It is wide enough to take a vehicle in case of any emergency.
Our dorm common rooms have a Musalla, a large hall very comfortably furnished with bean bags and arm chairs, books lining the walls, low tables, game boards, a pool table and a fridge stocked with fruit juice, flavored milk, yogurt, fruit and nuts. No sugared fizzy drinks and definitely no Coke or Pepsi. In one section there are a couple of terminals and highspeed internet to allow us to do any research that we may need to do. There is also a widescreen TV for us to watch news, sports and any useful programs. Our school has its own TV and Radio station and so we watch our own programs also.
We spend time in our common rooms, either reading by ourselves, discussing our projects, playing one of the indoor games or reading Qur’an in the Musalla. The noise sometimes gets too loud, but we regulate ourselves as much as we can to ensure that we’re not disturbing those who’re trying to read on their own. If it gets too boisterous we go out into the open courtyard and sit on the grass. Except when it’s raining this is the best place to be, you lie on the grass and look up at the stars. When it’s raining, one of the nicest things in to sit inside our classrooms or common rooms and watch the rain falling in the courtyard and dripping off the roof. The grass ensures that the rain doesn’t splash into the room, as does the wide verandah that circles the courtyard into which you walk out from the class or common room before you step on the grass. These verandahs also have chairs and hammocks in them and on a lazy afternoon, there’s nothing more pleasant than to lie in a hammock and let the breeze gently rock you to sleep. The walls of all our Kraal buildings are decorated with African designs, murals and are strikingly colorful. This is the case with all the buildings in the campus, which gives it all a very cheerful atmosphere. This is Africa and that is reflected in every building on the campus. SBA Africa is African.
I head out for the masjid. This a very beautiful part of the day. I love the quiet. The peacocks on campus have not woken up yet and I can see the big male on his habitual perch on the topmost branch of the tall Ficus. The tree is like a magnet for birds when it is in fruit and attracts Green pigeons, Blossom headed parakeets, Mynahs, Hoopoes, King Fishers, Egrets, Pond Herons, several types of doves and of late, Blue rock pigeons. Our resident Pea fowl and Guinea fowl compete furiously and noisily with these birds who I’m sure they see as intruders into their property but the Ficus is generous and there are enough berries for everyone.
On the ground the several species of deer, sheep, goats and hares that are all over our grounds gather under the Ficus to eat what the birds drop. Symbiosis in action. How do we learn about symbiosis? By watching these relationships between animals. We also learn politics this way. How do I know about the birds and what they eat and their lives? We learn about them in our natural history and photography classes under this tree.
All these thoughts are going through my head as I walk to the masjid. I’m in my kurta as I will change into my riding kit after Fajr. Most boys wear our sports uniform, track suit and running shoes. They wear that to the masjid for Tahajjud and Fajr as they go straight to the sports field after Fajr. We all jog around the athletic track for three miles and do various aerobic exercises before we go off to practice the different sports we play. I ride horses and so I don’t go jogging. Those who play cricket and tennis change into their kit after Fajr. The athletics and track event guys have it easier as they are already in their kit. The others must race back to the dorm and from there to the field to get there in time.
Kits are very important as they are an indicator of attention to detail which is a key factor of quality. I remember the dialogue we had with our teacher, sitting under this very tree, when I asked him why we needed to go and change into different clothes for different activities. He takes all questions very seriously and listens carefully and doesn’t try to impose his view on us. In this school if you have a reasonable argument about any policy, the management is willing to listen to you and even change that policy. He told us that when we change into the right clothes, not only are we wearing the clothing that is most suited and evolved and designed to suit the activity but we are also giving ourselves a message about the seriousness of what we are doing.
Here’s the masjid, bright and welcoming. As I enter I leave my shoes in the rack and wonder why we are the only masjid in the world where people don’t throw their shoes in the passage. Everyone puts their shoes in the racks and if the racks are full, usually on Friday because local people also come for Juma, they’re lined up neatly along the racks with a clear pathway down the center for people to walk to the door.
As I enter the masjid I breathe in deeply the beautiful aroma of cleanliness. On Fridays we burn incense, the aroma of which remains for a few days after. Each of us students have masjid duty which includes everything to ensure that anyone who comes to pray, has the best experience of his life. We know that by doing this Allahﷻ will give us a reward for their prayers, so we look forward to our turn which comes once per term. Masjid duty includes calling Adhaan, sometimes leading Salah and even conducting the Juma on occasion. The boys are all taught all these things as these are basic requirements of being a Muslim man. We take all these things very seriously and practice our Qiraat, Adhaan and spend a lot of time over our Juma Khutba when it is our turn to do it. The masjid is a place of much activity which I love to visit often.
It is very quiet and peaceful. In the back there’s a very quiet hum of some of the boys reciting Qur’an, taking care to keep their voice low, so as not to disturb those who are standing in Salah. Consideration for others is a very important value we learn here, not by lectures but by watching our teachers and seniors. We enjoy it when others are considerate of us and, so we know that we must do the same to create a culture of mutual care and concern.
As I stand getting ready to start my Salah, I can’t help but be impressed by the rapt concentration on the faces of some of my friends. It’s as if they’re in a different world which I suppose they really are as they’re connected to their Rabb and are standing in His presence, oblivious to the world around them. I envy them and ask Allahﷻ to bless them and make me like they are. It’s my dream that one day I reach a state of perfection in my Salah where I can concentrate like some of my friends. In the masjid I can see most of our teachers also in Salah or reading Qur’an. This is one of the best things about our school, that our teachers are our role models. There’s a huge emphasis here on practicing our core values and everyone does it without compulsion. We see how this helps us all to create a wonderful, caring environment which we all appreciate and enjoy. And we know that this can’t happen if even one of us doesn’t pull his weight. It’s peer pressure which is the most powerful force to encourage us to do our bit. And we all do it. Can’t let the side down, you see!
Fajr Adhaan is called and after praying Sunnah we line up for Fardh. The Imam says, “Allahu Akbar.” My heart misses a beat because I recognize the voice of Shaikh Saad Al Ghamdi, whose style of recitation I’m trying to learn. And here he is in person and I’m praying behind him. What good fortune for me! I bet there’s not another school in the world which can boast of this. But our school regularly has scholars, religious and otherwise, who come to spend time in our Retreat Village and share their experience, knowledge and time with us. Imagine the thrill of being taught a subject by the author of the books on that subject which we’ve been reading!! Or like today, to listen to Qur’an being recited by a Qari whose recitation we follow and learn from. Or to be coached in sports by those stars who others only see on the TV screen.
After the Salah and Fajr Reminder, we leave the masjid for the sports field. I head off to my Kraal to get into my riding kit. Two of my friends join me to change into their cricket whites. The chatter of the boys running off to their dorms or sports field is matched by the rising cacophony of the birds in the Ficus and many other fruit trees on our campus. Loudest among them is the mournful, scream of the male peacock as he announces to the world that he’s finally awake.
My ride was lovely as always. My mount, Fascination is a Thoroughbred mare and my dearest friend. She is the most intelligent thing on four legs and many times more intelligent than those on two legs. I love and trust her with my life and I know she feels the same. I talk to her and she understands me.
My riding class begins with mucking out her stable, grooming and saddling her and leading her out into the schooling area. Then we do our morning routine of exercising to warm us both up first. Then schooling for dressage, alternating with going over the course in the show jumping arena every other day. Fascination is a natural jumper and loves to go over the obstacles. The dressage movements come to her naturally and she is so experienced in them now that even if I fall asleep on her back she’d do them all perfectly on her own.
After I finish my hour of riding, I take her back to her stable, rub her down to dry the sweat, then take her to have a drink at the trough, taking care to see that she doesn’t drink too much water. Then I give her grain feed and throw fresh hay in her stable for her to lie on and fresh hay in her feeding trough. Finally, I give her, her daily treat of green Lucerne and a couple of carrots or an apple which she loves. She shows her appreciation by pushing her nose into my chest and making her soft neighing sounds.
Horse riding builds balance, boosts your courage, builds the muscles of your core, back and thighs. It corrects and gives you a great posture, heightened sensitivity and makes you a considerate and compassionate person. It teaches you how to communicate and that communication is different from speaking. Communicating is about understanding the other first and then about helping them to understand you.
A horse is the best judge of character that I know and senses fear, lack of compassion and hesitancy and reacts accordingly. Treat a horse with respect and love and it will take care of you, fight for you and give his life for you. Treat him or her badly and it will throw you at the first opportunity. Good horse riding is not about forcing the horse to do something it doesn’t want to do by applying the whip. It’s about helping the horse to see why doing what you want it to do is the most pleasurable thing for it to do. Once the relationship is built and mutual trust is established, the horse will do whatever you want without any hesitation. But building relationships is about spending time, communicating and taking care of the horse. This is where the daily grooming comes in. It’s not about cleaning the stable but about paying your dues to build the relationship with your mount. If you haven’t got it already, all this is part of our leadership education.
Riding is not only for fun, but our second class for the day. The first is always connecting to Allahﷻ in the masjid.
Back to the dorm after riding, quick shower, change into our school uniform and off to the dining hall for breakfast. Choice of oatmeal or mixed grains porridge, eggs, milk, coffee, tea, fruit. We can all eat as much as we like but no wastage. So, we learn to take small portions and go back if we’re still hungry. Our dorm parents eat with us and are there to see that everyone eats well. We have various versions of this menu, but the basic principle, that it should be wholesome, filling and nutritious, remains the same.
We all eat together. That’s one of our school’s policies. School staff eat with everyone. This includes maids, guards, gardeners, drivers, everyone. Naturally this depends on their work schedule but whoever is free to eat at regular meal times eats with us. And everyone eats the same food. No differentiation between staff, management, teachers or us. We know many of the staff personally. We address them as aunty or uncle, not by first name and they treat us like their own children. Many staff children stay and study with us. Some are on concessional fee; others on scholarship. But as far as we are concerned there’s no difference between us and them in anything.
How do I know all this? Because my Dad is a driver and my Mom is a housekeeper and I’m on a full scholarship. But I’m my House Prefect and Head of the Dressage team.
Everyone is treated with equal dignity and respect in this school. The only way you get extra respect is by your behavior, your sports wins and your academics. That also is different here. In sports, while we compete with each other, we get points for showing consideration to others, politeness, helping one another and good citizenship (sportsmanship). Dog-eat-dog, is not in our school because we’re not dogs. In academics we routinely help one another, study together, share knowledge and teach one another. We don’t get comparative class ranks i.e. there’s no First in Class academically, but there is in terms of demonstrating Good Citizenship, Integrity, Truthfulness (not carrying tales), Loyalty, Friendship and Trusteeship. We take our values very seriously in this school. Lying is considered the root of all evil and that’s one thing that you can get expelled for. Sounds strange today because lying is almost a part of our popular culture, but not here.
Here lying is treated as a crime and is publishable by expulsion. So, no matter what you did, it’s safer to own up than to lie about it or try to hide it. If you own up, you are asked what you learnt from what you did. Then depending on what it was, you may be put on a watch list, be assigned to speak to a counselor, be helped to get over your issue, be gated for some time, given extra PT or something like that. No corporal punishment whatsoever in our school. As I said earlier peer pressure is the biggest motivator. Our fellow students don’t let us do wrong things.
There’s enormous focus and emphasis on student safety above anything else. We all have 24 x 7 access to a Help Line where you can ask for any help of any kind, physical, emotional, spiritual, material and report any misbehavior, harassment or offence committed by anyone against anyone else. Complete confidentiality, immunity and protection for the one reporting is guaranteed. We need to give our name and ID number and narrate what happened. No anonymous complaints are entertained, so that nobody can falsely accuse anyone. We can ask to meet the Ombudsperson and report face to face or do it on the phone. Action is guaranteed before the end of the day. For emergencies, it is instantaneous. We’ve never had an emergency, but I know this from the drills we do, every term.
Breakfast done we head for class – the academic classes, that is. This period lasts until lunch which means from 0930 am to 1230 pm. While we’re in class we’re free to go and pick up a snack from the snack station; there’s one in every common area; or to go to the loo any time we want. Nobody comes looking for you unless you disappear for a long time and when they do, only to make sure you’re alright. But nobody has ever disappeared like that, as long as I can remember because nobody wants to miss class. Our learning is highly interactive, we’re moving around all the time. Our classrooms are designed to bring the outside, inside. So, they all open into courtyards with grass and shade trees. We can go out and sit on the grass to do our projects and work together in small groups. There’s no formal break time because there’s no need for it. We also don’t have bells or buzzers to announce the end of a class. Time keeping is our responsibility and we do it. After all, how hard is it? Bells are so undignified and prison-like. We are a school, not a jail
Our classes are multi-age group. In my class I have children between 8-12 years old. That’s because our school doesn’t segregate us by date of manufacture and believes that humans learn best in multi-age groups, like we do in our families. As they say in Africa, “It takes the whole village to raise a child.” That’s what we practice in our school. We take care of each other in class and teach each other. That’s the best way to learn they say, and I agree. We have at least two teachers in every class of about 20 students. No class is ever more than 25 students. In many classes we have 3 or sometimes 4 teachers, depending on what we’re studying. Two are our class teachers. A third may be the subject teacher who has come to talk to us about whatever we’re studying. We also have external experts who come to our school to talk to us, take classes, help with projects and take us on excursions and study trips.
We don’t study discrete subjects. We do projects. Let me tell you how it is done. In my class, this term we’re doing Mountains. We begin by brainstorming on the question, “What would you like to know about mountains?” There’s no rule about what you can ask. I said that I wanted to know the weight of Kilimanjaro. Nobody looked at me like I was crazy. We truly believe and practice the adage, “The only stupid question is the one that wasn’t asked.”
We all ask our questions. The teachers add their own. Then these are all organized into buckets of subjects e.g. History, Geography, Economics, Biology, Islamic sciences etc. Then we all work in smaller groups and try to answer our own questions. To do that we read, research the net and libraries (our own and open source), meet experts and seek their opinion, conduct experiments and constantly share our learning with the whole class. We publish a daily bulletin of our ongoing project. For each bucket subject we seek a time and go to the room which houses the teacher and resources for that role topic. To understand the effect that mountains and mountain ranges have had on history we go to the history classroom. To understand the effect of mountain ranges on rainfall and regional climate we go to the geography room. Each of these rooms is a treasure house of information about that subject. There we listen to lectures, watch films, look at working models and permanent exhibits of whatever we’re studying. Then we compile our learning and build our project. Most of that work we do in the evenings when we study or have discussions on our own. Usually in our dorm common rooms.
At the end of each day we write our Learning Journal in which we write what we learned that day. In that journal there is a full page for the questions you asked that day. Every week prizes are given for the best question asked that week. What’s the criterion? A question that nobody could answer immediately. I got that for my Kilimanjaro question. But then with that prize comes a challenge; find the answer. You are allowed to collaborate, use any resource you like and when you find out the answer, there’s a prize for you and all those who helped you. That’s what gets us really engaged in our learning. We do our own research in the evening in the student led session and present it in our class the next day. More about that later.
There is a huge focus on the spirit of enquiry, creativity, seeking knowledge and trying to truly understand it. Just quoting someone else’s answer is not acceptable. You’re asked for your opinion and the reasons for that opinion. And most importantly, you’re listened to with respect and seriousness, even when what you’re saying may sound crazy. We are never asked to memorize anything. We can refer to notes, books or other resources. We’re not allowed personal screens in class or on campus, so no smart phones or tablets. But we have high speed internet and terminals in class which we can use for research. Shaikh Google is at our service. At first, I found this ban on social media screens, irritating but now I have become so fond of reading, even addicted to it, that I love books. We’re allowed Kindle if we prefer to use that, but I like to hold a paper book and turn pages as I read. Sorry trees!! I hope all the books I read are made of recycled paper. Should be. Why not?
We’re supposed to read at least three books per term. These can be on any subject, related or not to our course. Every week on Thursday evening we have a Learning Sharing session where we present the lessons learned from our extracurricular reading. This is also good public speaking and presentation skills practice, which is one of the objectives for doing it. These sessions are very well attended and we get a lot of support from our school mates and staff. My own average is at least six books a term. And I’m far from alone in this. Children here love to read and discuss what they read.
Our discussions, I dare say, would do credit to much older gatherings. We discuss ideas, not people. We discuss strategies for change. We don’t complain. We look for ways to influence. We get frustrated sometimes. We go to our Dorm Parents or teachers to talk about anything we don’t understand fully. They listen, smile and point us to sources for research. Or ask us questions to nudge us to think in ways and about matters we may not have thought of. Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, I wish they’d simply give us the answer, but I know the enquiry method is far more interesting and beneficial. And of course, many times they don’t know the answer, but that’s fine. That’s why we always share whatever we learn.
And, I must tell you, this summer vacation, we’re going to climb Kilimanjaro.
Our midday break is from 12.30 pm until 2.30 pm for Dhuhr and lunch. Lunch today was as good as it always is. Fresh vegetables in a Caesar salad, freshly baked bread, hot from the oven, jacket potatoes with a dollop of sour cream, a thick slice of juicy roast mutton haunch with boiled carrots and beans. And of course, you can go for seconds. Fruit for dessert. We stay far away from sugar which is addictive and harmful. We have ice cream freshly made with the fruit of the season with natural fruit sugar being the sweetener.
Then we begin our afternoon session. Some of us have swimming coaching, others go to their hobby clubs, Moot Court, Shadow Parliament, special project work, hospital duty, kitchen duty, vocational skill class or the farm.
Two days a week we work in the school farm. We grow all our food on-site. Our poultry farm gives us eggs, chickens, turkeys and ducks. The sheep, rabbit and goat farm gives us mutton and goat milk. The greenhouses give us most of our vegetables, mushrooms and some fruits. Other vegetables and fruit are grown in the open. Our bees give us honey. We plant flowers close to them and don’t use any pesticide anywhere on the property and so the bees are safe. Our dairy and processing plant produces milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk and cheese and loads of dung which we use to produce biogas with which we cook our food.
The waste from the biogas plant along with all the organic kitchen waste, leaf litter from the gardens, grass cuttings from lawn mowers, litter from the stables and so on, goes to our organic manure plant to produce, you guessed it, organic manure and vermicompost. So also, the poultry litter from the poultry sheds which is changed annually. We harvest fish from our fish farm tanks which are connected to the lake around which are the villas of the Retreat Village. Our fields produce wheat, barley and maize and the fruit and spice orchard gives us oranges, bananas, papayas, lemons, lime, pepper, cardamom and other spices. What we don’t use in the school kitchens is sold in our Department Store at a concessional price to cover costs and generate a modest profit. We harvest rain water and recycle waste water which we then use to irrigate our orchard, farm and all the greenery in SBA Africa by drip irrigation. Our electricity comes from the solar panels on all our roofs which is sufficient for all our lighting and heating needs.
The farm makes a small profit annually but that’s not why we have it. We have it for three reasons:
- So that all of us can eat pure, pesticide free, organically produced, fresh food
- So that we can train local people in better farming techniques
- So that we, students and teachers, reestablish our connection with the earth.
That’s why everyone participates in the farm in one way or another, as they say, from the Chairman to the Coachman and woman. We each of us know how to grow things, take care of animals, milk cows, tend to sheep, goats and poultry, catch and clean fish, slaughter and dress a chicken, rabbit or sheep and then convert it into a mouthwatering curry or roast. Sometimes people wonder why we need so much land for a school. I say to them, it’s to teach is leadership, stewardship, connect us to the land and show is the signs of Allahﷻ, daily. Give us enough land and we’ll feed the world.
Our motto is:
If it can be done, learn how to do it. If it can’t be done, discover a way to do it.
It’s ploughing time and we use two very large and strong bulls to pull the plough. A tractor can do this job faster, but you can’t contemplate life, tell your story or ask really intelligent questions to a tractor, can you? You say, “But can you do that to a bull?” I say to you, “Try it and see.” Do the bulls answer you? No, they don’t. But understanding begins with framing good questions in a way that the answer appears from within them. That happens when you’re riding a horse, walking a dog or walking behind a plough; not when you are driving a machine. Moreover, we want the children to learn farming and for that tractors are not safe. And bulls? They love the children and take care of them. While indulging in this philosophic mood, you must remain aware enough to ensure that your furrow is straight. And most importantly, tie the tails of the bulls to the plough or to each other if you don’t wish to have a face full of usually urine soaked bull tail tassel, when he swings it to drive away the flies.
Do you know the smell of freshly ploughed earth? Do you know the feel of fertile loamy soil in your hand? Can you tell, by crumbling a lump of compost in your hand, if it’s ready to be applied in the field? Do you know the companionship of Pond Herons and Egrets, Mynahs, Bee Eaters, Crows and in our case, free range chickens which follow your plough and pick up insects which get exposed?
A Rat Snake just showed up and is now moving rapidly across the field to get into the grass on the edge before he’s spotted. Do you know what to do when a Rat Snake comes out of a hole and moves away from you towards the edge of the field? You do nothing except wishing it well while hoping that the Brown Snake Eagle doesn’t see him while he’s still in the open. That’s not the only enemy he has. There is a family of Mongoose which would happily make his acquaintance as would the big Barn Owl, at this moment, dozing in his favorite hollow in the Ficus. I wish him health and safety because Rat Snakes eat rats which are the bane of our lives, on the farm. We don’t use poison because it doesn’t stop with the rat but goes up the food chain and kills anything that eats the rat and onwards. Rat Snakes are our friends and family and we protect them. All snakes and all life. We don’t kill anything because everything has value and a place in the overall scheme of things. We are only one cog in the wheel of life. Not its owner or the reason for its existence.
Farming teaches us Tawakkul (reliance on Allahﷻ). It trains us to be patient. It shows us that if we want a certain result we must make the necessary effort. It demonstrates the importance of nurturing and that to do so, it is not only important to feed, manure and water but also to train, prune and stop. All lessons in leadership of people. It teaches us that despite all the effort we still need the Fadhl (blessing) of Allahﷻ to get the result. Because after all a farmer can prepare the field, dig canals, take steps to harvest rain water, but he can’t make it rain. Or rain just enough. Or rain at the right time. So, he learns to do all that he needs to do and then to stand in the night and beg Allahﷻ for His favor. Farming opens our eyes both to our strengths as well as to our weaknesses. And it inculcates humility.
Farming teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of those that cannot speak and so it’s up to us to be ever watchful, recognize the signs and respond without being told to do so. Farming teaches us that the needs of those in our charge always precede our own. So, it’s not remarkable, in the lambing season, to find some of us sitting in the sheep pen waiting for an ewe to give birth, rather than cheering our favorite team playing in the World Cup. To give us company is always ones of our sheep dogs, Border Collies, which we helped to train. They are the best companions that you could wish for and our role models for being sensitive to the needs of others. You may be surprised that I’ve said that a dog is my role model. That’s because the fundamental lesson that we’re taught here is that there are opportunities to learn, all around us, all the time and that we can learn from anything and anyone. Especially from animals. It’s become second nature to all of us to constantly ask in every situation and many times a day, “So what did I learn from this?”
Farming teaches us the importance of preparing the soil before planting. Without proper preparation the best seed won’t germinate. It shows us the value of digging a straight furrow, of preparing irrigation channels and water harvesting, without which the best rain will simply flow away and give no benefit. So, success is not an inevitable result of resources but of preparation. Without preparation the best resources will simply be squandered.
Farming teaches us that what we have in our hand is the seed. If we hang onto it, that’s all we’ll have. But when we plant it properly and nurture it, it yields a harvest. And that the smallest harvest is more than the amount of seed that was planted. Only empty hands can hold. Something must leave your hand before you can receive anything. So also in life, to receive rewards, we must invest. The investment in life which has the highest rate of return, ROI, is the investment we make in others. To help others, to alleviate suffering, eliminate poverty, enable learning and open doors for others that they couldn’t open for themselves. It is to understand that possessions add cost, not value. That true happiness lies in the hearts of others, in their smiles. That there’s more pleasure in giving than in acquiring. In helping someone else than in indulging yourself. No investment, no return. It’s only when we strive to please Allahﷻ that He sends His blessings on us. Our actions must rise towards the heavens for the blessings of Allahﷻ to descend.
That’s why we have our farm.
We break off at 4.30 pm, pray Asr and head off to the dining hall where we have high tea. We have high tea every day. Scones, sandwiches, croissants with fillings, curry puffs; our bakery is excellent. Hot chocolate, tea or coffee. They feed us well in this school.
From 4.30 pm – 6.30 pm we’re free. Most of us head off to the sports fields. But this is not compulsory. If you don’t feel like playing, you needn’t. This is just free time to do whatever you want, including nothing. At 6.30 pm Maghrib Adhaan is called and we head for the masjid. After Maghrib is our second academic class. But this is different from the morning. This session is student led with we Prefects being principally responsible. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the boys in my house are accounted for and get to whichever class they’re supposed to be in. How do I know which classes they need to be in? I ask them. They plan what they need to learn depending on what project they’re doing. They’re supposed to inform me and the teachers they need so that everything is in readiness for them. That’s the meaning of student centered learning.
Some people are surprised and ask how children can be left to decide what they want to learn. I say to them that in any case, it is children (all learners) who decide what they want to learn. When adults try to force them, not only do they not learn but they get turned off from learning. Adults may have the illusion that they’re achieving something but that’s an illusion.
You may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned Islamic studies as a special subject. It isn’t. We learn and live Islam. Our ethos is Islam. We are taught about the importance of remembering Allahﷻ all the time and of following the Sunnah of Rasoolullahﷺ. Every project we do has a significant amount of Islam in it; laws and rulings applicable to what we are studying, history that relates to it, mentions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, incidents and lessons from the Seerah and stories of the Sahaba and later generations. Our philosophy is that Islam is a practice, not a theory and so it must be practiced, lived and benefited from. It is not something to be studied like a philosophy or theory.
At 9.00 pm we go to the masjid for Isha followed by dinner and bed. It’s lights out at 10.30 pm. We need the sleep because tomorrow is another day, as full as today.
Some final comments before I end; this school is all about inculcating leadership qualities in us. The stress is on service, integrity, honesty, quality, industry and compassion. Concern for others precedes concern for ourselves. A thirst for knowledge is kindled and I hope it will remain with us throughout our lives. Our teachers are our role models and we learn by seeing, doing and experiencing. Ours is a fully boarding school because you need to be here full time to understand the meaning of inculcating values. Happens unconsciously and quietly but very powerfully.
I am nearing the completion of my time here and know that the saddest day will be my graduation day when I will have to leave school. However, I take heart from the number of old students who visit us regularly and hope to join that brotherhood and contribute to the school that gave me so much. I ask Allahﷻ for His help.
He had killed the buffalo late the previous night. The dark was his friend. Thanks to the reflectors in his eyes, he could see as clearly in starlight as we can see in bright daylight. If he could have read a book, he would have, reclining on a massive tree branch overhanging a pathway. As the light faded and night set in, he was on his favorite perch, only his tail hanging over the side, announcing his location. He had climbed the tree earlier in the evening to give the Langur sentinels and their friends, the Axis (Cheetal) deer to sound their alarm calls and eventually tire of it when they couldn’t see him any longer in the gathering darkness. The sun goes down rapidly in the tropics and Yala National Park, where he lives is in the far south of Sri Lanka. He is a leopard (Panthera Pardus kotiya). A big male, full grown and at the peak of his powers. The Sri Lankan Leopard is a subspecies native to Sri Lanka that was first described in 1956 by the Sri Lankan zoologist Deraniyagala. In 2008, the Sri Lankan Leopard was listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
But he didn’t know all this. All he knew is that he was the top predator in the forest and, so he could roam where he wished and take whatever suited his fancy, at will. There are no larger predators in Sri Lanka unlike India and Africa where leopards live in fear of tigers and lions. In Yala and other national parks of Sri Lanka, the leopard is king, and this shows in their behavior. Yala is the only place where I have seen leopards stalking along a road in broad daylight. And wonder of wonders, I saw a full grown young male lying under a bush, with several jeeps full of tourists ogling at him from just a few feet away. He made no sign of leaving nor did he show even the slightest nervousness. The only cat which does that in India is the tiger and in Africa, the lion. Though the African leopard (Panthera Pardus Pardus) is a larger animal, it is very secretive and almost totally nocturnal. He is far too fearful of lions and rightly so. So also, the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), is wary of the tiger which would kill it if it could.
Sri Lankan leopards grow bigger than their Indian cousins because of their top predator status and because there is abundant game in Yala. Not only are there huge herds of Axis deer (Cheetal) but feral water buffalo and wild boar. In addition, it appears that villagers are permitted to graze their buffalos in Yala and I saw a great many of them as well, quite at peace with those that appeared to be wild. I think this is a very bad idea as invariably this invites man-animal conflict and the loser is always the animal. In this case, the already endangered leopard.
To return to our story he made his kill as the buffalo, a fully grown but young female was returning to her herd. As she passed under his tree, he landed on her back and bit into the back of her neck, severing her spine. The buffalo bellowed in pain and fear, took a few lurching steps forward trying to dislodge him from her back but in vain. By then the massive jaws with their powerful bite did their work and the canines sank through skin and gristle and severed the spine. The buffalo collapsed in its tracks and the leopard, lithely leaped off and immediately grabbed her throat in the classic killing stance of the leopard, cutting off air and possibly severing the carotids. In this case, this was not necessary as the buffalo’s spine had been severed and so it was going nowhere. It is interesting to speculate on the killing technique which is like that of the tiger when it tackles Gaur; the massive wild ox of India. Tigers also leap on to the backs of Gaur, preferring younger bulls or cows and bite into the back of the neck to sever the spine. That way they incapacitate an animal that is otherwise more than able to kill the tiger, being far heavier and having a pair of lethal horns.
After killing his prey, the leopard fed on it until he was full and then dragged it behind a large Lantana bush to hide it from Jackals. There are no vultures in Sri Lanka. Neither are there any Hyena or Wolves. So, Jackals are the only ones likely to try to steal a bit of meat from the kills. Other leopards are a threat but in this case, he was so massive and powerful that he didn’t really expect another of his species to take any chances with him. Leaving the kill behind the bush, he climbed an old Banyan (Ficus Religiosa) nearby and stretched out on his favorite branch to sleep off his meal. Early the next morning, just as the sun was starting to show on the horizon and the Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl with its splash of bright yellow on its comb, started calling, to be answered by the Peafowl roosting on the topmost branch of a dead tree with its feet in the flood waters of the river, he walked down the trunk and leaped down the last few feet to return to his kill to take some more mouthfuls of the, by now, reeking meat.
As he was tugging at an especially tasty bit, we drove up on the jungle road going past his cache. I saw the leg of the buffalo move which meant that the killer was on his kill. We stopped and waited but there was no sign of him. Then my friend Ifham Raji, a wonderful professional photographer from Colombo, who very kindly accompanied us and gave me lessons in the field, decided to call. He can imitate the call of a female leopard calling its young. Until that moment, we didn’t know what would come out. All we knew was that there was a leopard kill and we had come to see if we could get a look at the one who made the kill, if possible.
As soon as Ifham called, a guttural, woof; he came out from behind the bush in one short rush. He stood there looking for his mother whose voice he had heard. Then he walked towards our jeep and about twenty meters from us, he turned to his right and walked a few steps and lay down. Then he rolled over, as if he was playing, his tail high in the air. He sat up and looked at us directly. Then he decided he didn’t like being fooled and walked away. That was the last we saw of him and though he must have returned to the kill later, we never saw him again. The sight of his massive head and shoulders, his fluid majestic walk, his stand looking at us in total confidence and then his playful rolls on the ground as he would have done as a cub, playing with his mother and siblings, etched into my memory. Was he remembering his own childhood? Did the call remind him of his childhood? Who knows?
All I know is that I got some amazing photos and lived through an experience that can have no parallel. This is the gift of the wild places, which one can only experience. Indeed, I can write about them and you can read what I write and see the pictures. But I can’t for the life of me, express the excitement of the moment when for me time stood still; I stopped breathing until I had to gasp for breath as if rising out of the depth of the sea to the surface and forgot all about Aperture and ISO while taking my photos. But as a person learning photography, I can tell you that I would rather spoil a thousand photographs, than lose the excitement of the moment when you first see a big cat. The leopard is my favorite but don’t tell the tigers that. They are elusive enough when I try to find them.