THIS week I caught an interview on the radio in which an Iranian-born Professor and defender of human rights used a phrase that hit me right in the gut when it landed.
I knew both words in that phrase and have used them before, but the power of the combination of those word s was stronger than most others I encounter on a normal day.
The interviewee told his life story and explained how he got from being a fairly comfortable young immigrant in Canada to pursuing a life fighting for the rights of people suffering as a result of war crimes.
He was hanging out with his young adult peers doing the cosmopolitan things that such people do, but kept hearing about people back home in Iran being persecuted and worse.
The day he heard that one of his close childhood friends had been arrested, jailed, tortured and then executed for writing a poem that was critical of the government, he made a realisation.
“I was living a life of Selfish Mediocrity,” he told his interviewer.
He was selfishly enjoying a life of mediocrity yet his peers back in Iran were risking their lives to make life right for millions of others.
That was how he quit a life of chilling and made it to a most prestigious law school in the United States and then went into Human Rights Law rather than a large, high-paying law firm and a comfortable future.
He has spent years since working in war zones and facing up to difficult people such as the European warlords in Bosnia.
That’s a phrase that’s been in existence somewhere in my mind but that I couldn’t coin even though it tickles me daily.
Just last week I found myself in Bwaise and Kyebando visiting some projects run by and for youth and women there, and making comparisons that were uncomfortable at some level.
In one of the projects I met a young man who runs a Community Based Organisation and had to ask him at one point in his little, cramped office, why he was doing that particular job with his education tucked away in his mind.
Ronald Kavuma gave me the right answer in the right order – he grew up there and wanted to help change Bwaise, and he needed to earn a living even if the money wasn’t really great.
I applauded him and thanked him after he had shown us round the projects – where they teach Bwaise youth skills like tailoring and craft-making, and collect recyclable waste, and in which they run a savings programme that helps the youth set up their own small businesses besides learning financial skills.
After that we went to Kyebando and met some other hard working young Ugandans walking around in dusty and muddy and sludgy environs.
These young people, most of them with university degrees, were elbow deep into various substances and materials but all focused on imparting skills to their country mates from less fortunate backgrounds.
One group was learning how to make sandals, another how to bake cakes using sand-heated charcoal ovens, and a third how to make oven and stove briquettes out of organic materials and clay.
They all said the same thing about their calling, and they were serious about it. There was no parking lot with nice, sleek cars nearby and the air conditioning was all natural.
This were their day jobs – what they had chosen to do for a living in their most productive and aspirational years.
They presented a challenge for many of us out here who are living a life of mediocrity and not doing much to change the lives of the less fortunate in our society.
And in their settings most of what they consume and utilise is local material, meaning that even their meagre spending goes straight to another Ugandan – whereas the well-heeled in this society continue to consume and utilise mostly imported products and send resources right past those in this community called Uganda that need it, and to other lands.
Selfish Mediocrity. That phrase will be on my mind for a while.