Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

War


Today is the eight anniversary of the Iraq war.

That fact got lost in all the breaking news, most significantly, the U.S. use of force against Libya.

It reminded me of George W. Bush’s intention to remove Saddam Hussein. The term “regime change” did not surface much but that’s essentially what’s going on in Libya, right? The United States would not be leading the charge against Moammar Qaddafi if he were a friendly fellow, even if he did fire on his own people.

Lost also in the news of the last week are the horrific events unfolding in Cote D’Ivoire, where a political crisis has spiraled downward rapidly into bloodshed. The United Nations has reported incidents of people burned alive. Others have had their throats slit. At least seven women were butchered earlier this month — the video posted online showed one who had been decapitated by the power of a big gun.

Crimson rivers are flowing in West Africa — and in the East. Sudan, Somalia. Yet we hear so little in the news.

I hope that Libya does not escalate or turn into protracted war in the same vein as Iraq or Afghanistan. And while that conflict is most urgent, I hope we will not turn away from human suffering in other parts of the world.

What’s in a word?

Journalists in newsrooms across the globe have been grappling with the language they use in telling the story of the Libyan uprising.

It’s not Tunisia or Egypt. The unrest there has gone beyond demonstrations and anti-government protests. So what do we call Libyans who are opposing strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Last week, CNN began using the word rebels. So did other news outlets.

Does rebel have a negative connotation? I don’t think so — unless there is Confederate paraphernalia involved. But apparently many people, including those fighting on the streets of Libya, don’t like the word. They didn’t like that we called the opposition fighters rebels.

We also began using sentences that said Libya was inching towards civil war. When does a conflict become civil war?

This was the topic of NPR’s “On the Media” segment Sunday. How do words change the way readers perceive the conflict there?

Here’s how Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines these terms:

Rebel: one who rebels or participates in a rebellion
Civil war: a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country

Susan Chira, foreign editor of the New York Times, said the newspaper began using both terms when it became clear that there was a military conflict in Libya. But she said the paper, just like CNN, has refrained from saying it’s an all-out civil war, though it very well could become one soon.

Yes, words can change everything.

NPR host Brooke Gladstone noted this:

“Several people have told me that the moment they hear the word ‘rebel’ they begin to disconnect. The effect is compounded when combined with the phrase ‘civil war.’ Whether or not people like us on the other side of the world choose to engage or even follow the story is a decision each of us makes every day. We think we make those choices consciously, weighing the expense and time and mental energy with what we stand to gain. But often we decide without deciding. What we choose can hinge on the unrecognized power of a single world.”

There are other words, too, that we journalists use that can influence the opinions of our readers and audiences.

Take for instance, “regime.”

Merriam-Webster defines it as a government in power. But we don’t ever say the Obama regime, do we? We only use it for governments that are deemed less than worthy.

Or “revolution.” Sudden, radical and complete change — that’s revolution. But is that what happened in Egypt? Or were we too hasty to label it so?

Sometimes terms become contagious, used repeatedly by news outlets without a thought as to whether it’s the most appropriate. The fast-changing events in North Africa have made at least this journalist think hard about every word.

New hope for a son of Libya


This is Bashir Al Megaryaf. He’s holding a poster demanding the release of his father, imprisoned in a Libyan jail for two decades. Bashir was only 1 when his father was detained. He has not seen him since.

But he has new hope in his heart that the two may be together again as the Libyan uprising against strongman Moammar Gadhafi gathers steam.

Bashir was among a crowd of Libyans demonstrating in front of CNN Center in Atlanta on Saturday. I had just finished writing a main Libya story for CNN Wires and CNN.com; had watched gruesome videos and listened to the on-air descriptions by witnesses of Gadhafi’s bloody crackdown that was unfolding in Libyan cities and towns.

Writing about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been overwhelming — they are such powerful stories of human perseverance and courage. I wished so many times that I might have an opportunity to cover the story from the ground.

Thus far, I have seen it only from the CNN newsroom.

So when I stepped out into the gloriously sunny and warm afternoon Saturday, accosted by thousands of people attending a hair show, a cheerleading convention and a circus, I felt compelled to walk over the waving Libyan flags and the voices that rang out the loudest on Marietta Street.

Meeting Bashir brought Libya home for me. I have been reading a new book of my father’s writings and could not imagine a life without ever knowing him. Suddenly, the idea of freedom in Libya, a nation have never visited, became very personal to me.

I hope to write more about Bashir in the days ahead. Meanwhile, you can read about Libya and the rest of the region on CNN.com

BIg Cats




I touched a lion for the first time in my life at Lion Encounter in Zimbabwe. Paul Dube, who has worked here five years, took me around, warning me to always use a stick to distract the young lions, never to run if there is trouble. They will chase you down and kill you, he said.

The conservation park, on the edges of Lake Victoria, is an attempt to repopulate Africa’s wild with lions. Their numbers have been sadly dwindling. There used to be 250,000 lions roaming the wilds of Africa. Now there are fewer than 40,000. In some places, there are no lions left at all.

Dube and his staff of about 60 study the lions at their park — the big cats there are more used to human contact. But they are quickly weaned of dependence and they learn to survive as they would in the wild. Once they are able hunters — when they are about 18 months old — they are released into the bush.

I doubt I will ever get another chance to get so close to these magnificent yet ferocious creatures, save in captivity. Their skin felt like sandpaper — rough and rugged enough to take varnish off wood. I don’t know why I expected them to be soft and furry like the tabbies I once had.

When they yawned, you could see the teeth that can tear apart an antelope, even a zebra, though I was told the giraffe’s kick can kill a lion. A few days later, when we saw adult lions sleeping in the bush at Chobe National Park, a terrible fear set in my heart. And I wondered what I was thinking for having gotten so close to one.

In Cape Town, I cried



I will start my southern Africa journey here, at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town.

It is not where I physically began my 10-day trip to this part of the world. But it is where I choose to begin — in a place of beginnings and endings, of hate and love, of breathtaking natural landscapes and ugly scars of human cruelty.

For all the magnificence I have seen on this incredible trip — lions in the wild, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and the collision of two great oceans at the Cape of Good Hope — nowhere did I shed more tears than in this stark rectangular building that once housed thousands of human beings who were not recognized as such.

Today, the oldest slave lodge in South Africa looks beautiful in structure. (See picture.) But go back in time.

There were no windows then, just slits in the wall. People manacled and tied together in a manner worse than animals. They spent hot, suffocating nights here. During the day, they were marched out to toil.

The tourist guide books don’t tell you much about the wretched history of South Africa. My book dedicated most of its Slave Lodge blurb to the architectural splendor of the building, not to the unimaginable pain that was borne here.

It is now a museum dedicated to those whose names will be forgotten by history. They are no Vasco de Gamas or Simon Van der Stels (for whom the now famous Stellenbosch winelands are named). Just ordinary people plucked from their homes and taken to suffer and die.

I stood before a map that showed all the places from where the Dutch brought in their human captives. My eyes went straight to India. Malabar. Cochin. And yes, Kolkata. I stared at the Bengal dot on the map of South Asia. I felt a hot drop land on my clenched fists.

I thought of my mother telling me stories about British colonial rule in India and the picture at my grandfather’s house of a water fountain in Maniktola: “Europeans,” it said on one side. “Indians and dogs,” on the other.

I sat in the dark museum, staring at images of mothers torn from sons and daughters, separated forever. I heard the clack of wooden clogs slaves were forced to wear here so that their Dutch masters could hear them if they tried to move at night.

I imagined.

And for all the death and war I have seen, I could not ever feel the sorrow of this non-life that thousands of people, including my ancestors, lived through.

Or didn’t.

I have many friends in the United States who tell me personal stories of racism. Their ancestors were slaves. Their parents lived through segregation. I recalled my conversations with the poet Natasha Tretheway. Of racism, hate, ignorance.

I grew up with stories about Bapuji, father of the nation. That’s how Indians revere Mahatma Gandhi. I read about how Gandhi, as a young lawyer, fought for rights in South Africa. We all know what he did when he returned to India.

School was filled with history lessons on the East India Company, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British. I grew to womanhood familiar with colonialism’s fury.

Yet, I had never felt its sting in India — I was fortunate to have been born 15 years after independence. I felt it more in the Deep South but never in ways that were physically or psychologically damaging to me.

So here I stood, in lovely Cape Town, surrounded by majestic landscape, and all I saw was heartbreak and blood. It was mapped out before me, on a museum wall.

It was the first thing I saw in Cape Town. And for the next few days, I would think of nothing else.

Next: A guide with a view.