May 21, 2010

KENYA: You Are Never Too Old for a New Mission

NAIROBI, Kenya / Sunday Nation / Opinion / May 21, 2010

By Randall Smith

In 1972, George McGovern ran for the presidency and each step was followed keenly by the press. Today, McGovern, who will be 88 in July, can slip in and out of a country with hardly anyone taking notice.

Witness his visit to Kenya this week.

McGovern is well known in America for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his landslide loss to President Richard Nixon.

George McGovern. Photo: San Francisco Sentinel 

Nixon was later forced to resign after he was linked to the burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.

But McGovern’s focus is different these days. It is hunger, and that’s what brought him to the slums of Kibera for 10 days.

Related report
A Humbling Experience in One of Africa's Largest Slums
By George McGovern

Rather than be remembered by history as a losing political candidate, McGovern has joined former Senator Robert Dole, another losing presidential contender, to promote the World Food Programme.

Their work has underwritten school meals in Kibera.

Both Dole and McGovern are examples of new life in America.

And since we’re in the season of graduations and springtime renewal, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be young to set forth on a new mission. You just have to have the right attitude.

As my grandfather used to tell me: “It’s not how often you get knocked down in life that counts. It’s how often you get back up.”

McGovern’s trip to Nairobi took him to the Kibera home of Lilian Adhiambo and her daughter. Both have HIV and live in a “sparkling clean” mud hut, McGovern wrote in a column that’s been distributed widely.

Lilian, 22, receives food aid from the United Nation’s World Food Programme, and McGovern reports that it allows her to have the energy to make a modest living and lead a normal life with the rest of her family.

McGovern said he visited others at the Stara Rescue Centre, which he described as both a school and a haven for destitute and orphaned children. The children receive nutritious lunches there, and that gives them the strength to do well in school.

I READ MCGOVERN’S COLUMN WHILE waiting for the start of my nephew’s graduation ceremony. There were many speeches, but the most impressive came from a wealthy businessman who has worked with the poor throughout the world.

He implored the graduates to make time for those less fortunate.

Through the poor, he said, he has kept his own life in balance and realised that his wealth is temporary.

Recently, former President Bill Clinton, who was disgraced in a sex scandal during his presidency, was asked if he thought that he was wasting his time in Haiti by trying to help a country that hadn’t been able to help itself.

Clinton looked at the questioner and responded: He’s had two heart operations in the last few years, and there’s no telling how much longer he’ll live.

Do you think that he’d waste one second of his time on Haiti if he didn’t believe in the people there?

Clinton spoke, too, at a graduation ceremony in the last week in the Republican-dominated southern US and received the applause of thousands.

He talked about a changing world and the importance of being nimble.

When I was a young journalist, my first major interview was with Senator Thomas Eagleton, who was McGovern’s vice presidential running mate in 1972 for 18 days.

I was interviewing Eagleton before a speech and I noticed that his hands were trembling as he spoke to me. Being a rookie, I found it odd, but didn’t give it a lot of thought.

A few weeks later, Eagleton resigned from the McGovern team after two reporters discovered that Eagleton had frequently suffered from severe depression and had sought shock treatments.

History could remember Eagleton as a man with mental illness who was almost one heartbeat away from the presidency. But Eagleton, who died in 2007, did not disappear from public life after the news. He continued to tell people that he had something to offer and voters returned him to the Senate until he retired in 1987.

Always humorous, he wrote a final note to family and friends when he knew death was near: “Go forth in love and peace — be kind to dogs — and vote Democratic.’’

So it was not unusual for me to spot Eagleton’s old running mate in Kenya on a new mission.

I was also not surprised that he danced with a school girl in Kibera. That’s what successful people do. [rc]

Randall Smith

Source: Sunday Nation / Nation Media Group (NMG) Limited