February 16, 2011


Uhuru is the title of a novel written in the 1960s by the American writer, Robert Ruark which deals with the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya that were intended to free the country from British rule. The word meansfreedom in Swahili and as I was in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) at the time, I can testify that the word spread across Southern and Eastern Africa like a prairie fire. In a relatively short period foreign governments relinquished their authority over swathes of Africa and “imperialism” came to an end. I was in Tanganyika (part of Tanzania today) when the British left and also witnessed the uprisings in Mozambique which led to freedom from Portuguese rule. These were heady and perilous times and I think of them today when I see Tunisians and Egyptians dancing in the streets, having ousted entrenched dictators. One can only feel happy for the people. But as Ruark depicted in his book, freedom isn’t an easy notion to transplant where a society has long been deprived of it. The line between democracy and mob rule is difficult to maintain as the French discovered during their revolution. 

Those of us who came to America found it easier to establish a democracy than most countries. Except for the Indians, we came as foreigners without a common language or history and with our ties to clans or tribes broken. We came as individuals, our futures a clean slate and self determined. In order to accommodate our differences, we had to build a government that provided peaceful ways to solve our disputes. One might say diversity was the mother of our democracy.

Like every American, I wish the people of Tunisia and Egypt well. They are societies with long and great histories but I would caution them that while freedom begins at the ballot box, it doesn’t end there. A democracy that respects only the rights of the majority doesn’t bring freedom to all. It becomes a tyranny to some.   It may be impertinent for a citizen of a young country to give advice to citizens of ancient ones, but I send you the words of one my nation’s greatest presidents to serve as a compass:

                “I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.

                That is my idea of democracy.”  

                — Abraham Lincoln