Child Rights Activist
- Kimmie Weeks has worked to alleviate poverty and human suffering in Africa and around the world since the age of fourteen. He was born in Liberia, West Africa, in 1981. When he was nine years old, he came face to face with civil war, human suffering and death. These experiences encouraged Weeks to try to make a difference, working to ensure a world where all children have access to food, medicine and shelter. He has pursued that vision ever since. Weeks has formed partnerships and led organizations that have provided education for thousands of students in West Africa and lobbied for the disarmament of more than twenty thousand child soldiers. The Liberian government attempted to assassinate him for a report he issued on its involvement in the training of child soldiers.
Weeks fled Liberia at seventeen and was granted political asylum in the United States. His focus is empowering people, providing new opportunities, creating strategic development partnerships with Africa and the West, and using technology to link Africa with the rest of the world. He is featured in the book Peace in Our Lifetime alongside Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.?His passion for his mission is found in his unique situation, which gives him the ability and opportunity to connect children in need to those young people who have the potential to help.
Mr. Weeks speaks compellingly of many topics included in the eight action areas in the 1999 United National Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace, especially the seventh: Supporting participatory communication and the free flow of information and knowledge. He says: “The key is for every individual to find the strength, the passion, for the thing that they can do to change the world. Let no one tell you what to do. You find it; you identify it; you go out and do it. That’s the most sustainable way to change the world.”
I’m thankful for many things. One is the opportunity to be involved in work that changes the lives of so many people. I hope that people will leave this room tonight feeling that they want to do more. Most people who attend speeches like this are already engaged and conscious in some way. But the key is for everyone to believe that they can do more than they’re doing now and for each and every person to get others engaged.
I’ve come to talk about extreme poverty in Africa—the type of poverty that kills; that strangles; that forces mothers to watch as their children die from hunger; that forces families to watch as their children and relatives die from diseases that could have been cured for a few cents.
Resources versus Will
We live in a very unfortunate world. At no point in history have we had the resources, the know-how and the technology to end world poverty that we have now. But the unfortunate truth is that, in this same world, at no point in history have there been so many people suffering and in pain around the globe. How do we reconcile that? On one hand, we’ve got the resources and the know-how but, on the other, we have the greatest number of people ever living with and dying from hunger?
I have a photo that was taken in East Africa. It shows a young boy whose mother had died from starvation. The baby, nearly dead from starvation himself, is struggling to crawl away from his mother’s body. And in the distance, a vulture is waiting for this child to die so that it can take his body. This happened a few years ago, not in the Middle Ages, not in prehistoric times. It was about ten years ago.
It is happening today: Every single day, over thirty thousand children around the world die from preventable causes; thirty thousand children die from diseases that the world has cures for; thirty thousand children die because they don’t have food to eat.
Civil War in Liberia
I remember my own situation. I was a little guy in 1989. Before the First Liberian Civil War1 started, we never thought we’d undergo such circumstances—never imagined that we would live in extreme poverty, when we wouldn’t have food to eat. When she was young, my mom came here to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She had mapped out her life, never imagining, that the day would come when she would watch her son have no food to eat and there would be absolutely nothing she could do about it. But that day came in 1989, when civil war started in Liberia.
I remember when Charles Taylor2 declared war in 1989. He said that, when this war happened, things would get better for everybody. People saw it as a grand revolution. I remember people went out in the streets, dancing and celebrating. I was nine years old. I didn’t understand the politics, but I didn’t have to go to school that day so I went out dancing and singing, too. It was good times.
Then we began to see the images of war coming toward us. Before this I had only seen images of poverty as we watched the Ethiopian famine in the ’80s. As a kid, that was strange to me. I often said to my mom, “How is it possible that there are kids in the world who don’t have food to eat? Why are flies sitting on those kids?” It just seemed so far away.
Of course my mom would say, “Oh, Maurice! Eat your food.” But then the war came. Suddenly it went from being far away to being on our doorsteps. We watched as the rebels advanced. They were coming closer to us and we feared that the destruction would hit our home. Eventually it did. I remember when it came. There was constant gunfire, fighting, shooting and missiles falling. My mom and I had to lay down on the floor of our house, fearing that, at any moment, a bullet would fly through one of the windows or a missile would fall on the house. We were very afraid.
This went on for several days until the rebels finally took over our home. They had been going from house to house, knocking on doors and forcing people out of their homes. They came to our house and put us out. We weren’t allowed to take anything but the clothing we were wearing. We got on a national highway and I remember, as far as the eye could see, there were thousands of people walking to find new homes. At this point, I was the laziest bum in the world. I had never walked a day in my life, so I was crying just that we were forced to walk.
Life and Death as a Refugee
We began to see shocking things firsthand; things that we never thought we would see; things that my mom had never even let me watch on TV. People were being killed right before us, women being raped. For the first time, I saw children my own age, ten or twelve years old, holding, not the rubber guns and water guns we used to play with, but real guns; fighting and killing. It was a shocking thing to see.
In Liberia, children were brought up to respect adults. It was as if the entire society had transformed—now young children were holding guns and committing atrocities against adults. One image I’ll never forget was a mother who had been killed, her body left on the wayside. Her baby, probably three or four years old, was just sitting by his mother, crying. People were passing by; nobody was stopping to help. I will never forget that.
We walked the entire day and came to the Fendell Campus of Liberia University. It was originally built for about four thousand students. Now, almost the entire population of the capital had been forced to find refuge there. By the time we arrived, most of the classrooms were filled to overflowing. People started to lie down on the sidewalks. We had been walking around for a long time when someone from one of the rooms called out to us and said, “If it’s only the two of you, come in.” We walked into a small classroom. There were about sixteen families there. My mom spread out a cloth between two of them. This was to be our home for the next six months.
The first night there our parents said to us, “Don’t worry. We live in a caring world. We live in a global community. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations. There will be airlifts for us; there will be a D-Day for Liberia; U.N. peacekeepers will come and rescue us.” That was the hope they had for us. But in a few days that hope disappeared. The people who had brought food to us started to run out of it. That’s when the real suffering kicked in.
First, newborn babies started to die from starvation. Imagine for a moment that you’re a parent. You spend your entire life working to feed your family. Now, because of a war you have nothing to do with, you watch your children die from hunger and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it—nothing.
My mom and I started to go with the other people in the camp to the woods to find roots and leaves, things that people never thought they would be eating. The water we drank looked discolored at times and smelled bad, but it was all that we had. So, we drank it. People started to get sick from cholera, water-borne illnesses. It reached a point where so many people were dying that they stopped burying them. The bodies began to pile up. Every evening we came out and looked in the distance where the bodies were piling up.
Rising from the Dead
I became very sick. I stopped moving. I was just lying on the floor instead of waking up and seeing my mother and her smiling, reassuring face. I started to think I would be a chef, because all I could think about was food. Food, food, food; in my mind, I was making food all over the place. McDonald’s would have nothing on me. All we could hope for was tomorrow, just living to see the next day. It wasn’t living to see five years or ten years; it was just praying that we would see the next day.
I had been sick for many days and people were concerned that I hadn’t woken up for a long time. Everybody came to my mom, asking, “Is he okay? What’s going on with Kimmie?” She kept saying, “Oh, he’s fine. Everything’s OK.” Finally people stopped believing her. Two of the men held my mom while another person felt my pulse. This person wasn’t a medical doctor, but he said I had died. They immediately wrapped me up in the cloth we had been lying on, took my body, threw me away on one of the heaps of bodies and left me there.
When they came back, they let my mom go. People thought she had gone crazy because she went from heap to heap, pile to pile, searching for hours among the dead bodies to find me.
All I can remember from this experience is feeling a violent shaking on my body and waking up to see the pain and grief on my mom’s face— seeing her crying for the first time. It was the only time she cried during the entire war. I had no idea that I was laying on a pile of bodies. It was just this sense of ‘What is going on that my mom’s crying?’ Then they took me inside. That was after we had been in the camp for just a month. We stayed there for a total of six months. Over the course of the civil war, over two hundred thousand people—about 10 percent of the population of Liberia—died, mostly from hunger and disease—two hundred thousand people.
A man, his wife and their six children had come to the camp with us. By the time we left the camp, they had lost every single one of their children. Only the man and his wife were left alive.
I remember the first time that we got food and health care in the camp. There was a UNICEF person distributing food. I remember her because we were supposed to get just one scoop of porridge and one biscuit. She must have thought that this kid was about to go. She said, “I’m going to give you an extra scoop.” She did and she gave me an extra biscuit, too. It was a very small gesture. She probably does not remember the kid she gave an extra scoop to. But I’ve never forgotten that small gesture and I can remember that woman’s face.
I tell you this because it is the small gestures that matter to the people we extend them to—the things we think people don’t pay attention to, the things we think have no impact whatsoever. Many people refuse to take action because they feel that what they can do is so small and insignificant, that it’s not worth the time. Let the person on the other end of it be the judge of that and just do.
When I left, I thought that only we in Liberia were suffering. Imagine my shock when I left Liberia and had the opportunity to come to the United States and started to see suffering and pain on a global level—across Africa, across the world—the millions of people without access to health care. When I talk about health care, I’m not talking about the absence of health insurance. I’m talking about children and families who will get sick and who, even if they have the money, don’t have a doctor to go to.
Doctors and Dollars
In parts of Africa, most children will become sick. They will wake up in the morning and walk an entire day to get to a doctor at the nearest clinic. They will stand in a long line with people who have come from villages very far away. After they arrive, they will wait the rest of the day until it’s finally their turn to see the doctor. They may be told that the doctor has seen enough people for today, to go home and come back. They will have to walk all the way back home and return the next day or the day after.
Imagine the disappointment, after finally getting to see the doctor, of being told, “You have malaria, but we don’t have the medicine that will cure you. Go home and pray.” That is the reality for millions of people. Most of the drugs that are missing from the hospitals are drugs that sell for just a few dollars. But there is no willpower to provide these drugs to the world’s poorest people.
As we drove across Uganda, we saw entire villages and towns that were simply empty, just empty. When we asked what had happened, we were told that the entire populations of these villages had died from AIDS—entire villages empty because every single person had died from AIDS. If they weren’t empty, you would see villages of only children. It was like a bad movie—children all over and no adults. It reached a point that the United Nations had to create the new phrase “child-led households.” It’s hard to imagine that we have officially accepted that there is something called a child-led household, but this is the reality for millions of kids who are orphaned because of AIDS.
As we walked through Kroo Bay, one of the poorest communities in Freetown, Sierra Leone, we saw poverty on unimaginable levels. Children with cholera simply lied down on the ground to die; their parents couldn’t take them to a hospital. There was hunger throughout the camp. It’s a shantytown and with an open sewer running through it. On both sides of the waterway there is dirt, debris and trash. It’s clear that the water is unsafe, but upstream, children were bathing in it and downstream a woman is doing her laundry. It was the same water that people had to drink from. This is extreme poverty. None of the people in Kroo Bay want their children bathing in filth, none want to wash their laundry in filthy water, but they simply have no other option.
We had been to many poor countries and I had seen children begging before, but never had we seen the hundreds of babies that we saw begging on the streets of Kampala in Uganda. Their parents had left them out for maximum sympathy. Some of them could barely walk but they were out there begging. We met a woman in another slum area living in a very small room, maybe ten feet by fifteen feet with several families living there. She sits in her own spot; the woman behind her—that’s her spot. People are packed together like sardines. Up above her head hangs the plastic bag that contains all her worldly possessions. You know you are facing extreme poverty when everything you own in the world can fit into one plastic bag.
This woman was sick and had been for weeks, but she simply couldn’t get to a hospital. Here’s a rather disturbing picture: When we got to Camp Kasenyi, we saw so many sick children. We asked for a list of the forty sickest children to take to the hospital the next day. They were dying from cholera and malaria, just lying down and dying. The next day we found that one of the babies on the list had died during the night. Her parents insisted that we take her picture to show the world that their child had died.
What shocked me was these families couldn’t go to the hospital because they couldn’t afford it. But when we took the kids to the hospital, none of their treatments was more than twenty dollars. The children were dying while their treatments cost less than twenty dollars each. This should be outrageous.
In Spite of Everything: Hope
On the flip side of all this, I see tremendous hope for Africa. Once I was giving one of these talks and someone said, “Geez, man, you just managed to make us all feel guilty.” I said, “Good! I want to come to your bedroom and make you feel guilty some more!” But there’s really no need for us to go home feeling guilty. There’s reason for us to go away feeling hopeful.
The reason I feel hopeful isn’t because I read Jeffrey Sachs or another economist who says there’s a possibility for ending world poverty. My hope comes from going to these very poor communities, which you would assume to have the highest suicide rates. But I look in the faces of the children and they’re still smiling and playing. I see mothers who have gone through extreme circumstances, who watched their children die and don’t know where the next meal is coming from saying, “I know there’s a better tomorrow and I’m going to live to see that better tomorrow.” I see young men and young women who have no hope for employment, who still say, “I’m going to keep trying and whatever I can do to better myself, I will do it.”
In Sierra Leone, we opened a skills training center for the women in Kroo Bay, the community I mentioned earlier. Women flooded into the center; all of them had so much hope for the future. People of twenty-five, who had never been to school in their life, were still saying “I dream of being a doctor so I can help my people. I dream of being an engineer.” They didn’t know where they would go to school, but their dream was still alive.
I see so much ingenuity when I travel across the continent, people making ends meet with very meager resources. In Sierra Leone, we met a young man who had very little formal training and had never been to school. But, from scraps, this guy had developed a rice cooker that could be started with a call from a cell phone; when the rice was done it would send a text message back saying that the rice had finished cooking.
There is so much ingenuity within the continent and I truly believe that this is the hope for Africa. A part of the problem so far is that many feel that the solution for Africa should be made in New York and transferred to Africa. I think this is where we have failed. People also believe that the key for Africa is simply to provide food aid. This is another failure to understand the true needs of the continent.
Someone once said to me, “Africans like to get free food; that’s why they’re always going to have wars.” And I said, “Ooh, thank goodness I’m a peace activist or else I would be something else!”
Nothing could be further from the truth. African people are very proud of their heritage and culture. Nothing hurts a family more than having to stand on a relief line for food. I know this because after the First Liberian Civil War, it was true that the first few times we got relief food everybody was happy. But then several months passed and all we got was food aid. Then a year, two years passed, and we were still getting food aid.
Everybody started to say, “When are they going to give us tools to go back and farm? When are they going to give us seeds to go back and grow our own food?” And that didn’t happen. People wanted to work for themselves. This is what needs to change for Africa. We need to transform aid from dumping food to entering a partnership with the people in Africa. Let’s see ourselves as equals moving forward—that helping Africa is about providing the tools, the fertilizer and relying on the know-how of the people who for generations were able to feed themselves. Why can’t we listen to the old ladies who didn’t go to Harvard or Princeton, but know their reality Child Rights and the Culture of Peace? better than any PhD holder from an Ivy League school does? They know it.
These are the people we should be turning to for the solutions to the problems. Until that happens we cannot change the world. We have opened centers across Africa where women make products. It’s incredible. We just open the centers and find the money to run them, but the women themselves teach each other and come up with the ideas for these products. There was never a day that I went to a center and said, “Why don’t you create this bag or that necklace?” It is completely internal and they’ve created amazing, beautiful products. They’ve made necklaces and bags from recycled glass that they collected and bags from grass and rice straws that people would have discarded. They’ve made incredible products and they didn’t need a PhD to tell them how to do it. And it’s working; this is the key.
Reclaiming the Land
Blood Diamond is a very good movie. I encourage people to see it. There are some Hollywood aspects to it, but it is the real story of a child soldier in a war-torn situation. The central theme of Blood Diamonds is, obviously, diamonds. In Sierra Leone there are large plots of land that have been dug up for diamond mining. There are large holes everywhere in these areas, just vast expanses of land with holes. Now, this idea didn’t come from me; it came from former child soldiers, young people in Sierra Leone, who suggested that we use our influence to get the government to grant them the land. They wanted to reclaim it and make it possible to grow food there.
What was once a mined-out, useless plot of land is now a rice farm. Former child soldiers who once relied on diamonds to live can now grow their own food to sell and eat and be self-sustainable. The future for Africa lies in agriculture. I truly believe that very soon the time will come when Africa will begin to support the rest of the world in more ways that one. It will be voluntary support because until now everybody’s exploited Africa for centuries and they’ve done it violently.
A New Way of Giving
It’s going to end; it’s going to change; it’s going to transform when we willingly give to the world in a way that is loving and peaceful, exploiting no one. The exploitation that has happened to Africa must stop.
People like to talk about aid and to feel comfortable that their governments are doing a lot. I’ve met people who have said, “We’ve given tons of money for aid over the last thirty or fifty years and Africa is still suffering.” In reality, the world takes more out of Africa in debt than it contributes in aid. For every one dollar that Africa gets in international aid, seven dollars go out to pay the interest on that aid, most of which never reaches the people. It’s criminal for us to continue to give international aid and rid ourselves of guilt feelings when we’re actually getting more back than we’re giving.
The Business of War
People talk about the wars in Africa, saying that Africans are killing Africans. We ask the question, “Where did the guns come from?” People are making big money from guns and distributing them into African countries. People got mad whenever there was a peace process underway in Liberia. Why? The contractors in Liberia who were making a lot of money from the big aid agencies knew that their jobs would come to an end. The peacekeepers that were making lots of money knew their jobs would be ending. The people who benefit from the lack of government restrictions on diamond exploitation were unhappy because their money would go away. There were so many people who did not want the wars to end.
This situation will change when you and I say, “No more. This must stop.” Governments respond to people; they respond to masses. I’m going to paraphrase here, but I believe it was Eisenhower who said to someone who came to him with a policy that he absolutely loved, “I like your policy; I like your idea, but go out into the streets and fight to make me believe in what you’re proposing.”
If we ever want to see the end of poverty, suffering and exploitation, we can’t sit back and say, “Yes, we know it’s bad.” We can’t just sit back and applaud when I say something that makes sense. We have to be in the streets: protesting, marching and talking until change comes.
Justice for All
Justice will not be achieved in America until it’s achieved around the world. This goes for the people in Africa, in Israel and Palestine, everywhere that people are being exploited, marginalized and killed. Justice must come to them. And I will paraphrase Martin Luther King who said that we will never be truly at peace until all of God’s children are at peace as well. That is so true.
I want to leave with a challenge to you tonight: Each and every person in this room can do so much more. If you’re doing something already, that’s great. But we have to challenge ourselves to do more. We have to reach out to people who don’t know. Someone asked me, “Who is the greater threat—the rebel leaders who cause all these atrocities or those who sleep and don’t take action?”
Power in Numbers
There was a United States ambassador to Liberia during the Liberian elections that said that there are more good people than bad people in Liberia; I truly believe that it’s time for the good people to win. If you think about it, some of the worst atrocities in the world have been masterminded just a handful of people. In Liberia you could probably count about five or ten people who were instrumental in the wars. It’s the same for Rwanda, the same for most of the worst atrocities in the world.
On the flip side, there are millions who could take positive action who are doing nothing or are simply unaware. I think that’s the bigger threat. If those millions of people awakened their brilliance to help change the world, we could kick out the bad guys in no time. Your challenge tonight is to find something you can do to change the world. I know we’re going to have a question and answer session and I’ll bet that someone will ask, “What can I do?” so I’m going to jump ahead of the game.
What Can I Do?
I cannot tell you what to do. The key is for every individual to find the strength, the passion, for the thing that they can do to change the world. Let no one tell you what to do. You find it; you identify it; you go out and do it. That’s the most sustainable way to change the world. I found this quote from John F. Kennedy after someone told me, “Africa is too far away. Why should we be helping them?” Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: “To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves for whatever period is required; not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. We must remember that.
Questions and Answers
Audience Member 1: I want to thank you so much for what you’ve shared tonight. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia from 1976 to 1978 and I remember how peaceful it was. At that time Ethiopia was going through difficulties, as you mentioned. I remember thinking, “Boy, Liberia will never be like that.” How wrong I was. I spent about thirty years working in Africa in about twenty-three countries. I felt the despair that I feel all the time, hearing about the child and the vulture. I was so glad that you showed the other side also, because I’ve been blessed to work in education, training teachers and people who are in education. That’s where I find hope.
I lived for a time in Southern Africa in eight countries, traveling and working with people who were dealing with the front line of AIDS. The most hopeful people, the people who were doing the most were those who were suffering. They were not waiting for the government, because the governments couldn’t and wouldn’t help them. The women who were suffering the most were the ones actually doing something.
I’m in total agreement with what you say. People have to own their situation. In the midst of all the suffering and the agony, we can remember that we have to do things here. There are those, like you, who are doing things and they don’t get on the television. In every community that I’ve worked in, there are people who don’t get any credit, don’t make money and do it every single day. So I hope that we also remember those people, the unsung heroines and heroes.
For me, it’s the women and the young people—not that I don’t love my brothers. But those are the people that I feel are going to make the difference. I look at what the Liberian women did to elect a woman president. There are good examples, good things happening all over Africa and the rest of the world. Thank you so much for what you do.
Weeks: Thank you very much. I think you just captured the essence of the speech. I truly think that the hope for Africa lies with the mothers and the women. You can see that a lot of our programs are for engaging women. When we originally started our mission, it was to help children affected by war. We realized that change for children could not be affected in a sustainable way unless mothers are empowered.
Instead of paying the school fees for children from elementary to high school, we could train a mother for one year and she would be able to pay the fees for the rest of her child’s life. There is research that shows that mothers are more likely to go through the training program and succeed. When they succeed, the entire community benefits.
Now, again, nothing against the guys—they’re not too happy in Sierra Leone. In fact, once I was doing a radio interview in Sierra Leone and someone called in and said, “Dude, don’t call it Youth Action International. Call it Women Action International,” but essentially I think that’s the hope for Africa as well.
Audience Member 2: When you go into the different countries, do you establish a lasting network between authorities and governments so that they can network and help each other?
Weeks: That’s a great question. We definitely do. We’re counterparts with the governments and countries where we work. We do that primarily because many times I’ve witnessed that when aid agencies go into a country, they act like a government of their own; they do their own thing and don’t care what the government thinks about what they do.
We try to match our work with the government’s in the belief that they are the custodians of their people. There has been a failure of governments in many places in Africa. Many of the problems we’re seeing now would not have occurred if the government had truly filled its role as guardians for the people. There has been so much corruption.
Africa is actually very wealthy. The irony of Africa is that it’s a land of extreme wealth and extreme poverty and that’s the saddest thing. There are extremely wealthy governments and great resources, but people haven’t used them well. We’re seeing a change. I think it is mostly because this generation [of government] includes young people. Young people in America, Africa and Europe are not only idealistic, but are also taking action.
From what I’ve studied, people in the 1960s were very idealistic. They were thinking big. But in this generation young people are actually going to Africa, being hands-on and fully engaged. Young Africans are going back saying, “I want to go back to help my continent.” So I’m very hopeful that the leadership will continue to change.
We have people like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, the first female president in Africa, who has transformed the country in such a short period. Charles Taylor, the previous president, was in power from 1997 to 2004 before he was kicked out. During that entire time there was no electricity in the entire country or running water.
President Sirleaf went there and, within one year, she managed to get electricity into most of the capital. That shows the difference in leadership. When Charles Taylor was there, the government was always broke. There was simply no money in the treasury and nobody could figure it out. They said, “We just sold $50 million in diamonds. Where is the money?” Nobody knew.
Within a month of when President Sirleaf took office, the national bank of Liberia had several million dollars sitting there, accounted for. When Charles Taylor was president, people were paid twice a year: once in July for Independence Day and once for Christmas. People weren’t paid for the past six months: they were paid just for that month.
When President Sirleaf arrived, everyone was paid every single month, without fail. People were getting their money. She’s also managed to increase the civil servants’ base salary. When Charles Taylor was there, the average civil servant made fifty dollars a month. Now that she has been there for a few years, the average civil servant is making three hundred fifty dollars a month. It’s not a lot compared to what we’re making here, but in Liberia, it’s a huge jump in just a few years. It tells you what can happen with good leadership.
Audience Member 3: I decided a few years ago that I wanted to have an impact on children in poverty so I founded World of Money.org, which is dedicated to the financial education of children. We are determined to not only spread throughout the United States, but also the world in order to teach Liberian children and others to have a positive relationship with money and entrepreneurship.
On a separate note, as a member of the media, I’m very saddened by how American media turns a blind eye to the atrocities that go on in the continent [of Africa] and makes apologies, particular in regard to regimes that slaughter children and their families. I don’t accept the notion that just because someone is given a gun they have to kill.
Having interviewed many leaders who are members of the African Union, they are sad that George Bush is leaving, because the money that is (quote, unquote) “aid” is lining their pockets. I’m saddened and angry that they turn a blind eye to the actions, the behaviors of each other. For example, there is a cholera epidemic going on in Zimbabwe; they’re looking the other way. Why? Because they don’t want it to impact how their pockets are being lined.
What would you say to members of the African Union in terms of taking responsibility for their own lives and doing what they’re supposed to do in terms of rendering service to the people of their country?
Weeks: I think again, it boils down to the impact that leaders can have. For a long time, post-1960, most African countries were independent. Several of the people who became presidents thought that they had become part of an untouchable elite club. This has been true from president to president. That’s why once they got into power so many of them never wanted to leave. They thought they owned the country. And because this “old boys” club was untouchable for a long time, everybody bought into helping to carry out atrocities and corruption. There are some exceptions to this.
Recently Charles Taylor was taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes. It was a landmark case that shocked most African presidents. They never thought they would see the day when an African president, or former president, would be tried for war crimes. But Charles Taylor did.
One hopes the world is changing, but it’s not happening rapidly enough. Imagine all the lives that are being lost because it’s happening so slowly—all the people that are being killed or are dying as that process happens. We need to hope and pray that the next generation of leaders in Africa will be more caring and have more integrity, with more care and compassion for the people. We need compassionate leaders who really believe in supporting the development of the continent.
That’s the key for Africa. We will never move forward, even if the rest of the world suddenly decides to support the development and advancement of Africa, if African leadership and the African people themselves don’t take the key role in becoming better leaders.
This is always my challenge to young Africans in the United States. Unfortunately some young Africans in America become too comfortable and never want to go back. Some who have been born to parents who immigrated to the United States feel, “That’s not my home. I’m an American. I’m never going back there.” There are people who come to the States who have a sense of, “I’m here now; I’ve got this great job on Wall Street. Why the hell would I want to go work for a few dollars in Africa?”
We are not blessed just for our own selves. The blessings we receive are to be extended to others. And for Africans, we need to extend that blessing back to those on the continent who are suffering and dying. That’s the key for Africa. I challenge all the leaders. They’re not listening.
It’s taken me a long time to get to the crux of your question because in the back of my mind I was thinking that if I stand at this podium and condemn all the leaders who are carrying out these practices in Africa, they’re not going to hear me. So it almost feels that I’m talking just because it sounds good. What will have more impact is that if there’s any African in this room who hasn’t gone or wasn’t planning to go back, that your impact can be to go back, whether you’re a doctor or a surgeon, even if you’re not an African or African-American. It doesn’t matter what race you are.
You can do something to be supportive. And I say supportive, not to think that you are the savior. No one should ever think that they are going to save other people. No one should ever think they can save Africa. That’s not going to happen. We have to look at it as a partnership, working hand in hand to make Africa better. That’s the key and, in turn, we ourselves will become better.
Weeks: It might go faster if a couple of people ask questions and then I can comment on each of them.
Audience Member 4: I feel that many people want to see a doable change or they’re more ready to help a friend in front of them than a stranger far away. Or they might be ready to help with a small need, but when it’s something so great they wonder if what they can do will change a person’s life? How can we connect life to life to people a continent away, ones we’ve never spoken to whose suffering we’ve never seen? How can we encourage people to have compassion for people they don’t know?
Audience Member 5: I am a teacher at an alternative public high school. I teach the kids who have been kicked out of school, the ones that the city doesn’t want, the ones who have parole officers or are in school for beating up their teachers or getting into drugs or whatever it might be. I totally agree that none of them need to be saved. They need to be shown their potential, what they can do in this world and they need to know the impact that they have. So I teach a social consciousness component to my class. We’ve just spent a lot of time learning about global warming, about Darfur, and we’re using English language arts to teach social responsibility in the world. My question is: How do I get you into my classroom one day?
Weeks: I encourage everybody to visit our website. It’s YouthActionInternational.org, and you can invite me to speak through there.
I think part of my role is to spread the message to as many people as possible. What’s more important to me is the hope that when I speak with you, you will speak to someone else. There is no way I can reach out to everybody. Now you know a little of my story and it would mean so much to me if you could spread the word to your neighbors, your friends and your family who are not here tonight.
What we have found to be amazing is that when inner city kids have been engaged in our work, either through listening to this speech, watching the video, or if they came to us in Africa, they became so empowered. They learned that, “As much as my life sucks, there are people who are one hundred times worse off than I am. And not only that, but I can actually do something to give a helping hand.” Having gone through life thinking that they were at the bottom of society, as low as one could get, they became so empowered. That was key to making them feel they could do something meaningful.
I hope that if I do get the chance to come to your school, I’ll be able to share that with some of your students. But regarding the question about how to help people become compassionate: I don’t think there is a magic formula. There are people in some audiences who might have heard many great speeches by great speakers and never acted. They might have seen many videos, but never took any action. But one day, they saw or heard something that stuck with them. Nobody had to chase them to take action; nobody had to force them. It might not even have been the best speaker they’d heard. But they just saw or heard something that sunk in and became their motivation.
I can’t tell anyone what to do; everyone will find his or her own way. Yes, Africa is far away but there are some smart scientists who have gone to work on DNA. They say that all of us are connected biologically. No matter what the distance between continents, no matter how different our complexion is, we are all literally, scientifically connected. That gives us even more reason to want to help people, no matter how far away they are.
Audience Member 6: This is a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses.” What is your dream of Africa? What is the future in relation to youth?
Weeks: That’s such a great quote. I often tell people that, as they look at the problems of Africa, it’s very hard to see any hope. Many people believe that Africa will continue to deteriorate. But whenever I’m in Africa, I see so much hope. What gives me hope is meeting the people: the children, the young people and those who have are living through the most extreme circumstances with very few resources. They’re able to stretch out their limited resources to go the extra mile. People in the most extreme situation can say that they are hopeful for a better tomorrow.
One of the issues that we deal with is the issue of unemployment. People go to school and get a high school diploma and a college degree. The problem is that once they graduate, there are no jobs for them. That happens to the majority of people across the continent. I guess it’s happening around the world now, but even more so in Africa.
One young man had just graduated with a computer diploma. Someone said to him, “So there is no job for you. What are you going to do?” He said, “At least I have my diploma so when the companies come, I will be the first in line with my diploma.” He wasn’t looking at it and saying this is a bad situation. He was saying, “I’ve taken the first step.”
I have a vision of an Africa free from extreme poverty and suffering and I think it can happen. Right now Africa has the resources, the land and so much inside that it can transform itself. What is needed is determination, passion and will power to harness the strength of the people. Right now, too often, people from outside are the ones trying to determine what’s best for Africa. That needs to change. We need to come together and say what we think should be happening to move forward. I hope that as generations, especially this generation, become more engaged, we’ll see more of that happening.
Audience Member 7: I am extremely impressed by your work, your determination and your life experience. I, in my own field, want to make a contribution to society and people, especially young people. In my day-to-day struggle, the most challenging thing is to maintain my determination. Do you have a source of inspiration always in your heart? How do you maintain that kind of strong determination for [peace and the future]?
Weeks: There are several things that I draw on. I don’t think there’s just one thing we can hold onto. I think the first part of it, a very early part for me, was my mom. I remember very clearly our time together during the civil war. When the war was going on I was ten years old, a kid, OK? I was the greediest kid around, not thinking about anything critically, so if we had only a little food, one spoon of rice, available, my mom would pass it on for me to eat before she ate anything.
As a kid, I didn’t say, “Oh, wait, my mom hasn’t eaten yet. Let me ration it off and leave some for her.” It wasn’t until later on that I looked back and saw the sacrifices she made every single day. Remembering that and all the other women who went through what my mom went through, all the women in war, all the fathers in war and thinking about all the kids: that’s a driving force for me. If I can impact a family so that a mother doesn’t have to go through what my mother went through or so that a father doesn’t have to watch his children die, then that feels like I’m paying back my mom for all the times I ate all the food.
But the second thing is that no experience is as powerful as actually going and seeing. The greatest hope for me is when I’m able to travel and meet people in the poorest communities who have hope. If you think about the situation, problems and level of poverty in Africa, you would imagine that it would have the highest suicide rates in the world. But, in spite of the extreme circumstances they’re going through, they say, “I know there’s a better tomorrow; I will fight and do everything I can to see that tomorrow.” If they can be hopeful, why can’t we, who have been blessed with so many resources?
Audience Member 8: I read your bio and I see that you’ve done a lot of organizing. I know that, whether it’s in your job or in your country, you see a lot of things that you want to fix. What kind of experiences or tips do you have for organizing so that you get things accomplished without overwhelming yourself?
Weeks: Each year interns go to parts of Africa to travel and work with us [Youth Action International]. Some have traveled extensively, but usually it’s their first trip to a post-war African country. Even if you’ve been to a developing country, it’s very different being in a post-war country. Usually, in the first week, they’re just absorbing the fact that they’re in a community with problems in every sector, absolutely nothing is working. Wherever you turn there is an issue.
Here they are, working for Youth Action International where we try to solve all the problems in every country we go to. For them, it becomes very frustrating. How do you go about your day-to-day activities? Over time, without discussing it with anyone, it sinks in that even if you do the smallest thing, it has an impact that contributes to the larger picture.
I don’t think any of our great leaders—Nelson Mandela, Gandhi[VK1]— would ever say, “I alone will solve all the problems.” It’s impossible. The strength is in realizing that even if you’re doing one thing, the smallest thing, it’s part of a larger picture, a larger plan and being comfortable with that. It took me awhile to get there. When we started Youth Action International, we were trying to do everything, everywhere. At some point, I had to say, “Listen, we have to focus, narrow it down.” I had to reach the point where I felt comfortable and at ease knowing that we can’t do everything, but we are doing something. The key is to do something.
Audience Member 9: In one of your YouTube videos that I watched, you mentioned that you want to spend most of your time in Africa and that your purpose in coming to the United States is mainly to raise funds. What has been your experience in fundraising in the midst of the current economic crisis? What kind of strategies are you thinking about for the future?
Weeks: Well, it’s been crazy. We didn’t think that the economic crisis was going to hit us so soon. To give you an example, usually, by the end of the year, we’ve raised a minimum of $20,000 for our program. This year, after we had opened all the envelopes, and there weren’t many, we had raised only $2,700, a huge gap from a minimum of $20,000. We could tell that the economic crisis had already hit the organization. And it’s hitting organizations across the country.
Right now, people are focusing on corporations, but I sit on the boards of several non-profit organizations and, even some of the larger organizations, with celebrity supporters and big corporate sponsors, have had to cut back their budgets by almost 50 percent. There are several organizations that do great work that are going under, but nobody is talking about it.
We are reevaluating how we do our work. We were already very careful about how we spend money and how it is supplied, but now we are scaling back, being resourceful and finding other ways of funding—all legal ways, no funny business—but being very resourceful and drawing on the people we work with who are being impacted. If something happens and one source goes away, they find another way to survive. And that’s what we’re doing right now. I don’t like fundraising, but it’s a necessary evil.
Audience Member 10: Reading your biography, I was particularly moved by your experience when your mother went looking for you after you’d been presumed dead. I wondered if you have any memory of that experience? It seems to me that was a moment when you entered a valley in the depths of your life, which you’ve never forgotten.
Weeks: That was the critical turning point. If there hadn’t been war in Liberia, I probably would have lived my life on a completely different path. I’m sure we’ve all thought that if just one small thing happens differently, it changes the direction of our lives. The simplest thing has an impact.
Being a child in the middle of the war, surrounded by suffering and pain, was a turning point. The first thing that came into my head was, “This isn’t how children should be living. Children should not be living in these kinds of conditions.” I wanted to make sure that I did something to prevent it from happening. I didn’t see it coming; I don’t think my mom saw it coming—the day when they put me on a pile of bodies. I didn’t realize what had happened. All I remember is feeling my mom shaking my body and then waking up, with no idea where I was or that I was laying on a pile of dead bodies.
When they told me the story, I had sense of wanting to live my life to make sure that no one else goes through something like this. And that’s been sort of the journey ever since. So whenever I travel to a poor community in Uganda, or wherever I may be, when I see children suffering and dying from cholera, it rings true in a very personal way because I can feel exactly what they are going through. I’m not just looking at it and saying, “Oh, there is a starving child, how bad.” I know what it feels like and that’s an additional push to want to go on and do more.
It’s very hard to go to a place and realize that we don’t have the resources to help everyone. It’s just not possible. It makes me mad when I think of organizations that have far more resources than we do, but are not impacting as many people as they could because they are not applying their resources in a way that makes sense.
Audience Member 11: I wanted to ask you if you can share how you dealt with the former Liberian president’s effort to have you assassinated, both externally and internally. It must have taken courage, but how did you go through it? And you had to leave Liberia suddenly, so how did you deal with that?
Weeks: When I started the first organization in 1994, the Children’s Disarmament Campaign, we didn’t think it could happen. We were a bunch of kids [Weeks was sixteen years old at the time] and no one had ever dealt with children running an organization in Liberia. It had never happened before. So when it came to funding, with kids writing and asking for money, especially from the bigger organizations such as UNICEF, no one knew how to deal with us.
When UNICEF came to Liberia, we wrote about eighteen proposals between 1994 and 1996, asking for aid. They rejected everything because we were a bunch of kids. They must have thought that we’d buy candy. Nobody gave us money; that went on for a long time. So, the Children’s Disarmament Campaign was a group of us saying, “Listen, if we can’t get the guns away from everybody, let’s try to get the guns away from the kids.”
We wrote the proposal thinking that it would be rejected and then UNICEF decided they would support the project. We turned to each other and said, “Oh, geez, now we’ve got to go talk to rebel leaders and warlords.” It freaked us out, but we did it. Over a decade ago, when we were getting those rejections, it felt very bad. I was sitting there thinking, “This is horrible; I cannot see the silver lining.”
Just a few months ago, I met the current executive director of UNICEF who had heard this story of being rejected eighteen times. She said, “Kimmie, if you ever ask for money from UNICEF and they reject you, you give me a call and we’ll make sure it gets approved.” Those disappointments over a decade ago now translate into something positive. We couldn’t see that silver lining in 1994, but going through that process with the Children’s Disarmament Campaign was very scary.
We were a bunch of kids; we had never done this before. We could have just walked away from it. So, it was building up the strength and energy to go and do it. I think that many nights my mom was worried because I was sixteen at this point, going out to talk to rebel leaders. It was having the strength to maintain our integrity to not run off with one of the rebel leaders because they had money.
The key was realizing that our ultimate goal was being achieved, that each rebel leader we met was signing our petitions and telling us that the kids fighting for them should disarm by the end of 1996, something they had never done before. They were recording voice messages and they were signing our petitions. And there were groups of kids across the country who protested, with peaceful demonstrations, believing in their power to make change happen.
Because of the passion and energy of our small group, the movement became viral and spread to kids across the country. They were willing to stand up because they saw someone setting an example. I think that’s happened in every mass movement. If a person believes in something strongly, they can cast enough energy and light that others can join in and it starts to build up from there. People don’t see it coming because it starts with one person, with one idea and then it just blows up. Everyone thinks, “Where did that come from?” But that’s the beauty of grass roots organizing.
Audience Member 12: I know you’ve undergone severe and tremendous persecution. Just a little history of SGI: In the thirteenth century, Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of this sect of Buddhism, was persecuted by the government, nearly beheaded and then exiled. During World War II, the first president of the SGI stood up against the Japanese government and died in jail. The second president was imprisoned along with the first president but survived and was released when World War II ended. He began propagating Nichiren Buddhism throughout Japan. Our current president, the third president of SGI took it as his mission to propagate Nichiren Buddhism throughout the world.
Each of the three presidents has undergone more difficulties and persecutions than I can fathom. Even so, Nichiren Buddhism has spread to 192 countries, all for the sake of world peace. I know you’ve done that in your own way as well, fighting for Liberian peace and for children. As a global network of Buddhists, what can we do, right now, for the sake of countries such as Liberia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia?
Weeks: That’s a very difficult question. I think there are answers to that particular question within everybody. Everybody has a different calling, a different purpose and a different mission. I could say to everyone in this room, “I want you all to go out and start making speeches because that will change the world.” Well, making speeches might change the world, but maybe that’s not your thing. You might do it for a few weeks because I said go make speeches. But after a while it’s going to dwindle away and then stop altogether.
But if we look at it differently and I say, “Find the thing that moves you and go and do that.” If you actually seek that out, the chances of you burning out will be slim because something internal will always be feeding you. I think that’s the key. So whether it’s an entire country or an entire religion, it’s about people finding that thing and connecting.
With the Children’s Disarmament Campaign in Liberia, we never told everyone that they must be a part of this campaign. In fact, our very first protests and demonstrations were just the five or ten members of our organization. And then there were twenty and then thirty. People started to understand and more started became willingly involved. I think that’s the key.
Another great example is the life of Gandhi. When he walked across India, he didn’t go to the radio station, saying, “You must join me on such and such day.” He just got up and started to walk and then people decided to join the movement. The same goes for Nelson Mandela. They were just doing what they thought made sense and what worked for them. Those who wanted to joined them voluntarily.
Audience Member 13: One thing that resonated with me is how you made a pact at a very young age. What do you feel is the difference between a vow and a promise or a list of things to do? How can we wake up the youth of America who are missing a sense of mission or don’t know what their mission is? Even though things may look fine on the surface, underneath is a poverty of spirit.
Weeks: It’s something I’ve thought about many times. There is tremendous power and potential in young people across America if they could unite and move forward together. The problem is that’s simply not happening. When I give these speeches, the people who come are usually those who are either a bit cautious or they’re doing something; they’re engaged in some way. It’s not usually the people who are asleep.
So the question for me is when will I reach the masses of people who are asleep? I visit schools with people who have a world-view. They’ve watched some newscasts; they know poverty exists; they know something. There are millions of people who actually do not know the extent of poverty around the world. They’re going about their lives; it simply doesn’t exist. Forget about poverty in Africa—it shocked me to meet people who didn’t know about extreme poverty in their own communities.
It’s almost like The Matrix where everyone is sleeping in a vessel and the real world is actually outside. We need to unplug people, but how do we do that? That’s difficult and I don’t know the answer. I hope someday we’ll find out, because the key to truly changing the world lies in engaging the masses.
When I made my vow, I was very young, so I didn’t know what I was going to do. At the time, I didn’t have the sense I have now of setting a goal and saying, “Okay, in 2018 this will happen,” and then working toward it and knowing or trying to figure out what the steps are.
But at that age, at ten, I had no idea what I would do. I just said that if I survived, this would be my life’s commitment. The second aspect was following through on it after the war. Once we came back to normalcy, I could have easily said, “Well, I was ten; I was hungry and I didn’t know better; it was the hallucinations.” And then I could have made an excuse to do something else. Following through was the key. You can make as many vows as you want, but it doesn’t matter unless you follow through.
Audience Member 14: You dealt with rebel leaders who had put arms in the hands of children and sacrificed them for the sake of their fight. But you also talk about people who are completely ignorant to the idea that there is poverty. My question is which is more of a threat in the world: evil people or those who don’t want to know about the problems?
Weeks: During the post-war Liberian elections in 1997, not the recent one that Ellen Sirleaf won, the American ambassador to Liberia said something along the line of there being more good people in Liberia than bad people and that it was time for the good people to win. I think that holds true for this scenario.
There are people who do a lot of evil. If you look across Africa, actually a handful of people are guilty of the worst atrocities. With the Liberian civil war as an example, about ten to fifteen people, probably less, had the most to do with engineering that conflict; for the Rwandan genocide, probably less than five to ten people engineered it. That happens across the world where there are a handful of evil people, whereas the good people who are asleep number millions.
So the key issue is waking up those who are sleeping; it’s probably doing more harm to the world, slowing down the world more. Once each person awakens the brilliance that’s inside, we’ll shine such a bright light that the evil guys will be knocked out because they’re so few in number. We’ve got power in numbers. I want people to do so much. Thank you.
2 Charles Taylor and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia fought to overthrow the government of Samuel K. Doe. Taylor was the president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003. He has been tried for war crimes against humanity. Decision not yet announced (I believe).
[VK1]Gandhi never was nominated several times, but he never won a Nobel Prize.