Wednesday 24 May 2017

Building a Theory of Courage

“One doesn’t have to be a grand or special person to be courageous,” said Mukesh Kapila, Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester, to the group of 200 La Châtaigneraie students who attended his conference. Having worked as Under Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, Special Adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and at the UN Mission in Afghanistan, Mukesh has met his fair share of courageous people in the various, often war-torn, duty stations he has been assigned to throughout his career. An invited guest speaker at La Châtaigneraie for Green Week, he presented his theory of courage by telling stories of brave people, and more specifically brave women, who have shaped his life. 

Think of others and prepare to make sacrifices

When beginning his medical career as a junior doctor, Mukesh met Valerie, a brilliant astronomer and first-class mathematician, who had been admitted to the hospital ward he was working in. In her 30s, at a time when she should have been full of life, Valerie was dying, having been diagnosed with a virulent form of lung cancer. She had agreed to become a subject for an experimental drug regime without knowing how it worked, and Mukesh’s task was to experiment with this regime and see how his patient fared. Valerie died. But the drug she helped test, vincristine, is now part of the standard medicine used to treat a number of types of cancer, and thousands are being saved thanks to people like her. “She knew she was going to die, but she wanted her death to have meaning,” said Mukesh, “she was fighting for her life and the unseen people who would come generations after her.” An important first lesson for Mukesh: that courage is about thinking of others, and using what happens to you to help them. 

Later on, when working for the Foreign Office in London, Mukesh met Penny. “She was what you would call a ‘battle axe’ and the person I was most afraid of,” reminisced Mukesh, whose greatest regret is never having known her better. Recently however, he discovered her autobiography. Hidden away in her book was the story of what she did in Cambodia during the genocide in the 1970s. Penny had been a missionary doctor who, when everyone else was fleeing, had taken numerous trips in and out of Phnom Penh to rescue orphans from certain death. “Penny literally took life in her own hands to save the lives of others,” explained Mukesh. Another lesson to be learned: that courage is only real when there is a risk involved, a sacrifice to be made, a potential loss to suffer. “If you want to be courageous, you must be prepared to sacrifice things,” he concluded.

Empathy, truth and hope

Mukesh met Grace when he returned to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. At that time, Grace was a little girl, aged only 7, who had to flee Rwanda because she was a Tutsi. In her flight to reach the Congolese border, little Grace heard a scuffling sound in the bushes along the road. There she found an abandoned baby. Despite the fear and urgency to reach safety, and knowing that it would slow her down, Grace knew it was wrong to leave the baby. She carried him all the way to the border, reaching a refugee camp in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Grace grew up in the camp, with the baby alongside her. Years later, she was able to return to Rwanda with the now teenage boy she had helped bring up. Grace’s story taught Mukesh an important third lesson: that courage does not require knowledge – it is instinctive. “Courage is an innate form of knowledge and you cannot have courage without having empathy,” explained Mukesh. 

“When I was head of the UN Mission in Sudan, I was sitting in my office wondering what to do about the genocide in Darfur when a young woman barged into my office demanding to speak to me,” continued Mukesh. A young teacher in Darfur, Aïsha had also fallen victim to the terrible crimes being committed: she had been gang-raped in front of her family and neighbours – as had 200 other women in her village. Despite this, she’d managed to find her away to Mukesh’s office in Khartoum, almost 1000km away. “She wanted to make sure that her suffering was not in silence, but that something good came of it,” said Mukesh, “and she was brave to make the effort and come to tell her story to a stranger.” Another lesson learned: that courage is about telling the truth, even when it’s not the most palatable or pleasant thing to do. 

Mukesh’s final story was about Fatima, a 45-year-old Syrian grandmother whom he met in Lebanon. Fatima told him about the nice life she’d had in Syria with her husband and two sons until their house was bombed. One son was press-ganged into the Syrian army and died, and the other disappeared – as did her two daughters-in-law. Fatima had to flee and crossed the border into neighbouring Lebanon, where she set up her little tent. From there, and despite tremendous danger, she travelled back and forth across the border and militia lines to locate and bring home to safety her seven grandchildren, who now live with her. Fatima was not bitter or angry, she just wanted an end to the bloodshed so that her grandchildren could grow up in peace and have an education. “I learned a fifth lesson: that courage is bringing hope and a vision for the future,” explained Mukesh. 

Summing up his theory of courage, Mukesh concluded that “courage is ordinary people doing extraordinary things and that it’s the small everyday acts that make a difference.” Calling on Ecolint students to shed their fears, prepare themselves to make sacrifices, be optimistic and bring about hope, he helped them realise that this strength comes from within. In keeping with Ecolint’s mission to encourage students to take an active part in making their world a better place, Mukesh’s final words about courage taught students a sixth and final lesson: that like Valerie, Penny, Grace, Aïsha and Fatima, they “must not be simple followers of history but take their place in history and shape it”.

In 2013 Mukesh Kapila published his memoir, Against a Tide of Evil, in which he reveals the terrible reality of the crimes committed in Darfur.

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