Chronicle Mankell’s speech at WEF in Davos

Davos, January 2013

Dear friends,

Since I have spent my life telling stories about human beings, their lives, their time on earth I would like to begin this session by telling you a story as well. In your imagination I want you to follow me to a country in Southeast Africa where I have lived for many years, Moçambique. 25 years ago the country was torn apart by a very brutal civil war. Mercenaries, who at first were organized and paid off by the white regime in what then was South-Rhodesia, terrorized the legal government. Later on the South Rhodesian part was taken over by the Apartheid regime in South Africa. During this long and hard war I visited the Northern parts of the country, the Cabo Delgado province, close to the border of Tanzania. One day I walked on a path leading to a small village. I saw a young man coming towards me. Already at a distance I could see that he was very thin and that he walked very slowly, almost unnaturally so. When we approached each other I saw that his clothes were in rags. But then I noticed something that I will never forget for as long as I live. I looked at his feet. He had no shoes. Instead he had painted shoes on his feet. He had used the colours in the ground and in the roots to replace his shoes. He had come up with a way to keep his dignity. I will never forget this boy, who at that time was around 15 years old. What happened to him I do not know. Most likely he never got a chance to grow up. Instead he died young. Was forced to die young. But I always carry him with me. Because he had two stories to tell me. The first one is the one about how he managed to keep his dignity. Although his life was tormented by hunger and poverty. But also for fear that armed bandits would come in the night and kill him and his family. The other one is about the fact that he told me that, if I ever have to, I could also paint shoes on my feet. The human being has a remarkable capability to endure and to keep her dignity in ways, which we never thought possible.

What is a human being? That is perhaps the question, which I have devoted most of my time as a writer trying to answer. What does it mean to live in this day and age? What does it mean for a human being to search for something that can give some kind of purpose for the short moment that we have on this earth? Is there a meaning after all? Or is a human being’s life as mysterious as the fact that the light of the stars that I see here in Davos at night has travelled for a longer period of time than our earth has existed.

As an author I think I have found an answer. And that leads me to the second story that I want to share with you here today. Part of the time that I spend in Maputo, the capital of Moçambique, I devote to the only professional theatre in the country, Teatro Avenida. There I work as a director and a playwright. At times it gets very hot during our rehearsals. There is no air condition that works. This means that you take every chance you can to get out in the fresh air, hoping that a refreshing breeze might pass. In the street outside the theatre there is a small bench. From time to time there is some shade on that bench. In warm countries you share your water as well as any shade with your sisters and brothers. One day a couple of years ago when I came out from the theatre there were two old African men sitting on that bench. I noticed that if they only moved a tiny bit there would be enough space for me to sit in the shade as well. So there we were, two old black men and one slightly younger white man. I love to eavesdrop so I listened to what they were talking about. I understood that they were talking about a third man who had just passed away.  One of the men sitting on the bench said: – I was at his place and he started to tell me an amazing story about something that had happened when he was a child. But it was a long story and it got late, so I told him that I would be back the day after so that I could hear the end of the story. But when I came the day after he had died.

Everything was quiet on the bench. I thought to myself that I will not leave until I have heard what the other man will say. At last, after what felt like hours, he said something that I also will not forget for as long as I live. He said: That is not a god way to die. Before you have finished telling your story.

At that moment I understood what a human being is. We are usually called Homo Sapiens, the wise man. But what we really should be called is, Homo Narrans, story-telling man. Because what separates us from other creatures is this remarkable capacity to talk and to listen. I can tell you about my dreams, my anxiety and my anger and you can tell me about yours. My cat cannot sit with other cats and talk about dreams and what they hope for in the future. I think, or I am convinced, that this capacity to use words and to listen to other people’s words, will save mankind in the long run when we have left the unreasonable world that we live in today. In new technique I see the possibility for more people to make their voices heard and the possibility for them to listen. Meanwhile we must regard this new technique in a critical way. I am very sceptical about Twitter, for instance, that is basically built on the fact that you are forbidden to deepen any thoughts. Instead people are encouraged to share shallow and fragmented thoughts that does not make us any wiser nor let us get to know our fellow human beings in any meaningful way. I who often write thick books, long stories, have noticed that there is a yearning today after those stories that demand our attention for more than a few short moments. I do not think that live images, film, TV, Youtube, completely have taken over the role of the novel and the book in our society. If I thought so I would no longer continue writing and I could put down my symbolical pen here and now.

In the two stories I have told you, you have accompanied me on symbolical journeys to Africa. Naturally I could have chosen stories from my own country or at least our part of the world. But since I have lived more than half of my life with one foot in the sand and one foot in the snow, and since this movement has such a large impact on me as an author, telling stories from Africa was a very conscious choice. I normally say that my African experience has made me into a better European. It means that I can regard Europe from a distance and with a different perspective, much like the painter who moves away from his easel. From the distance I can see the strengths of European politics and European culture, but I can also see the weaknesses, the cracks in the wall. For example, the way we treat refugees and shut them out. But my African experience has also taught me so much more about the conditions of being a human being in our time. I have come close to the knowledge of the African people. There is so much we could learn if we just bothered to listen.

My biggest critique today against Europe and the entire Western World is that it seems to me that we have completely lost our capacity to listen. We have become a continent where everyone constantly talks. The only thing that matters is our own words, not what others might have to say. Instead of helping Africa in its development with a humble and curious openness we have packed our suitcases with answers and solutions to different problems. Our suitcases should have been packed with questions. It is a sign of poverty that we in the West do not seem to think that people in Africa can teach us anything. I know that for a fact. I could stand here until late tonight, or until the cows return to the barn as we say in Sweden, and give you examples of what I mean. But unfortunately we do not have that much time.

I mean that there is only one single problem on the African continent today. And that is poverty. But I shall stop right here because such a claim can easily be misinterpreted. The African continent is fundamentally a very rich continent. Many of the world’s most sought after and rare minerals can only be found in Africa. The agricultural diversity is magnificent. The African continent was made poor by the colonial era and the consequences of what it meant to get rid off that oppression. What once began with the slave trade, where many Arab countries are as guilty as the Western world, culminated with the Berlin congress in the 1880’s and the scramble for Africa. In Berlin Africa was divided and it was not until 20 years ago, with the abolishment of Apartheid, that Africa began to free itself from its chains. I say “began” because the poverty that Africa has been burden with will take quite some time to get rid off. To help Africa, on its own terms, should be considered as a repayment for the evil heritage that colonialism left behind.

When I say that poverty is the only problem what I really mean is that all other problems could, directly or indirectly, be related to this economical disadvantage. We can discuss health care, education, unemployment, the fragile civil society or the weak situation for women with a lot of responsibility and no real influence in the political institutions. They are all in one way or another related to poverty.

Nor shall we forget that the refugees that come to Europe from Africa and other places come here hoping for a better future. Their request can easily be summarized: – We are coming here, because you were there!

In my case perhaps the most important issue is illiteracy. When people ask me if it is possible to buy my books in Moçambique I can answer in two ways. I can tell the truth, and say that it is possible to buy my books in Moçambique. Or I can do, as the Greek philosopher Socrates and answer, like the Devil’s advocate: Why should it be possible to buy my books in Moçambique? Just to start a discussion. For me the only really important book in Moçambique is the ABC-book. With more than half of the population still being illiterates we are now closing in on one of poverty’s main issues. The illiteracy in Moçambique must also be regarded from a global point of view. It is a disgrace that we still in 2013 force children to begin life without the most important tools they would need to survive; the capability to read and write. From that perspective, illiteracy is a plague that we should been able to eradicate yesterday, like we did with smallpox. But we allow illiteracy to continue to torment people. People are born to illiteracy and they are forced to die without knowing what it feels like to read a sentence. History’s verdict will be heavy upon us because we did not solve this once and for all. We have the money, we have the logistics but still people do not know what it feels like to read and write. It is shameful of us that we allow this to continue.

As a writer, but most of all as a conscious intellectual I have a responsibility. The reality that surrounds me concerns me in many ways. Mankind is not just story telling animal, it is also a political animal. There is no greater threat to democracy than that so many young men and women say: – We are not interested in politics. Then it is important to explain that we always live in a political context. No one can hide from this fact. And democracy, which we all believe in, demands our participation or else it will die. In a representative democracy we give a lot of responsibility to those that we elect. But we cannot give them all responsibility. If we do that and excuse me for my brutal language: we slit democracy’s throat and prevents it from breathing. A human being can live in a breathing apparatus/respirator, democracy cannot.

To me, the political reality is a question of solidarity. Many people imagine that solidarity is mostly about emotions. We see the result of a devastating fire in an Asian sweatshop, a tsunami or a civil war, and we want to help. That is right, we should do that. But solidarity is so much more. Mainly solidarity is about common sense. About political wisdom. If I want my children to have a better future then I must also think that other children should have the same opportunity. Otherwise none of them will have a future. As human beings we always have a choice to make. Let us assume that I am sitting at home listening to music. All of a sudden I hear that someone is calling for help out on the street. Then I can make the following choices: I can either turn up the volume so that I no longer can hear the person on the street. Or I can open a window and se if there is anything I could do. And then do it. Action speaks louder than words, never the other way around. Solidarity can be preached, but it is action, political action, that really shows the meaning of solidarity.

I have talked a lot about poverty. We know that we live in a world where we are not only connected by the Internet. Also, financial transactions are more and more unrestricted. In a few fractions of a second, billions of dollars or Euros or other currencies can be magically transferred from one continent to another. No one can control these financial operations. At the same time we must realise that we live in a time where the most basic values have completely altered. When I grow up greed was regarded as one of the cardinal sins. And generosity a virtue. This is how it was. But suddenly, in just a few decades, this has changed. Today greed has almost become a virtue and being generous is almost like being stupid. You do not have to think of a man like Madoff in America; all these greedy bankers, arms dealers, drug lords and men involved in trafficking are everywhere. Their greed and brutality also seem without limits. There is a great risk that our societies will be torn apart by this disintegration of ethical values and a fairly decent view of equality in our societies.

Dear friends!

Everything that I have talked about here today gives you quite a good idea of what kind of stories I think it is important to write. But that does not mean that I write political manifestos in the shape of novels or plays or movie scripts. I totally agree with the great German playwright Bertholt Brecht who made the point that first you must entertain and amuse the audience. Then there could be seriousness.

I write about the storytelling man and I write about a human race that is evolving. In the long run I assume that this horrible world that we live in today, with an ever-growing gap between rich and poor, is something that we can fight and change. If I did not believe that I would not have dedicated my life to writing, nor would I be standing here today.

This monologue will now become a dialogue. Let me finish with an African proverb, which I really like. Why does a human being have two ears but only one tongue? Simply because we should listen twice as much as we talk. Therefore I think this is a good time to stop.

Henning Mankell




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