A normal day in Hong Kong. Noise pollution with dust and debris from the site across the street as yet another building in Central is demolished, prior to the construction of a new shiny bank head office, making concentration difficult. Particulate pollution in the air where the quality of the oxygen we breathe is regularly tainted - at times to alarming degrees,but mostly imported pollution of course, according to the Government. Amazing how it lingers at the road side - nothing to do with the cars then. That's good! Streets where traffic flow is impeded thanks to the actions of some overly self-important citizens - or their shopping bag laden spouses - who demand that their driver waits for them outside the Prince's Building, double or triple-parked until they emerge, having scant regard or care about the inconvenience they cause others. People in a hurry, grim-faced as they weave a passage through the crowds of people.
Despite all the negatives, Hong Kong works. It's a "material" city, but as long as your own sense of values does not get distorted, and you can live with the selfishness and the pollution, you can negotiate a path of your own making. You have that freedom.And we are lucky enough to live in a city that has almost full employment at present, with less than 3.5% unemployed. With a pretty good infrastructure, low taxes, good medical facilities and a high standard of education.
So, if on balance it's not too bad, what brought about this retrospective? It was a recent visit to a school in South Africa! To a part of the country where pollution levels are non existent, where all you see around you is greenery with mountains in the distance. Not many cars - at least privately owned ones. Where the pace of life is very different. And the people are very poor.
It is a school that caters to a number of villages, thirteen in all, in the North East of the country. But where in contrast to Hong Kong, unemployment runs at a staggering 60% - and the level of illiteracy is at a similar level. A school where a little over 40 teachers cope with nearly 1400 children, where one teacher told me she had 56 pupils in her class, and that she had them all day. Perhaps not an uncommon statistic in many developing countries. But it's shocking.
Some 18 months prior to the visit, as a result of continuing to be impressed by the work done by charities such as Room to Read, about which I have written before, our family had made a donation towards facilities for this school. Although we had been kept informed about the progress of the school, we found ourselves unexpectedly in the region and on the off-chance asked whether a visit might be possible. Clearly we did not want to cause any disruption to the school's regular activities, nor did we want any special treatment, and the charities themselves are not really geared up to arranging such visits. The school's Principal was to say the least, accommodating, welcoming, charismatic and ...yes, absolutely inspirational. I cannot think of a better description for her.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, was a "facility" designed to improve through education the plight of thousands. How else can you describe the phenomenon whereby 1400 students turn up for school regularly, neatly dressed, and who are eager to learn. Students, some of who travel for more than a couple of hours - in each direction - between home and school, and not in comfortable air conditioned chauffeur driven cars! And if the genuinely happy smiles of the children, the evident rapport between the teachers and then the teachers with the children, the openness with which everyone in the school interacted, and indeed if the results achieved by the pupils themselves are anything to go by, this is a school blessed by dedication and by love. And it provides a lesson for us all.
Were we moved? Of course we were. I think everyone who genuinely feels that they might have contributed to "making a difference" - no matter how large or small that contribution - should be happy to have done so. Oh! And why did I say "genuinely"? Because it is sometimes too easy, especially as a corporation for example, when asked to donate or contribute to a cause, to do so because it is a "suitable cause" that fulfills your corporate social responsibility, without thinking too deeply about the positive impact that the $10,000 or $1m you can so easily afford, will have on so many lives. That is not to imply that the corporations don't "care", of course they do, but they need to think carefully about the impact on the donees, not just their CSR Committee.
This is where, and how, hope begins. This is what Room to Read, and others, do. And if I may paraphrase the Room to Read motto, opportunities for education exist in the developing countries of Asia, Africa or Latin America, and with educated children you create a better understanding of the world, with which will come positive progress.