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Anis Haffar Writes | Pearls of Wisdom from Barack Obama

Tue, 07 Jul, 2009

  • A prelude to his historic visit to Ghana, July 10, 2009

Harvard University overflowed with various graduation ceremonies on June 4, 2009. At the Harvard Law School, on my recent educational tour, I sensed the atmosphere seething with optimism. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the 32nd and 35th U.S. Presidents respectively, a Harvard favourite son was making waves across continents, and all eyes were on him with great expectations. What was conspicuously missing at the function that Thursday was the presence of Barack Obama himself. The new U.S. President had cut his legal teeth at the School, having served as the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review.

But on that day, he was out in Egypt at the Cairo University delivering a speech dubbed "A New Beginning", regarding the future of the Middle East. For some African students, relatives, and friends who had gathered for the graduation ceremony, the suspense was in the historic visit to Ghana, July 10th, and an Obama speech expected to radiate a brave, new light on U.S. foreign relations with the continent.


In Ghana, an Akan adage goes like this: "Kokofu 'ball' bo, se wonnua nni mu a, yenbo mma wo." To wit: In soccer games in the Kokofu village, without a brother on the field, the ball is hardly ever passed to you."  And, I may add, "passed in a way in which you score a winning goal."


I read Obama's "Dreams from My Father", with the complete text of the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address. Like him, at the time, I felt that his presence on that stage was "pretty unlikely". But it dawned on me that the new century had hatched a pretty, new man for the turf. History meanders, playing cute little tricks in its courses. Two special dates have astounded historians lately: One - May 10, 1994 - with Nelson Mandela sworn in as President of South Africa, and the apartheid regime buried; and Two - January 20, 2009 - the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. What a span of fifteen years can do!


It was a great pleasure mining, selecting, and editing these "Pearls of Wisdom" from the book by the man Oprah Winfrey christened "The One". It is with a greater honour that I share these gems. Africans, especially, the African youth everywhere, stand to gain immensely from them to uplift this great continent of ours. In "Dreams from My Father", Obama echoes the following themes: Self-Discovery and Reflection, Imagination, Fear, Passion for Community Work, Mother and Father, Children, and Religion.


To improve one's life is to improve one's thought. With that in mind, let's peruse these pearls as we prepare the "Akwaaba" for this maverick who believed that "Yes, we can." And, "Yes, we did!"

On Self-Discovery and Reflection

  1. Education doesn't do us much good unless it is mixed with sweat.
  2. Wisdom is content with common sense.
  3. The resurrection of the self is self-alloyed to something larger.
  4. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.
  5. Sometimes you can't worry about hurt. Sometimes you worry only about where you have to go.
  6. The constant, honest portion of myself sturdied a bridge for my future.
  7. Maturity with time left, energy with means, and recognition of accomplishments free the spirit.
  8. Some plans grow bolder the further they receded from possibility.
  9. True love knows your life in the round, and will survive disappointment.
  10. A healthy dose of guilt never hurt anybody.
  11. Like hairs swept across a bald man's head, hastily planted saplings refuse to grow.
  12. If you want to grow into a human being, you're going to need some values.
  13. With the basics take care of, each of us could search for our own sense of self-worth.

On Imagination

  1. I close my eyes and imagine I'm there.
  2. Imagine an alternate history for yourself.
  3. The hint of what's possible spurs us on.
  4. Begin to see a new map of the world.
  5. Like poetry, a luminous world always presented itself beneath the surface, a gift.

On Motivation

  1. It's time you decided on something that interested you.
  2. Choose a motif around which to organize your life.
  3. Smile like a man at the height of his powers.
  4. Keep your eyes open; stay awake.
  5. Where are you getting yours from, Faith, that is?

On Fear

  1. Fear and lack of imagination choke dreams.
  2. We freeze, unable to escape the suspicion that under examination our true selves would be found wanting. The price we pay for that silence.
  3. Ghostly figures haunt dreams.
  4. Shadowy, silent presences elicit neither passion nor fear.
  5. We each remain locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.

Passion for Community Work

  1. There is always a community there if you dug deep enough.
  2. Small, honest steps break into a reservoir of hope, allowing people to reclaim a power they had had all along.
  3. The important thing is that you know your people, and also that you know where you belong.
  4. Steer away from the peripheral stuff and go towards people's centers.
  5. Lead by example than talk like a book.
  6. The absence of coherence, the loss of order, made for desperation.
  7. Power lay in certainty - and one man's certainty always threatened another's.
  8. Loose talk damage efforts at coalition building.
  9. Without a concrete programme, nationalism dissipated into a collection of grievances and degenerated into an attitude.
  10. Instincts run in the direction of a mob.
  11. I have no doubt that poverty did nothing for our self-esteem.
  12. Voting Rights triumph parochialism and narrow-mindedness.
  13. The embrace of fundamentalism and tribe dooms us all.
  14. Men take advantage of weakness in other men. They're just like countries in that way.
  15. Grow up in Compton, and survival becomes a revolutionary act.
  16. Inside jokes marked our resilience as a people.
  17. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness.
  18. How could we judge other men until we had stood in their shoes?
  19. When two locusts fight, it is always the crow that feasts.
  20. For some, the past remained an open sore.

On Mother and Father

  1. My mother's confidence was that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny.
  2. I'd remember my mother's smiles, and I'd quietly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.
  3. It was into my father's image, the black man, son of Africa, that I'd packed all the attributes I sought in myself.
  4. Respect came from what you did and not who your daddy was.

On Children

  1. That just ain't the way things are supposed to be ... kids not smiling.
  2. What is it that we've done to make so many children's hearts so hard?

On Religion

  • Well, Christ ain't about comfort, is he?
  • It's these rules again that keep us apart - rules of men, not rules of God.

Source: If Yes Filename


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