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Opinion

‘Life Is Not Complex If You Stay Positive’

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Rakesh Wahi recounts a deeply personal journey that culminated in an opportune meeting with the Dalai Lama.


Life is an interesting journey made up of events, experiences and interactions that collectively teach you some important lessons. All of them consciously or unconsciously have an impact on your life; some more than others. There are some events that impact the inner core of your being.

One such is the loss of a parent. This is a nightmare for any child irrespective of age. I lost my father, Col SP Wahi, on February 13 2017. He had lived his life to the full and left his mark on everything he touched – a true legend.

Grieving is a process and we all deal with grief in our own way. Going through the Hindu rituals around my father’s cremation took its toll on me. I had been through many such rituals, watching other sons grieve their fathers, but living my own was heart-wrenching.

The flight to New Delhi from Johannesburg was 16 hours including a stop-over in Dubai that seemed like eternity.

Even at 58, I was numb, with memories flashing through my mind, but most of all, with the fear of not knowing what to expect. My thoughts were with my mother and two sisters as I know how close we all were to my father.

Saloni Wahi being blessed by the Dalai Lama. Picture: Supplied

The most important lesson from this was how a family comes together dealing with the loss of a father, the head of the family. We rallied around our mother through the personal emotions and yet put on a brave front as we dealt with the thousands of well-wishers who poured in to join us in mourning.

As we started going through the motions of accepting what had happened, an invisible, remote-controlled switch flipped inside me, rebooting me to become a vegetarian and teetotaler. These were my mother’s choices all her life; but it wasn’t just these choices but my thinking that was rebooted, to go back in her service.

Was this divine intervention for realigning your relationships, or was there something psychologically more profound with one day having to deal with another loss? I have no answer to this question yet.

What, however, followed from this rebooting was a desire to begin planning a schedule for my mother so she could continue her life as usual whilst coming to terms with the irreparable void.

My mother has been extremely religious all her life and is a devout Hindu who believes in embracing all rituals. Her faith and philanthropy brought her close to many religious leaders including Mother Teresa. The one place she had visited 19 times on pilgrimage was the Vaishno Devi temple in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

This has been her calling, to worship the Indian goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Mahakali, all enshrined in Vaishno Devi. Along with my wife and two sisters, I decided to take her on this pilgrimage, for what would be her 20th visit to Vaishno Devi. I had passed through Jammu many times during my military career but as one seldom swayed by rituals, I never deviated from the path.

This was perhaps my calling.

Vaishno Devi was, as expected, a blissful experience. There is a message when He chooses to test your faith and endurance, and He did test ours. The weather took a nasty turn and a helicopter charter from Katra (a small town in Jammu and Kashmir) was not to be, on our return.

The Wahi family with the Dalai Lama. Picture: Supplied

My mother, who turned 80 this year, managed the walk down from the temple to the helipad at Sanjichhat and then to Adhkuwari, from where we got her a palaki (palanquin). The four-hour turnaround took us 10 hours.

This was a highlight, but what followed was even more so – a confirmation that the Dalai Lama was in residence at his monastery in McLeodGanj in Dharamsala (a hill station in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh),and had agreed to give us an audience on September 28.

This date has always proven auspicious for me, as,coincidentally, a number of my life’s turning points have happened on or adjacent this date. For instance, on this day, 30 years ago, I had finally stepped out of my military fatigues.

This year, on the same date, we were ushered into His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s ante-room for a private meeting for the family with him. A stream of monks and visitors before us had been granted an audience, so we waited anxiously for our turn.


Meeting the Dalai Lama is no longer easy, owing to his numerous commitments and busy schedule.

As His Holiness entered, a few assistants milled around and a photographer frantically clicked away. As briefed, we each held a white satin shawl in our hands that he placed around our necks and then touched our heads in blessing.

When it came to my mother, he put the shawl around her neck and placed her hand on his head to seek her blessings, after which he touched her head.

This departure in protocol showed the mark of a great human who recognized another enriched soul.

In the one hour we got with him, he spoke about his beliefs. His first thoughts were on secularism and the reason he continued to live in India – because of tolerance, and the need for all humans to show tolerance to others. He said religion is a subset of spirituality and being good is more important than being religious – “Follow your faith but do not fail to do good as that helps mankind.”

He spoke briefly about his views on Buddhism in China, where 300 million Buddhists live. He expressed the hope that someday the intolerance would end and people would embrace this noble way of life.

What he was most disappointed about was how the western world had moved away from the basic norms of family and spirituality into a society entrenched in materialism; the loss of basic human values where ever it occurs is a misfortune, he said. He traveled extensively to remind people of their responsibilities, to restore faith and practise spirituality.

His final words to us were about optimism, and inner peace.He advocated seeing everything through a positive lens to be at peace with oneself. This was the only way to progress and to remain strong.

“Life is not complex if you stay positive, stay at peace and do good,” he said. Simple but profound words that make a difference in our lives; we all know these only too well but in our everyday pursuits overlook what is indeed important.

He blessed us by giving us copies of his book, and obliged us by posing for many photographs. Before we left, my wife, Saloni, spoke to him about Tonglen (something she has been reading and practising) and he was surprised someone knew about this teaching. He blessed her and immediately asked his staff to present two books to her that he personally signed.


What resonated most for me was his belief about actions being louder than words. Being good, doing good and helping others are a way of life that should be our religion and not just rituals.

This was the belief of my late father and perhaps this opportune meeting with His Holiness completed a circle in my life for which it was destined.

I have always said that you meet people for a reason and that they come into your life for a reason. There is immense pride in me to have met Madiba (the late Nelson Mandela), in 2006, and now His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I take inspiration from these selfless humans who have chosen a path that has afforded them an opportunity to touch the lives of millions.

– The writer is Co-Founder of the ABN Group that includes FORBES AFRICA and CNBC Africa.

Current Affairs

With proper investment in youth, Kenya’s potential for progress is unlimited

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By- Ruth Kagia and Siddharth Chatterjee

Africa’s demographic boom has been hailed as its biggest promise for transforming the continent’s economic and social outcomes, but only if the right investments are made to prepare its youthful population for tomorrow’s world.

Consider this. Every 24 hours, nearly 33,000 youth across Africa join the search for employment. About 60% will be joining the army of the unemployed. Africa’s youth population is growing rapidly and is expected to reach over 830 million by 2050. Whether this spells promise or peril depends on how the continent manages its “youth bulge”. 

President Kenyatta once said that “The crisis of mass youth unemployment is a threat to the stability and prosperity of Africa, and it can amount to a fundamental and existential threat”.

Investing in young people especially so that they are prepared for the world of work is the main mission of Generation Unlimited (GenU), a global multi-sector partnership established to meet the urgent need for expanded education, training and employment opportunities for young people aged 10 to 24.

On 05 August 2020, Kenya will launch the Generation Unlimited initiative. This initiative will bring together key actors from the public and private sector as well as development partners to help put into a higher gear this defining agenda of our time to ensure that we have prepared our children for a prosperous future by giving them the education, training and job opportunities that fully harnesses their potential. With a median age of 18, Kenya’s youthful population represents a real potential to reap a demographic dividend and accelerate its economic progress.

Kenya has one of the youngest populations in the world. With the right investment in their talents, skills, and entrepreneurial spirit, young people present an extraordinary opportunity for transformation, growth, and change.

Three quarters Kenya’s population is under the age of 35. Across Africa there are 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24, a demographic that is expected to double by 2045.

One of the greatest challenges facing governments and policymakers in Africa is how to provide opportunities for the continent’s youth, in order to provide them with decent lives and allow them to contribute to the economic development of their countries. As things stand, around 70% of Africa’s young people live below the poverty line.

In Kenya, the pillars for achieving GenU objectives are in place, with various initiatives for instance to strengthen education system through the recently-launched competency based curriculum and government promotion of programmes to enhance technical and digital skills.

The fruits of such initiatives can be seen through numerous youthful innovations from Kenya that continue to receive international attention.  For instance, inspired by his great urge to communicate with his 6-year-old niece who was born deaf, Roy Allela, a 25-year-old Kenyan invented Sign-10, a pair of smart gloves with flex sensors to aid his cousin’s communication with the other members of the family.

The flex sensors stitched to each finger aid in quantifying the letters formed from the curve of each finger of the glove’s wearer. The gloves are then connected through Bluetooth to a mobile phone application that vocalizes the hand movements.   This innovation won him the Trailblazer Award by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Gen U’s solution is to forge innovative collaborations with young people themselves. Since launching in 2018, the movement has brought onboard leaders from governments, foundations, and the private sector around the world. Its launch in Kenya underscores its government’s commitment to engage young people in pursuit of the Big 4 Development Agenda as well as Vision 2030.

President Uhuru Kenyatta is a global leader for the Generation Unlimited initiative. In Kenya, Gen U’s activities are coordinated by the Office of the President and the United Nations.

President Uhuru Kenyatta with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Kenyatta was on Monday unanimously endorsed by world leaders to champion a new UN intervention on youth education, training and employment.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres were unanimously endorsed by world leaders to champion a new UN intervention on youth education, training, and employment at the UN General Assembly in 2018. [Photo/PSCU]

Shifts in today’s global economy demand that young people acquire skills aligned with dynamic labour needs, but local education systems have been slow to adapt. In many countries in Africa, school enrolment is up, but learning outcomes for young people remain poor. Most leave school without the skills the contemporary job market needs, and are ill-prepared for a world in which low-skilled jobs are increasingly automated.

A million young people join the workforce every year in Kenya, applying for jobs in a formal sector that can only absorb one in five of them. Some, however, find work at least intermittently in Kenya’s vibrant informal sector, which accounts for more than 80% of the country’s economy according to the World Bank.

Rather than focusing on opportunities in the formal sector, partners in the Gen U movement will look at strategies for supporting the informal sector with better infrastructure and an improved business environment. In doing so, it is hoped that it will be transformed into a recognised and legitimate sector.

Such initiatives have the full support of the recently launched Kenya Youth Development Policy, which seeks to underscore issues affecting young people. Technology will play a central role, and sector-based strategies will be central to the government’s approach.

The Kenya Youth Agribusiness Strategy, for example, will enable Kenya’s youth to access information technology for various value-addition ventures in Africa’s agribusiness sector set to be worth $1 trillion by 2030.

The Coronavirus pandemic has seen countries face changes in entire social and economic systems. Key industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, public services, retail, transportation, food supply, tourism, media and entertainment have been hard hit by the pandemic. The pandemic is an inflection point that is giving the old system a nudge. The post-COVID-19 world will be founded on a tech-savvy workforce that will inevitably comprise young people.

Calling on urgent action for young people, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on governments to “do far more to tap their talents as we tackle the pandemic and chart a recovery that leads to a more peaceful, sustainable and equitable future for all”.

In the run-up to the end of the SDGs era, we must ramp up the current level of investment in young people’s economic and social potential. As the vision of Generation Unlimited states, if the largest generation of young people in history is prepared for the transition to work, the potential for global progress is unlimited.

As President Kenyatta has noted, “the current generation of young people has the potential of expanding Africa’s productive workforce, promoting entrepreneurship and becoming genuine instruments of change to reverse the devastation caused by climate change.” 

Ruth Kagia is the Deputy Chief of Staff to President Kenyatta. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator to Kenya. Mrs Kagia and Mr Chatterjee co-chair the Generation Unlimited Steering Committee in Kenya.

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Health

Attacking WHO is Unhelpful-Let’s Focus on Defeating The Virus

At the conclusion of the 73rd World Health Assembly on 19 May 2020, the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love. It’s robbed us of lives and livelihoods; it’s shaken the foundations of our world; it threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation. But it’s also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”

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Flags fly at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo Eric Bridiers/ U.S. Mission Geneva/ CC BY-ND

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been under attack- efforts being made to defund it, ridicule it, undermine it. The world is fighting a major pandemic which rivals the flu of 1918, which killed over 50 million people.

The Coronavirus pandemic may well be a precursor of what is to come in the future. This for sure is not the last pandemic the world will grapple with, so let’s brace for impact, as the velocity and virulence of the next contagion may be far more fierce and destructive than COVID-19.

A recent remark that “WHO has been bought by China” is painful to hear. Coming from a senior leader of a country which is the beating heart of the UN’s multilateral system, and has been at the vanguard of improving lives and livelihoods of populations all over the world, is puzzling.

Words matter, and by promoting a number of incorrect and insinuating statements, such language may damage the overall pandemic response and undermine an organization that is doing its best – under the extraordinary circumstances – to save lives across the globe. 

I live in Kenya, and on a day to day basis I see the WHO working with countries across the continent to strengthen health systems and tackle health crises. These African countries, like many others especially in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, rely on WHO for guidance, expertise and often for human resources, particularly around disease responses like Ebola, Marburg, Zika or the plague. 

I myself have been a beneficiary of the organization’s work, having been immunized as a child through one of the WHO immunization programs, and surviving polio thanks to these efforts. Small pox would not have been eradicated without WHO. Billions more have benefited from WHO’s work, and humanity as a whole stands to gain from a well-funded, highly operational institution not only during this pandemic, but for years to come to prevent the next pandemic and build robust health systems.

Currently, there have been more than 15 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 600,000 deaths around the world. But this tiny microbe has impacted far more than just the global health system. It has pressure tested our political, economic, social and cultural institutions, attacking not only our bodies but the very threads of humanity that hold us together. What’s clear already is that the virus mercilessly exploits any chinks in national unity or global solidarity, making it an enemy far more formidable the modern world has seen in recent history. 

At a pivotal time for tackling the pandemic, the global response needs solidarity, not politicization. The attacks against WHO threatens to derail global efforts to bring this pandemic under control.

Over the course of the next few months, governments will determine not only how they tackle COVID-19, but they will set a precedent that will guide the world for tackling future global threats. No country can overcome this pandemic on its own, no matter how advanced its economic systems are or how mighty its military is.

This pandemic is threatening lives, livelihoods, social and economic systems that have taken decades to build. It is an enemy that is threatening to reverse the gains the world has made in healthcare, education, poverty reduction, eradicating hunger and strengthening political unity.

For the sake of humanity, we must stand united against it, and this means supporting institutions that are playing a key role in the pandemic response.

From the climate crisis to inequality, antimicrobial resistance to the threat of a meteor hit, global challenges need global solutions, and these solutions cannot be developed if we focus on demonizing institutions rather than addressing the real issues at hand.

In terms of COVID-19, we have seen examples from around the world that clearly show that no matter how bad the outbreak, leaders can get a grip on the virus. By working with a whole of government and whole of society approach, the virus can be brought under control. Countries that have done this successfully, including New Zealand and Vietnam, which stand out as exemplars of how to tackle the pandemic, have shown us that a singular focus on preventing transmission and keeping their populations safe – not engaging in politics, blame games and blatant denial of science – is what is needed to ultimately flatten the curve.

WHO continues to provide valuable leadership in navigating the pandemic, helping the world deal with this crisis by distributing much-needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and diagnostics, providing technical guidance for health workers, leading efforts to find a vaccine and disseminating information that is playing a critical role in keeping people safe. Reducing support for WHO at this time is therefore tantamount to saying that we are all on our own. But we are not.

At the conclusion of the 73rd World Health Assembly on 19 May 2020, the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love. It’s robbed us of lives and livelihoods; it’s shaken the foundations of our world; it threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation. But it’s also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”

Let’s take a moment to look at the value WHO brings to the world. It may not be a perfect institution, but it is providing global leadership at a time when it is needed most.

What WHO has achieved in 72 years is remarkable, and undeniable. To accelerate the science, find solutions to the COVID-19 challenges and build global solidarity; now more than ever, the world needs WHO.

Siddharth Chatterjee, is the United Nations resident coordinator to Kenya. He has served with the UN and the Red Cross Movement in various parts of the world affected by conflicts and humanitarian crisis. He is also a decorated Special Forces veteran and a Princeton University alumnus. Follow him on Twitter @sidchat1

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.​​​​​

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Opinion

Op-Ed: Women Empowerment During The Covid-19 Pandemic

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Looking at Covid-19 through a gender lens

Our world has undoubtedly been changed forever by the Covid-19 pandemic, as all efforts are focused on slowing down the increase and mitigating the impact of this silent enemy that has spread across the world like wildfire. Not only have there been many lives lost, but there have also been many businesses and millions of jobs impacted, which in turn directly affects millions of families. It doesn’t help that most countries around the world were already in distress with high levels of unemployment and devastating droughts as a result of climate change, which were already making it very difficult for families to put food on the table.  As the world tries to deal with this pandemic, I can’t help but think about what will happen to the efforts that have been made to help empower adolescent girls over the past few years.

Empowering girls, empowering communities

What makes this demographic more important than all the others? This is not just about the fight for women’s equal rights or the fight for equal pay, although those are valid and ongoing necessary discussions. This is about giving the adolescent girl a decent and fair start in her life, so she can have a better shot at being successful. So, with the current global crisis we find ourselves in, will the cause to empower young women remain on the world’s agenda or will this slide down to the bottom of the priority list? 

Standard Chartered Bank has been running a young girls’ empowerment programme called Goal, which is our flagship programme under Futuremakers.  Futuremakers by Standard Chartered is our global initiative to tackle inequality and promote greater economic inclusion for young people in our communities, especially those who are disadvantaged. The Goal programme specifically aims to equip young girls with the confidence, knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their economic potential. The programme was launched in New Delhi in 2006 with just 70 girls. I count myself fortunate to have been part of the team that was involved in the launch of the pilot programme, along with my colleagues and a very perceptive NGO partner who believed that together we could make an impact on these young girls and their community.

Developing confidence and vital life skills

Sometimes when the challenge seems insurmountable, what you need are individuals and partners who simply believe that you can still make a difference, regardless of the arduous journey ahead of you. In a country of over a billion people, what impact can you really make by reaching just 70 girls? Fourteen years later, Goal is now active in 24 countries, including South Africa (since 2015), and has impacted nearly 600,000 adolescent girls globally between 2006 and 2019 – and that number is growing.  This means that over half a million families are also impacted, as these girls carry the message back home. When you empower a girl, you empower a community.  

Goal is based on face-to-face interaction with these young women, which presents a challenge during a pandemic. The programme is run by Goal Champions who have graduated from the programme themselves and this is one of the elements that makes Goal sustainable, as it focuses on the ‘train the trainer’ approach. After completing the one-year programme, the girls come out with confidence and skills that they would otherwise have not acquired – our post programme scores have proved that every single time. In 2019, we commissioned a global development think tank called Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to assess Goal’s impact. Over 18,000 girls were surveyed and there were over 300 interviews and focus groups with the young girls, parents, teachers, community leaders and the  boys in those communities. The research found strong evidence of Goal’s positive and lasting impact on the girls, as the results showed a 14 percent increase in self-confidence, a 28 percent increase in knowledge about health and an 18 percent increase in knowledge about savings and finance.

The gender gap and GDP

Then Covid-19 happened to all of us, accompanied by varying levels of lockdowns, and along with that a halt to the valuable regular face-to-face sessions that a lot of these young Goal girls look forward to – an opportunity to be in a safe environment, playing sport with their peers, and learning about their rights, the importance of understanding reproductive health, saving money, and many other life skills.

Data is always important when presenting such arguments. According to one of the Goldman Sachs Global Economic papers, GDP growth rates rise if education pushes more women into the labour force. This makes gender equality not just an imperative but a valid economic argument.  It seems the ‘poorer’ a country, the higher the literacy differential between females and males. 

Apart from the inhumane forced child marriages that are still happening in this modern day and age in some countries, research also tells us that most girls without a secondary education are likely to have their first baby at a younger age, and in turn, there is a higher chance that this child will die before they are five years old. Chances are also higher that these young girls will have many more children than they can afford to raise in a way that they would like to. It becomes an ongoing vicious cycle and we need to do everything in our power to break that cycle – one girl at a time.

Looking toward the future

We need to remember that these adolescent girls are still very much a vulnerable group and we should not divert our attention away from them as we try and manage the ongoing pandemic. The two need not be exclusive.  In fact, we have seen how gender-based violence has escalated during the lockdowns in many countries, including here in South Africa, and I shudder to think how much of this has been directed towards young girls by the very people who are meant to take care of and protect them.

In the last few years, there has been an ongoing debate in some quarters that we mustn’t leave the boys behind as we empower the young girls and this a valid discussion to have. As a mother to a teenage son, I totally agree – my intention is to raise a well-rounded young man who will be a responsible member of society and who respects women.

In fact, in some of our markets where Goal has advanced, we do have boys on the programme, but the reality is we need to double our efforts in uplifting adolescent girls to get them just to be on an ‘equal footing’ with the boys. Research has also proved that in countries where education levels are low, the economic performance of that country is equally impacted.  What is the saying – when you empower and educate a girl, you empower a community.  What’s not to love about that?

– Geraldine Matchaba, Head of Corporate Affairs and Brand & Marketing at Standard Chartered.

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