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    The gift of an egg

    “You must have a vision, to believe in something. You must also have perseverance. There were times when my better sense wondered whether I should be continuing on this or settle down and do something normal people do… Sometimes you lose heart completely. It’s not so much the faith and the rewards, the belief that this path would lead to success. But it was faith that what I was doing was important.” Maurice Strong, in Where on Earth Are We Going? (2000).

    For Maurice Strong, the memory of the gift of a tiny egg from a starving woman means that pessimism is an act of betrayal.

    It was 1984 and sub-Sahara Africa was in the midst of one of the continent’s most devastating droughts. Two hundred million people in 30 countries were affected, and the survival of 30 million people was at imminent risk.

    Strong, then under-secretary general of the United Nations, was travelling with a convoy of trucks heading for a temporary refugee camp in the Western Sudan. Before they reached the camp, they came across some “two or three hundred people sitting in little clusters in the dust by the side of the road,” Strong writes in his book. “There was nothing else there: no village, no huts, no trees, no shelter, no water, just the people.” Over the protests of his officials, Strong orders a bag of meal be dropped off at each cluster of people.

    As the convoy pulls away, he notices that a woman with two small children have been missed. He orders a truck to return and provide them with a bag of meal. The woman tells Strong that she and her children had nothing to eat for several days, more days than she can remember. She presses in Strong’s hands a gift: a tiny egg wrapped in a scrap of paper.

    Unwilling to either keep a gift of food from a starving woman or affront her by refusing it, Strong orders one of his officials to return it later, as a “special treat” for the children.

    Strong sums up what the gift of the egg has meant to him:

    “Whenever anyone asks me the ‘why’ of my long life of public service, I continue my optimism in the face of what seems like gathering anarchy and imminent ecological catastrophe, whenever anyone questions the utility of foreign aid or the politics of relief, whenever anyone, someone who should know better, demands in a fit of postmodern Western anomie why they should bother to ‘fix the unfixable,’ the woman in the Western Sudan desert comes to mind.

    “That woman had managed to miraculously preserve the human gift of generosity in the face of unspeakable privation. That precious egg — wrapped so carefully in its torn scrap of paper — has become for me a metaphor of the largeness of the human spirit. In the face of that memory, pessimism becomes an act of betrayal.”


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