By: Michael Ditchfield Issue: Transformation Section: Community
A Transformation for Continuing to Care for the Third World
I can never fill his shoes because the footprints have now vanished, and I am left with the somewhat unenviable task of trying to pick up where those steps of unconditional compassion left off. His legacy will be etched in our lives for years to come, and unfortunately he will never hear our applause or unspoken word of gratitude again because he has moved on. Noel Cunningham was my best friend, mentor and taskmaster at every stage of our brief yet meaningful time together.
He was one of the most flawless humans that ever walked in the face of adversity and was the most humble of men. When he left this Earth last December, he took with him the thanks and blessings of countless individuals who had been graced by his passion to do the right thing. I once asked him why he gravitated in his later years toward Africa and in particular Ethiopia. He answered without even hesitating: “Because they say thank you.” And therein lies what separated him from others. He asked for very little, and was happy with the little that he did receive.
What I learned from Cunningham was that regardless of what others thought, pursuing your beliefs and passions is what eventually leads to change in the world. I watched him harness the hope of people in Ethiopia with the intent of offering a hand up and not a handout. He was relentless in his quest, and those who took too much time to ponder his intentions were left behind. Not too far, though, just enough for them to eventually come around to realize what is good in this world. He never held a grudge and everyone was an equal, and those who did join the Cunningham crusade got to experience a journey that will never reach a destination.
He was stubborn and stayed with Ethiopia as his chosen vision, and he passed on Rwanda and Sudan, deciding that I should continue on my own course with the people there. He was inundated by requests to work with other causes, and as much as it pained him to say no, at times he had to. There were not enough hours in the day, but his singleness of purpose resonated within every minute of that day.
When people gathered around his kitchen for any length of time, not only did they discover that he was one of the finest chefs ever to hold a ladle, but there was a tendency to take away much more than just ingredients for a meal. A recipe for life was his daily special. Whether it was through watching him dice an onion without any tears, or watching him embrace an AIDS-infected child in Ethiopia with many real and painful tears—you began to understand that what life sets out for you on your table is all there is—diced onions alone on a chopping block will be just that unless you combine them with some other ingredients. The embrace of a child will be just that, unless you offer that child more than a fleeting moment of physical presence. Cunningham was there to serve food and others. He had a firm grasp in the kitchen and a gentle hand in the world.
We have a tendency to gravitate toward callings that have some tangibility in our lives. If we have lost someone to cancer, we have the tendency to work for that cause, and if we have come across someone with Alzheimer’s, we move closer to being a part of that agenda. We have very little connection with Africa, unless of course moral obligations count, and those alone should stand as the foundation of human dignity.
Whether it is an act of God through nature such as we have seen with the tsunamis, Katrina or Haiti, or whether it is man’s inhumanity to man as seen in the genocide in Rwanda or Sudan, at the end of the day we are left managing a moment of truth. How we manage that moment is where the future begins. Take politics out of the equation, and all we are left with is common sense.
No matter what tragedy we have in our lives here in America, we have the financial resources to take care of it. It is times like these that we feel we are on the bottom rung of the ladder. We just don’t realize that there are two ladders below us. We cannot be transformative unless we put aside our differences. We just don’t realize how much we actually have—and there began my shift from Ethiopia to different parts of the continent.
I was limited in my experience and naïve in my conviction. I was merely a bystander on different soil for much of my time in Africa, but I did learn that these people did not ask to be born poor. If we were not fortunate and blessed in the humanitarian lottery, we could have very easily fallen out of a womb on the other side of the world.
Rwanda was my first stop with Cunningham. Here, I worked with the children of the genocide and used sports, dance and music as a vehicle for peace between the children who now could comprehend what others did to their own families. These atrocities led to 900,000 deaths in 100 days. So instead of picking up machetes, we had them pick up soccer balls and musical instruments and helped them learn dance routines so that now they were competing with themselves and others in a civilized manner.
Sudan moved me closer to realizing what Cunningham was thinking in his never-ending vision of people getting along and helping to save lives. After agreeing to a request from one of the Lost Boys of Sudan to take him home to see his mother for the first time since he fled the Civil War, I was on a plane again. The trip with Daniel, who was confined to a wheelchair because of contracting TB from contaminated milk in Sudan, covered more than 25,000 miles in 13 flights. Accompanied by armed guards, we left Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where Daniel once lived, and headed into Sudan where remnants of the devil’s agenda are all around—and not just in Darfur, but in other areas that experienced the treacheries of religion, oil and greed.
Ghana was my latest destination; it was here that we were confronted by children eager to learn and hopeful to live. In Accra, the Born To Be Free Foundation was established by a successful businessman, Mohamed Issa—a man with a lot of heart—who wants to help those less fortunate in a country that has been good to him ever since he moved there from Lebanon at an early age. And, I saw some of Cunningham in him!
With the help of Wendy and Kuuku, Issa’s worthy assistants, we took 40 children off the streets, put them into a school, paid for their medical needs, fed them one hot meal a day and placed them in the Mandela Soccer Academy four days a week. Each child was now afforded the opportunity to excel in school and life and continue this success throughout the years to come. They were to abide by a strict code of conduct that instilled discipline from the very first day, and from here we believe that they will become productive members of society. It is not just a collection of boys in the same uniform that brings about victory, but the weaving together of their own individual fabric that will result in the collective calling of triumph over adversity.
When he was alive, Cunningham brought me to the crossroads in my life time and time again. Even in death, I remain a student of his teachings, and the apron of his profession remains the hope for many. The kitchen where he schooled me was the same kitchen where he scolded and embraced me with the same degree of conviction, and how ironic it is that it boiled over to the Third World, where every child deserves the right to live and be fed and respected as a human being.
I will never graduate because there is no graduation ceremony. I will never receive a diploma because there is no diploma. What I have gained is a degree of hope that a difference can be made in the lives of others. Walking a mile in his shoes has not been easy, but he did point me in the right direction—albeit to that ever-present different drummer that with every step quietly whispers to keep going and never look back. Thank you “my friend” for being the only true North I have ever known.
For more information about Michael Ditchfield, visit www.BornToBeFree.org, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.