Stuck on Dignity

Have you ever started writing about a specific topic just to discover that something completely different keeps popping up in your mind? Like a minor invasion. It doesn’t go away until you write about it. Or is it just me?

Today I wanted to share a simple lighthearted story that taught me a tiny lesson, but I can’t. The word dignity is completely stuck on my mind, in the way that I have to write about it. And to be completely honest “it” is not alone. Actually there are three somewhat related words on my mind: dignity, dignified and dignitary. And I’m thinking what is this all about, kind of need to analyze that.

I’ve been a bit annoyed by the sloppy use of the word dignitary in reporting, camera zooms and general speak during the Big Games. It hasn’t been used just to describe people who hold a high office in one country or another, but often to denote “somebody” as opposed to “nobody”. Like singers, actors and other luminaries. And I’ve been pondering whether or not all these so-called dignitaries have dignity and whether or not they all are truly dignified.

That’s an interesting question. And I guess the answer depends on what we mean by these words. I have a specific attachment to words and that’s why I like, or should I say love, writing. I used to research words, where they came from and what their meanings were in the few different languages I speak. It’s very interesting and I still do that sometimes. But I won’t need to do more research on dignity and dignified. I definitely know what they mean to me. In my book, to put it simply,  someone who has dignity usually is also dignified, has this calm presence and gravitas. Whoever and wherever they might be.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few dignitaries, as in holding high offices, and they’ve all been quite dignified. But I’ve met many more people with shining inner dignity. Often in places far from where the dignitaries live and the spheres they influence.

The first person that comes to my mind is a retired teacher in Uganda, in what we would call a very poor neighborhood, or a shanty town. She had a small house in this township at the outskirts of Kampala city, and she had started a school in her tiny garden. There was nothing really left of the garden, no space for subsistence farming. The little space was occupied by wooden benches for her students, all aids orphans from the township, aged 6-13. These kids were not enrolled in the public school because there was nobody to pay for the small school fees and the uniforms. They had nobody to care for them. They slept on the floor in their distant relative’s or neighbor’s house. And for many of them, the only meal they got in a day was the simple meal provided by this retired teacher while “at school”. Somehow she managed to find funds, from one day to another, to buy mielie-meal so she could make a porridge for the over 100 neighborhood kids attending her school.

Her students were learning the basic skills in math, reading and writing and the school day was sprinkled with some fun too, like singing and drawing. Singing was an everyday ingredient, but drawing could only be on the program whenever the teacher had managed to get enough paper and pencils. Her effort was a demonstration in dignity and her dignified presence is etched on my mind forever. And when the kids sang for me when I came to see them, it was the most the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I was deeply touched by the fact that this teacher sacrificed everything she had to help these kids to grow up with some dignity.

So in my mind, these words are reserved for those who have truly earned them and that’s probably why they have been stuck on me lately. I needed to say this.