In last week’s article, I wrote about symbols of national identity, because it was my home country Norway’s national day on 17 May and because we still have a King and Queen in Norway, yes, who both just had their 80th birthday party. It is an outdated institution, yet, it does have some important symbolic functions even in our time in a highly developed democracy like that of Norway. Besides, the institution is only continuing as long as the people want to have it, and as long as the royals want to continue in their jobs. As long as the politicians, the voters, too, want to keep the institution and consider it relevant, it will exist. In some ways, I believe it may be more difficult for a president to play the unifying role as head of state that a royal family can do, if they do their work well. In any case, nations do need unifying personalities to build a country’s identity.

Few countries have had the unique privilege of having had a head of state like Nelson Mandela was in South Africa. He became a superb president after the end of apartheid, after he had served 27 years of imprisonment by the rulers of yesteryears. As president, he chose not to seek revenge but unity and reconciliation, beginning the healing process and becoming a symbol to people at home and all over the world.

Today is Africa Day, formerly known as African Freedom Day and African Liberation Day. It is celebrated to commemorate the establishment of the Organization of African Union (OAU) on 25 May 1963; now known as the African Union (AU). It is celebrated in Pakistan’s capital with a large reception hosted by the dean of the African diplomatic corps and all the African envoys.

It gives me pleasure to extend my congratulations and draw attention to one of Africa’s greatest men, Nelson Mandela – but there are a number of other great African leaders, writers and thinkers, men and women. After Nelson Mandela had retired, he said in an interview that he never in his life ever thought he would become head of his beloved land. It was indeed beyond reality to think it possible, until time changed. His stubborn persistence, and that of thousands upon thousands of others, bore fruits, and the evil system of apartheid ended – as that of direct colonialism had ended earlier in most parts of the world. The difficult task of nation building could begin in the young states.

Nelson Mandela became a symbol almost beyond that of a human being, yes, certainly beyond a mere politician. He became a royal, well, they, too are just human beings. His wife Graca Machel, said in an interview that we should also know Nelson Mandela wasn’t faultless either, something those who lived around him daily knew well, she said. That didn’t make him lesser, maybe just greater.

While working in Kenya in the 1990s, I met a Pakistani woman who had gone to South Africa and had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela. She told me that she thought Nelson Mandela appeared to be quite an ordinary man and indeed at the same time, an extraordinary man. We could all admire him, yet, somehow also identify with. His symbolic role based on moral strength made us humble and gave us strength to play our roles in our everyday lives.

Leaders on the Sub-continent, indeed Mahatma Gandhi and Quaid-e-Azam Ali Jinnah, had similar qualities and their legacy, too, lives beyond their lifetime and concrete achievements. In Pakistan, Allama Iqbal, the poet and political philosopher defined much of the country’s foundation. He is often referred to as the ‘spiritual father of Pakistan’, with extraordinary literature in Urdu and Persian.

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a contemporary Pakistani politician, well, he is retired now and getting on in age, notably Wazir Ahmed Jogezei from Balochistan, a former speaker of parliament and federal minister of education and other portfolios. He spoke about the importance of language as a unifying factor in nation building, with cultural aspects attached to the one or two main languages in a country. He spoke about the importance of character-building and values; they are foundations for the way we behave, the choices we make and the ways we live our lives, and they decisions we make in unknown situations.

Above, I mentioned Allama Iqbal. He will always remain important for Pakistan and the region, as are William Shakespeare for UK, Johann Wlfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and others for Germany, Leo Tolstoy for Russia, Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun for Norway, and so on. Yes, there are women, too, not as well known, though; in future, the list will perhaps include more women than men among the great writers, those who define and describe our time, for us today and for those who will read about the immediate and distant past.

At the event where Wazir Ahmed spoke, there was a doctor from Lahore in the audience, Ashraf Ali Khan, who drew attention to Mohsin Hamid, one of Pakistan’s greatest contemporary writers, whom he had met just a few days earlier at a literary event in the country’s cultural capital. Mohsin Hamid discusses the complicated issues pertaining to Pakistan and the world today, trying to sort them out for himself and the rest of us, such as terrorism, loyalty, relationships, business principles, how to be decent and make a living, how to a a good Pakistani, or rather, how to be a good human being either we live in Lahore, London, New York or any other place – and today, how immigration and travelling, physically or mentally, make us a bit of many things, and thus maybe even better than if we were just one grounded person in one village and one land. Besides, we aren’t so different anyway, wherever we come from and what we call home.

Somebody said recently, but I have forgotten who it was, that ‘home is where your heart is’. Added should be that we may have several places that we call home. I don’t think Mohsin Hamid is a different person in any of the at least three cities he considers home – yet, when he is in Pakistan, he is certainly at home here. And if I am in Norway, Pakistan, or East Africa, where I also lived for more than a decade, I feel at home in all those places, and I can engage in people’s lives and issues in each place. True, I can tell lessons from the other places, so we can learn from each other, yes, rich people can learn from poor and less educated people too.

In conclusion today, having pondered a bit more on issues related to ‘nation building’, with lessons from several continents and persons, let me suggest that what is most important is always the moral values we carry with us, and pick up on the way; below it all, the charter that our parents, teachers, peers and others helped shaping in us. A good person is a good person in any land on any continent, in any village, work place and family. A good person may belong to one or the other religion, sometimes still searching for the gift of faith; but it would be his or her charter that made her great – and through individual, group and collective efforts institutions and countries would be built and become great. Pakistan, a young state and nation to be built, has all of what is needed, indeed the decency of kind and strong people. I am always impressed by how good poor people are to each other and to me. When they get more involved, they will help the leaders build a good nation for all. That is the goal and direction in nation building, that the land and life must be good for all.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.