Two or three articles ago, I extolled some black people that have made significant contributions to modern day civilisation through their innovations or outstanding abilities. Among them was an African American lady called Katherine Johnson who turned out to be a “human computer”, making the calculations that helped NASA propel man to the moon and back to earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I regret having to inform my readers today that Ms Johnson passed on during the past week, on 24th February, 2020. She was aged 101.
Katherine joined the forerunner to NASA, which at that time was called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronatics (NACA) in 1953. She was among the three black women that were placed in what was known as the West Area Computing Unit. They were employed to manually perform very complex calculations for the engineers and were therefore fondly referred to as human computers. Due to the segregation that prevailed at NACA in those days, the West Area human computers had to use their own separate bathroom and dining facilities. It was not until 1958 that NACA, which by that time had become NASA, was desegregated.
The first American to go into orbit around the earth in 1962, John Glenn, was not comfortable with the calculations that had been performed on the available basic computers to put the spaceship into orbit. “Get the girl!” he charged in reference to Katherine Johnson, whom he wanted to go through the calculations again manually. “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”
The girl is no more now, having made a spectacular contribution to science. Fare thee well, Katherine! The world of science will long remember you.
Let us get back home now, and back to the issue I discusssed last week, namely the importance of acting morally. We can never hope to develop if we do not inculcate in ourselves the values of discipline and integrity. Discipline means denying yourself the chance to indulge in something not morally acceptable even though an opportunity presents itself for you to do so, and totally unnoticed. This requires developing internal checks within one’s conscience and always paying attention to them.
This applies to ordinary folk like you and me and not to hardcore criminals only. In our banks the pens that bankers use are tied to the wall or to a piece of furniture with a string to protect them from the ordinary, usually respectable people that walk into the banking hall to transact all manner of business. If this was not done, the bank’s pens would be growing wings and flying into the society on a daily basis.
Bed linen and utensils used in health facilities have to be inscribed with the hospitals label to try and deter people from taking them home. But even with such precautions institutional property often ends up in people’s homes. And those who do it do so with an untroubled conscience because they will have smeared their consciences and will consequently freely, yes sometimes proudly, engage in such immoral acts.
No society has ever developed whose citizens do not value integrity. It must start from the top and will cascade to those on the lowest rungs of society. It is honesty and integrity that will eventually lead to raised levels of affluence. It is not the other way round, as some people often think.
My son studied in Japan. He bought himself a bicycle in Japan which he would use to cycle to college and back. Sometimes he would come to Malawi on holiday and would leave the bicycle outside his little apartment in Japan. He was sure that he would find it on his return to Japan, and he did – every time! I have shared this story with some colleagues and often the response has been, “Ah, they are too rich in Japan to steal a bicycle.” I do not think so. The truth is that because they have not formed a habit of engaging in petty theft or other immoral behaviour, and have added hard work and a selfless spirit to that, they have consequently become rich. Their affluence is self made. Our affluence, if we honestly aspire to it, will be self made and will only blossom on the fertile ground prepared by the integrity and honesty of the citizens.
We must search within our innermost feelings and motives, yes we must engage in some deep soul- searching, to establish if we have what it takes for us to be counted among the truly developing nations. Without deep rooted integrity our efforts will take us nowhere.