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How big do you want your life to be?

Apr 25, 2010 Success, Sunday Nation

Paul Hewson was in Nairobi recently.

That won’t mean much to you, until I explain that I was referring to Bono, the world-famous lead singer of rock band U2, and campaigner against global poverty.

Bono didn’t really make much noise while in Kenya. He attended the Nation Media Group’s Pan-Africa Media Conference, went to a bar, talked to a couple of journalists, and left. He didn’t do the other things that visiting celebrities of his stature are wont to do when in Africa: adopt a cheetah or a baby hippo, start a school for orphans, shoot the breeze pointlessly with Emilio and Tinga, utter banalities about the girl-child. Bono reserves his energy for other things.

Although I have never met him, I have enjoyed a very productive connection with Bono from the age of sixteen or so. That was when I first heard his soaring voice belt out “New Year’s Day” accompanied by the guitar work of his band-member, the incomparable Edge. I was hooked, and have stayed hooked for the next 3 decades.

It was clear from the outset, however, that U2 were not just another pop band singing about the mundanities of love and angst. Many of their hit songs have had a bigger theme. “The Unforgettable Fire” referred to the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan; “Bullet the Blue Sky” was about guerilla war in El Salvador; “Pride” lamented the assassination of Martin Luther King; “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” is about spiritual yearning.

Most bands that sing about bigger things are usually dismissed as uncool do-gooders and confined to the peripheries of commercial success. Not so with U2: audiences have responded to the genuine passion that runs through every song; they connect, as humans always do, with authentic emotion. 22 Grammy awards (more than any other artist) and 150 million records sold tell the story.

But Bono is not famous just for being a singer. For the past couple of decades he has been one of the world’s most visible humanitarian activists, using his fame to enlist powerful allies from government, religious institutions, philanthropic organisations, popular media, and the business world. He has personally spearheaded the campaign for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries, and has been a vocal champion for Africa.

Not everyone agrees with these efforts. Author Paul Theroux savaged Bono, Bob Geldof and other celebrity humanitarians, saying that creating “the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help—not to mention celebrities and charity concerts—is a destructive and misleading conceit.”

I happen to agree with that view, and have propagated it on this page for years. I don’t think Africa’s salvation will come from outsiders, and it certainly won’t come from endless handouts and a crippling dependency culture. And don’t even get me started on pop concerts that purport to save Africa.

And yet, a part of me wants to silently applaud Bono while disagreeing with him. I think he’s wrong about what Africa needs, but I also know that he’s not some drug-addled rocker dealing with issues beyond his ken. Bono is a clear-thinking and acutely intelligent man who has written some of the most perceptive lyrics ever put to paper. He is entitled to his point of view, and entitled to pursue his crusade, however misguided some of us may regard it to be.

For there’s one thing you have to say about the man: he leads a big life. He reaches out, and he tries to make a difference. Bono has touched the lives of millions through his songs, and has certainly improved the immediate situation of many of Africa’s poorest through his relief efforts. How many of us are going to leave a legacy of music that will last for generations beyond us? How many of us are going to make hundreds of millions of dollars, and still be active in assisting others? How many of us are going to be nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times?

And here’s the thing I notice about many of Bono’s critics: they can conduct very effective intellectual demolitions of his stance on development and aid, but how many of them get out there to do something else about the problem? I can carp on about western do-gooders all I like in this column, but I also need to develop an alternative body of thought, an alternative plan, and I need to act.

What about you? How big is your life? Are you allowing your time on earth to be frittered away on trivia, or are you going to make a net positive impact on the planet? Are you doing something, anything, bigger than yourself? Are you raising a child to be a better person than you are? Are you running a business or conducting a profession that sets a standard in good practice? Or are you content to be a small person imprisoned in a small life?

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