Human rights-themed book launch a success

Over 100 people gathered at the Tiapapata Art Gallery earlier this month to observe Human Rights Day and the launch of a book written for children and young adults titled “Seu and the Ruffled Bird Catcher.” 

The Master of Ceremonies was a deaf person, Leone Nagayama Peteru. While it is becoming commonplace for an interpreter to sign for the deaf, it is unusual for a deaf person to act as M/C. This presented organisers with an opportunity to highlight the challenges of including persons with disabilities in different roles, exacerbated in the beginning with no one present to interpret the sign language used.  

In her opening remarks Dr Simona Marinescu, Resident Coordinator for the United Nations in Samoa, mentioned that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She read the first two articles from the global charter for human rights: 

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood;

Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty. 

She referred to two important international instruments that ensure the Declaration becomes binding to the countries that adopt it. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Samoa in 2008, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that has not been ratified by Samoa.  “I wish to commend the country for coming forward with good progress under the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights,” she stated. “The story of Seu and Pati gives voice to over 3 million people around the world living with blindness and over 400,000 living with albinism. It is an emotional journey that I hope you will enjoy and I wish to thank the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the Pacific for supporting the publication of this book.” Dr Marinescu closed her remarks by singing a verse from a well-known song by Bob Marley: “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights! Get up stand up! Don’t give up the fight!”

National Human Rights Officer Ms Loukinikini Vili gave a brief introduction to the National Human Rights Institution, an independent body established to stand up for those in need of protection and to hold government to account for their human rights obligations. “Based on the NHRI’s research for its first state of human rights report (2015), vulnerable populations requiring increased safeguards for equality, respect and protection were identified as women, children, persons with disabilities, and prisoners,” she stated.  For persons with disabilities, the report identified two interrelated issues: first, the general lack of awareness around the concept of equal participation and its implications such as the right to marry; and second, the lack of access and participation of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others with regards to education and employment. She also referred to the high rate of violence against women, girls and children as a key human rights concern. “This year, the National Human Rights Institution launched its first National Public Inquiry into Family Violence. It looked at the causes, impacts, the most vulnerable, and possible solutions to this issue,” she said. “Women, girls and children were identified as the most vulnerable to violence. The impacts identified were situations that you do not want to experience and also you would not want your child, sister, aunty, mother to ever experience: physical, psychological, emotional harm and even death.” 

In her address, Mata‘afā Fa‘atino Utumapu spoke on behalf of the Samoa Blind Persons Association and persons with disabilities. She congratulated Galumalemana Steven Percival on the launch of his book. “Twenty years ago, persons with disabilities, especially those who are blind or have visual impairment, were viewed as burdens and as victims. Because of this, their opportunities to access schools were very limited. This began to change with the establishment of Nuanua o le Alofa in 2001, with its focus on rights and equal opportunities to enable persons with disabilities to access education and employment, to have their skills and knowledge recognised at all levels of development,” she stated. 

Mr Daniel Kish, President of World Access for the Blind based in Los Angeles, travelled to Samoa for the launch of the book and delivered the keynote address for the event. Opening his remarks, he quoted a passage from the last page of the book: ‘The national organization for the blind researched the technique known as echolocation.  They began planning to bring an echolocation trainer to Samoa to teach blind persons… Not long after this, a blind echolocation trainer came to Samoa to set up an echolocation training programme for the blind.’

“Talofa! I’m here – it only took us twelve years,” he said, making reference to the fact that the first communiqué with him from the author and about the book was is in 2006. 

 “Seu and the Ruffled Bird Catcher is a story of a blind girl named Seu and her cousin Pati, a young boy with albinism, and their struggle to be treated and respected like other children,” Daniel stated. “It is a make believe story but it vividly portrays the very real struggle of humankind for freedom from restriction and exclusion which is imposed on real people in real places. Blind people and others who are deemed different or uncommon throughout the world are often told ‘no’ when they could be told ‘yes.’ ‘No you can’t. You can’t do that. You can’t be here.’ But what about: ‘Yes. Maybe you can. Let’s find a way. Come with us. Be with us.’ Can we see past what we think people are into who they really are? Why is that so hard? What are we so afraid of? We’re afraid of the dark, of the unknown. This fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, is mankind’s deepest fear, lying at the root of all fears. But why choose fear of the unknown when we could just choose freedom? Freedom to know, freedom to understand, or the freedom to be okay with not knowing. Maybe freedom is harder to choose than fear but isn’t it so much more exciting and so much more rewarding? Many people like Seu and Pati do realise and do release themselves from fear and choose freedom to find their own way even though others say ‘you can’t.’ 

“I am the first blind person to teach blind people how to get around using echolocation even though many said ‘no, you can’t.’ They chose to be afraid of a blind person teaching blind people how to be blind. Now I teach other blind people to teach blind people and we teach the teachers who said it couldn’t be done.” Mr Kish went on to give a demonstration of how human echolocation works, a skill that can be taught and learnt. 

“The journey of Seu and Pati represents the human journey from darkness to light, from limits to freedom, from ignorance to knowing, inspiring us to ask ‘who is blind?’ Is it those who cling to fear and to the smallness of the impossible or those who conquer fear and challenge the impossible? Does the worst blindness come from not seeing or does it come from not knowing? None remain blind in the light of heart and mind. Its what we choose to see that gives us sight or makes us blind. No matter how uncommon some of us may seem, we all share a common thread. We do not need eyes to see it because it defines the same heart that beats a life within us all. We don’t need to see our own heart to know its there. This common thread that runs through us all is simply the longing to belong, to be valued, to be counted, to give, to receive, to live freely with one another. That’s all. That’s everything. 

“Seu and the Ruffled Bird Catcher ends happily with everyone included, respected and valued; drawn together by this common thread which a little blind girl help everyone to see – drawn into a richer and more vibrant tapestry of common unity. This happy ending is also made up. But if we want to, we can make happy endings real and real happiness becomes new beginnings for ourselves and for people all around us just by welcoming, appreciating and embracing this common thread of heart and soul. We all share it anyway; we might as well share it openly. And what do you get when we bring together “common” and “unity”? Community. Unity of the common thread, the common heart, the common spirit.”

Two songs made the event especially touching to all present. Tuileisuloufiatagata Pouesi, a young woman with albinism from American Samoa, sang a beautiful song she composed titled “Season’s Cry.” Malama Fiu Pasese, a young blind woman from Falelauniu, sang “Lafulafu a Tama Seugogo,” a haunting song she composed after hearing the story about Seu read to her by her mother. 

The United Nations Resident Coordinator supported the celebration of Human Rights Day and “Seu and the Ruffled Bird Catcher” was published with support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Regional Office in the Pacific. The author is now looking into printing the book in Braille. He is also considering producing an audio recording and animated film based on the story. 

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