Because he has traveled the world, seen firsthand and written stories about genocide in Bosnia, human trafficking in Cambodia, poverty in China, and starvation in Yemen, people often think these experiences would make him feel depressed, said New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof at the January Series 2019.
But even after witnessing some of the worst that humanity has to offer, Kristof says he remains optimistic because he has also covered stories that give him hope.
“There are huge problems in our world, yet I believe all of us can help make things better,” said Kristof. “Helping can be harder than it looks. You can take a risk, and it may not always pan out. But it can succeed in ways you never imagine.”
A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Kristof has covered stories on four continents. Along the way, he’s “confronted warlords, encountered an Indonesian mob carrying heads on pikes, and survived an African airplane crash,” according to January Series promotional material for his presentation that took place on Monday, Jan. 14, in the Covenant Fine Arts Center at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Kristof won one of his Pulitzers along with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, then also a New York Times correspondent, for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989. On that day, Chinese troops and tanks swept into the square in Beijing, China, killing and arresting thousands of pro-democracy supporters.
“We saw this very striking abuse of human rights. We were there when they opened fire on students and workers,” he said.
That event disturbed him deeply. But it also was in China that he met and wrote about Dai Manju, a girl who had been barred from school because her parents were unable to pay the $13 fee so she could attend classes.
Hoping to help Dai and others, teachers in the rural elementary school went door to door in the village of Yejuao to raise money for tuition for students.
Published in December 1990, the story ended up encouraging people in the U.S. to also donate funds to make sure that students such as Dai could get an education.
“After that story, we were deluged with letters from readers who sent checks for $13,” said Kristof. A bank eventually donated $10,000 to the cause. Today Dai Manju is an accountant. “A good education has empowered everyone in this village,” he said.
In 2008, Kristof wrote another story about education that offers hope. That was the year in which Beatrice Biira graduated from Connecticut College. She had grown up in the western hills of Uganda.
“She lived near the Congo border and couldn’t go to school. Her family couldn’t afford to send her to school. She spent her time fetching water and firewood for her family,” said Kristof.
But then children of the Niantic Community Church in Niantic. Conn., decided to buy goats for people in Africa through Heifer International, an aid group similar to World Renew that provides goats for $20 apiece to help impoverished farming families.
One of the goats went to Beatrice. That goat gave birth to a pair of kids. When the young goats were weaned, Beatrice’s family drank the milk to supplement their diet and sold the surplus milk. With money from selling the milk, Beatrice’s family sent her to school.
“She excelled in school and became the first person in her village to go abroad to college,” said Kristof, adding that Connecticut College gave her a scholarship.
“When she graduated, she said she ‘was the luckiest girl in the world,’” said Kristof. “Giving Beatrice the goat didn’t solve global problems, but it helped Beatrice.” After further studying global issues in graduate school, she returned to Africa to work for an aid group.
Kristof also mentioned Mildred Gray, a librarian at an elementary school in Arkansas who made a difference for Ollie Neal, an at-risk youth with a bad attitude back in the 1950s. One day in his senior year of high school, Neal skipped class and wandered into the library to pass time.
“Ollie didn’t read much, but one book caught his eye. It had a woman in a skimpy outfit on the cover,” said Kristof. The book was titled The Treasure of Pleasant Valley, an adventure novel by black author Frank Yerby. It was about two young men from the South who traveled from the plantation where they lived to the California gold fields in 1849 .
Not wanting anyone to see him checking out the book, Ollie stole it. At home, he read the book quickly. He liked the action and the story.
That book turned him into an avid reader. He returned the book, found another novel by Yerby on the shelf and took it as well. When he returned it, he saw another book by Yerby and took it home. That happened yet another time.
Sparked by a newfound love of reading, Ollie began devouring books. He attended college, got involved in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s, earned a law degree, and was named a prosecuting attorney. He is now a circuit court judge.
Returning for a high school reunion one year, he spoke to Mildred Grady, the librarian, intending to confess what he did. She waved him aside, telling him that she saw him steal the first book and traveled many miles to find other books by Yerby in bookstores so she could put them on the shelf.
“She understood he was embarrassed when he took that first book, and she [searched out] the other books, hoping it would have an impact, which it did,” said Kristof.
Kristof finished his talk by telling another story of hope — about a young man who fled eastern Europe after World War II. “This young refugee was confined to a camp and then fled to France. He wanted to come to America but had no idea how.”
One day he was cleaning a hotel — a job he obtained illegally — and met a woman. He told her his story and, moved by his sincerity, she convinced her church in Oregon to sponsor this young man.
“The church paid his way and supported him for his first year [in the United States]. They took a risk on him,” said Kristof.
The kindness of that church was a drop in the bucket. It didn’t make a dent in the global refugee problem. But it is a story of hope that is very personal for Kristof.
“That man was my dad. What the church did was good for him and good for me,” said Kristof. “It shows that those drops in the bucket can be transformational for people who are out there. And those drops in the bucket can start to fill many buckets.”