Music drums home message for us all

5th August 2005 at 01:00
The J8, the junior version of the G8 summit in Edinburgh, was a proud and humbling event for Ewan Aitken

As a politician, and in my previous life as a parish minister, the careful use of words was, and is, very important to me. In preparing worship, I would think long and hard before deciding what I would utter on a Sunday morning, shaping the sounds and creating rhythms to add significance to the meaning to my chosen words.

These days I am still careful in what I say, but for different reasons. I need those who hear my words to understand my vision and know what I aspire to. I need them to know I understand their situation, but that the decisions I make will also reflect my understanding of others whose situation is very different.

The G8 summit was full of words crafted even more carefully. Words that mean both a great deal and potentially very little. Only in the actions of the members of that most exclusive of clubs will we know the true meaningfulness of their words.

Yet the two most powerful experiences I had in taking part in a whole host of G8-related events in and around Edinburgh were ones that did not involve words at all.

The first was on the historic Make Poverty History march, when more than 225,000 people joined together in common cause and demanded change in a way it has not been demanded in many years. The cry was not just for more handouts or less debt. It was for systemic change that included the powerful giving up their power so that others might be free.

In among the waiting, the walking, the music, the speeches, the sunshine and the ice creams was a minute that will stay with me for a long time. At 3pm, everything stopped and we stood in silence for a minute.

Amazingly, a sea of humanity full of commitment and energy for change was still and was silent. It was a beautiful moment of common cause, an experience of the peace that is in our grasp if we can find the will to grab bit. Nothing moved. No one spoke, not even did a child cry (at least in my hearing). It was a symbolic moment of hope, a silence that spoke volumes.

Later that week, I attended the closing ceremony of the J8 summit. One hundred children had been gathered from 10 British schools and one each from the other seven G8 countries. Their communique, worked on by each teenage delegate and shaped to speak for all young people, is a powerful, insightful document that demands a real response. It puts climate change at the heart of the poverty agenda and offers both a critique and some solutions to what it recognises is a hugely complex problem.

The closing ceremony, held in the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament (something that could never happen at Westminster), began, however, not with speeches and communiques. It began with drums, African drums.

A group from South Africa led the delegates, the spectators and the politicians in an astounding display of highly energetic drumming. All the delegates had drums and the rafters were raised.

It was full of passion, power and rhythm the like of which the Parliament has never heard. The thumping of desks at First Minister's questions seems pathetic in comparison. Like the previous Saturday, there was a new unity among all involved, an experience of our common humanity captured in the rhythms of another continent. It was a moment you couldn't create. it just grew out of a willingness to move beyond conventional communication to a more creative place.

The drums were followed by speeches, the best of which was from a 15-year-old Russian who, in perfect English, took us through the problem, offered real, solutions and then said simply: "The eyes of history are upon us. We must do what we must do so that those who are tomorrow's history cannot look back and say 'How did they let that happen, how could they have let that happen?' " I am proud of the fact that such a unique educational opportunity was created for these 100 teenagers by a partnership of local and national government, supported by the private sector. It was a really challenging education for all involved, delegates, staff and guests. It affected all of us quite significantly.

And I am proud of my city, that we helped tell the world that sometimes, to get what we really want, we have to risk communicating in ways we had never thought possible or desirable. We have sometimes to stop talking like we always have and instead start communicating in whatever way it takes to change the world for us all.

Long may the sounds of silence and the rhetoric of drums be heard, not just in Edinburgh but around the world.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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