Man of the people

Man of the people

Commitment to inclusion drives UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe to campaign for a world where everyone can live life to his or her fullest potential.

There are no traces of pretense or vanity about Michel Sidibé. When he enters a room, laughter and high spirits take over. His simple attire underlines his humility and his ebullient manner speaks to the joy he takes in being around others and helping them.

Speaking with Asia Focus during his recent visit to Bangkok, the 63-year-old Malian said he learned the important lesson of empathy early in life, when he realised that societal rejection was the product of ignorance.

At the age of 12, he befriended a mentally ill man and protected him from neighbourhood boys who threw stones. "My friends were scared of him," says the lifelong relief worker, now entering his seventh year as the executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS).

"When they realised that he had a mental illness, they stopped throwing stones at him. … He was a good human being and he accepted me as his friend," he recalls, eyes glancing at the empty ceiling, indulging in his reminiscences.

When the man was taken to an asylum, Mr Sidibé brought him food and received nothing but a heartwarming laugh in return.

The image of this man, whom he sees as the most influential person in his life, is still clear in his mind, constantly reminding him to fight for those who are rejected, and to remain fundamentally attached to the notion of no discrimination and no exclusion.

Mr Sidibé never pictured himself holding a lofty position, but he has had a lifelong determination to devote his utmost energy to the wellbeing of others. "Since I was young," he says, "I wanted to do something to protect people who are weaker, people who are at the margins of society, and people who are being left behind."

Born into a mixed-race family, Mr Sidibé speaks several African languages including West African Mandingo and the Tuareg language Tamashek, in addition to fluent English and French.

His own childhood was one marked by frequent discrimination, rejection and exclusion, but the experience helped him to learn about respect and dignity. "Life was tough," he says, "but the beauty of it was that both my parents were very positive people."

His father, a Muslim politician from Mali, was sent to France during World War II and fell in love with a white French Catholic woman. Their decision to move from France and settle in Mali was very unusual given the racial climate of the day.

"She was among the first white ladies to marry an African man," he says. And despite being rejected by the community, the couple stayed married for 55 years until the death of his father.

Mr Sidibé grew up as someone who perceived people beyond their race or skin colour, beyond their wealth or physical appearance. "It's more important to see them as human beings," he says, stressing the importance of dignity and respect.

"It's how we make sure that wherever place they come from, their lives are being valued. It's how we give chances to them to be who they are. Anytime you exclude, you are losing. You need to be inclusive and really think about everyone. Everybody counts."

Having said that, Mr Sidibé's family was better off relative to those of his peers. "I felt so annoyed being the only one going to school with shoes," he recalls, "so I always took them off so my friends wouldn't find out. I was embarrassed."

Though Mr Sidibé describes himself as having been a "privileged child", it never made him arrogant. He still lives a modest life and sees himself as a servant. "It helped me to understand that we are all equal and that we shouldn't lose respect for anyone just because he or she has no shoes."

His optimistic mother, now 93 years old, has been his lifelong adviser. Just few weeks ago, she reminded him that the only thing that matters is what he could give back to the world.

"Never forget that you are a privileged child," she told him, "and remember that you need to fight for people who do not have." His face glows with a smile.

VOICE OF THE UNHEARD

Drawing on his natural bonhomie and people-centred approach, Mr Sidibé has been able to help bring about remarkable changes in countless lives across the world and to become the voice of the unheard.

After completing his higher education in France, he returned home and began his professional career in Timbuktu, the legendary city deep in the desert of Mali, where he successfully convinced Tuareg nomads that education, about which many were very dubious, was important.

Mr Sidibé deliberately talked with the community chief and persuaded him to have his son attend the school. If the son of the chief was going to school, he thought, all the other children would come.

"I will let my son go to school," replied the chief, "but he will be your responsibility forever."

The boy did go to school and today is the director of a prominent programme in Mali. "Even today, he is like my son and he is my responsibility," Mr Sidibé says, smiling.

From that very first experience, he learned that one could completely change the dynamic of a community by understanding how the social contract in that particular society works. It can influence the decision-making process of a village chief or the president of a country.

After 25 years in public service, in 1987 Mr Sidibé was asked to join Unicef in Congo where he spent another 14 years providing humanitarian and development assistance to children and mothers across 10 francophone countries in Africa. This period also taught him the power of social mobilisation.

"I've learned that it's not just the science that is important. If you don't forge the link between science and social change, your science will not be helpful. You will not be able to really make change in the lives of people," he says.

While most people at that time refused to get vaccinated, thinking that it would leave them sterile, Mr Sidibé was able to convince political leaders to communicate to the public that universal access to medicine or vaccines was crucial, saving the lives of thousands.

In 1996, he fought restlessly against the embargo on essential items during a time when there were international sanctions on Burundi, "We should not deprive a child of the right to have access to vaccine," he declared, adding that leaders later established a humanitarian corridor allowing the flow of essential items.

"I wanted to put children at the centre of our approach, to make sure that children are protected and that they would have access to services," he says.

In line with his people-centred approach, he has brought public figures from fashion designers to filmmakers into the loop to help him advocate for a good cause.

To convince some African leaders to ratify a convention on children's rights, for example, he brought in the British filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who directed Gandhi and Cry Freedom and is widely known and respected in Africa. After speaking with rulers and parliamentarians, Mr Attenborough finally got them to ratify the convention. "I knew that this man could help me because people loved him," said Mr Sidibé.

"In every place, what's important is the commitment to people and to the rights of people, the commitment to make the lives of those who are left behind better."

'PEOPLE COLLECTOR'

Glancing down at a silver, black and gold bracelet engraved with his initials, Mr Sidibé says it was given to him 35 years ago by his late father.

The white colour of the silver reminds him that he was a privileged child and that he needs to fight for the right causes. "Always be enthusiastic and stay positive. Anyone who wants to kill your enthusiasm, you have to run away from that person," his father once told him.

The black part, he continues, is to remind him that he came in this world too late and the only way to become successful is to work very hard. The gold is to remind him to manage diversity and never to close doors or opportunities to meet people.

"The only thing that counts in the end is the way you treat people. They will only remember that, not materials you have given them. Show them that you care. And that, they will not forget."

That is the glue between you and them, he says, in the end, we are nothing. "We are just the product of earth, luck, and the support of people. If I take all of that out, we have not much left. That is life."

An acquaintance once told Mr Sidibé that while others like collecting wealth, he liked to collect people. "I don't invest in the stock market," he says, smiling. "I invest in people and friendship."

In his view, material things are useful but they are not the source of happiness. The source of happiness is love and small moments of giving, which sometimes you don't even pay attention to. It is the ability to contribute that matters.

"You can accumulate whatever material goods you want in life but they will never make you happy. The worst thing is to be taken hostage by a materialistic life. It's important to have enough for school fees, healthcare and food, but accumulating for the sake of accumulating? I don't see the interest," he says.

Any moments you share with love, compassion and interest in others will give you more happiness than anything else, he continues. Those are the times you will remember.

ULTIMATE GOALS

In 2001, Mr Sidibé joined UNAIDS, as a country director and regional support officer. Six years later, he was appointed deputy executive director and remained in that position for two years.

Mr Sidibé's is known for his relentless support for countries to achieve universal access to HIV prevention and treatment while advocating for the rights of populations that are often marginalised of ignored, from homosexuals and sex workers to drug abusers.

In his view, instead of simply focusing on one disease to another, it is more important to think about health in a holistic way. "Health is not just the medical aspect. Health is anti-discrimination. Health is respecting the dignity of people," he says.

Mr Sidibé is also a champion of eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission and reforming punitive laws that stigmatise HIV. "Nothing is more beautiful than the smile of a mother's face ... when she sees her first baby born without HIV. It's so beautiful," he says, drawing on first-hand experience in clinics.

"I don't want to be remembered only as an executive director of UNAIDS. I want to be remembered as someone who cares," he says, a bright smile crossing his face. His ultimate goal, he says, is to end Aids by 2030.

Mr Sidibé pictures himself after finishing his service settling down with his wife, whom he met 46 years ago, their four children and grandchildren.

"I want to be sitting in Mali under my mango tree, and saying, 'Thank God! We managed to control the epidemic and it's not a public health issue anymore.'"

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