Remembering Jockin Arputham: SDI’s president, leader, mentor, & friend

by James Tayler

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_2

By Joel Bolnick, lifelong friend and colleague, and manager of SDI Secretariat

I am very angry that Jockin has died. Anger is a normal response to the death of someone you love and admire. But the thing about Jockin is that you could never be angry with him for long, no matter how much he provoked you with his energy, his vision, his dogmatic certainties and his commitment – all of which knew no bounds and were always ferociously executed.

The many tens of thousands of people who met him would soon feel his magnetism. He was an enormously charismatic human being. He was an unstoppable force for good and an unbelievable champion of the urban poor. For their rights most certainly but at the same time for their humanity and for the recognition – not yet won – that they were not a mass of thugs, victims, or guinea pigs. Instead he was determined to show the ever growing number of people who understood the importance of listening to him that the capacities, the resilience, and the collective wisdom of the urban poor presented humanity with a blue print for survival and for a better future.

This makes me think of Jockin’s Mandela-like tolerance. It was not weak and compromising like a few have had the temerity to argue – but a tolerance of others that came from complete self-assurance and a deep understanding that resolution of conflict comes from seeing your own humanity in those that the gross inequalities of life forced you to challenge.

And challenge the rich and powerful Jockin most certainly did; not to score ideological and abstract victories (although he certainly understood their value) but to make a real, tangible differences in the lives of poor people.

This was something he delivered in spades all over the world. Few, if any organizations, can demonstrate a similar scale and depth in terms of their impact on poor communities – through securing tenure, installing drainage, upgrading services and incrementally building houses.

This required superhuman energy and courage. It required a brilliant mind. It required a capacity to see opportunities and seize them. Most of all, it required the capacity to mobilize, humanize, conscientize and inspire people like himself, people downtrodden, excluded, evicted, exploited, and objectified.

I am angry because my best friend is gone. The silence is deafening. No more the deep discussions, the brilliant strategy sessions, the gentle laughter. No longer the unwavering support of a man whose loyalty was monumental as was his optimism and courage.

My anger is assuaged by the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of people living in slums in over 4,000 cities are also feeling shattered by the deafening silence. But that silence is momentary. Those hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers who belong to Jockin’s beautiful, rag-tag, festive but deeply determined army are on the march. They are the ones that will fill the Jockin-sized hole that the great man has left behind.

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Read more messages and remembrances of Jockin’s life here.