The Rotary End Polio Flame, which was launched at the Chennai Institute by RI President Gary C K Huang, had its most poignant moments while journeying around Pakistan, “where it got such an overwhelming response, that we were totally surprised,” says S N Srikanth, President of the Rotary Club of Madras, which launched the flame.
Explaining the “philosophy behind the flame,” he said the Club wanted to do something on PolioPlus, and “we thought let’s launch a flame to help motivate Rotarians to fight the last mile in the battle against polio.” After Chennai, the Colombo Rotarians wanted it immediately as Gary was headed there. From there “we asked a DG from Sri Lanka to carry it to Karachi.” A delegation of three, including Srikanth, from RC Madras went to Pakistan “and not even in our wildest imagination did we think we would be mobbed like that there,” he grins.
Originally only an inter-city event was planned in Pakistan, but the Rotarians there wanted to take it to other cities. This was fitting as Pakistan continues to face a major challenge with polio, with its polio workers being attacked and even killed by extremist elements.
In the end, the polio flame ended up in 10 Pakistani cities, including Qasimabad, Mir Purkhas, Hyderabad and of course Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. “They set my heart beating very fast when they said Peshawar, as that is Taliban territory,” says Srikanth.
What shocked him was the proliferation of the Taliban in Karachi; “there are so many areas in Karachi where Rotarians and polio workers are not able to enter to give polio drops. Everywhere we saw gunmen. It is admirable that despite this the Pakistani Rotarians are doing their best.”
At each of the points the flame was carried, there were rallies, meetings, walks and in many places religious leaders were invited. A high point was the Governor of Sindh, a very powerful man, having a special function in his office — a mansion — to receive the flame.
Srikanth said RC Madras will make one of the “polio martyrs” an honorary Paul Harris Fellow, and hopes that all the 73 workers who have been killed in Pakistan will be thus recognised. “We checked with TRF and the person who donates $1000 in the name of the slain polio worker, will also become a Paul Harris Fellow.”
From Pakistan, the flame was taken through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and from there to Kabul, where Rotarians held a meeting and invited representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to participate in the event.
RC Kabul President Luke Beer later blogged: “It was inspiring to be part of the flame’s journey.
As an Afghan club, we are so grateful for the energy it has given us as a club to refocus our efforts on polio awareness. We are not ignorant of the fact that Afghan organisations, clubs and society have done a limited amount to raise funds for and truly engage the polio eradication effort. At first, we were confused by the utility of the torch. But I must say, it certainly has had a unifying effect. We’ve had two private organisations come forward with considerable donations as a result of the torch’s visit. It has also helped us as a young club explain to our members about Rotary’s international reach and fellowship. I look forward to reconnecting with the torch and its bearers in São Paulo!
The flame has been taken to Taipei, as that is Gary’s home country. “We were amazed to hear that New Taipei has over 200 Rotary clubs and Taiwan as a whole over 600. A number of new e-clubs and satellite clubs are also being formed, and membership is growing at 20 per cent a year,” says Srikanth, who travelled to Taipei.
The flame will also go to Toronto because of “my respect for Bob Scott who put in 26 years of hard work in PolioPlus.” The first person he had checked out the idea with was Scott, who made a request the flame be brought to Toronto.
On the actual transportation, he said that as far as possible Rotarians are taking it to different countries by air, and utmost pains are taken to see that it is actually lighted (through a special canister) and not artificially lit.
Of course the three countries most critical — where polio is still endemic — are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria and the polio flame will be taken to Lagos before it reaches Evanston, Toronto and from there to São Paulo by June for the RI Convention.
Eventually, says Srikanth, the flame may end up collecting $1 million. “Our Governor (ISAK Nazar of District 3230) is doing a lot to raise funds. He is going to carry a subsidiary flame around the district.” Susanne Rea, of the World’s Greatest Meal to End Polio Now, who visited Chennai, was also pressed into service to take it to eight countries, via UAE, Egypt, Bahrain to the US and Canada.