The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

By Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Kusaba, translated by Andrew Wong. Enchanted Lion Books, 2020. 40 pages. $16.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out, translated from Japanese by Andrew Wong, is a children’s book that verbally and visually presents a remarkable speech from a remarkable man: these are the words of José “Pepe” Mujica, President of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015, which he addressed to world leaders at the Rio+20 Summit, a conference on sustainable development convened by the United Nations in 2012. But it is not just a children’s book. Mujica’s words are as profound as they are simple. They are for all of us. Delivered at the end of a long day of pro forma speeches dealing with the world’s environmental and social challenges, Mujica caught everyone by surprise. Who was this gray-haired fellow with no tie, who (it was said) had given 90 percent of his salary to the poor, and had driven up from Uruguay in his old, blue Volkswagen Beetle? Mujica told them, and us, that the global challenges we face come from the way we live, from the global system of endless buying and selling, which drives away the very happiness we seek. He concluded by saying, “Shared human happiness is the greatest treasure of all.” This largely unknown president from a largely unknown South American country received a standing ovation from the world leaders.

The endearing yet probing illustrations surrounding the simple text of the speech can be a catalyst for family conversations about what produces real happiness here at home. The book can also plant seeds in young minds about how they might bring about a happier, healthier world by the way they choose to live. The book is a visual and oral meditation on how one man, with the courage of his democratic vision, could change a country and send healing waves around the world. The book’s Japanese creators are evidence: they learned of President Mujica as he became a folk hero in Japan. In 2020, Uruguay (having built on Mujica’s legacy of service) was named by the BTI project (a collaborative index that analyzes and compares transformation processes toward democracy) as one of the least corrupt and most robustly democratic transformative countries in the world (out of the 137 included in the analysis). I decided that this book would be the Christmas gift for my teenage grandchildren, and looked forward to the conversations that would result.

Ken Jacobsen has taught courses in theology and healing at the Chicago Theological Seminary and led retreats on Jesus’s teachings at Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio. He keeps his home on Lake Delavan in Wisconsin as a poustinia, a prayer house for travelers.

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