Courage is one of those attributes we put on a taller pedestal than most others. It's right up there with honesty, moral rectitude and integrity.
Courage usually emerges in a person who is facing physical danger, be he a soldier in hostile territory facing unknown perils behind a bush 100 metres away; be she a police officer breaking up a confrontation between two inebriated bar patrons; be they a group of explorers happening upon a thundering herd of wildebeest set on edge by the presence of a pack of marauding lions; be he a mild-mannered accountant blowing the whistle on rampant corruption in the company where he works.
That kind of courage is normally demonstrated by a grown-up who has seen a bit of life and knows some of the unpleasant things it can throw at you. But those of us who are paying attention have had the pleasure and, indeed, the privilege of witnessing an outstanding display of courage from a 15-year-old girl — Malala Yousafzai.
She, you will remember, is the girl from the Swat District in Pakistan who was shot at close range last October by a member of the Pakistani Taliban simply because she insisted on going to school.
Pakistanis who had adopted the twisted ideology and depraved practices of the Taliban invaded that part of the country several years ago and began terrorising the population. They unleashed a campaign against 'western values', demanding that women weir veils and that girls should not be educated.
At the tender age of 11, Malala was having none of this and began a blog for the BBC, using a synonym. She described how the Taliban were trying to seize control of the whole region, what her life was like, and her belief that education was a normal requirement for girls as well as boys. This remarkable young lady was largely educated by her father, Ziauddin, who is a poet, and himself an education activist who runs a chain of schools.
Her activism led the New York Times to make a television documentary about her and she came to prominence through interviews for other newspapers and television organisations. This was too much for the Taliban and they went to her school one afternoon as she and some schoolmates were boarding a school bus.
They shot her in the head and neck, blasting away part of her skull and making her deaf in one ear. She was unconscious and in critical condition for some days after the attack, and she was airlifted to Britain for corrective work.
It took two major operations, but the surgeons at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham have made a patch for her skull and given her a cochlear implant to allow her to hear again through the damaged ear. Her father, who has been her main supporter from the beginning, says the response of the Pakistani Government has been a "turning point" for the country. "When she fell, Pakistan stood. They wanted to kill her. But she fell temporarily. She will rise again. She will stand again."
Malala's shooting has attracted worldwide attention and world leaders have been scrambling over each other to support a fund she has launched to support the education and empowerment of girls in Pakistan and around the world. It intends to provide grants to organisations and individuals focussed on education.
In addition to her family, the Malala Fund will have an advisory committee made up of education experts and business people. The president of Pakistan is on board. Asif Ali Zardari flew to her bedside in the British city to pay his respects. Zardari and his daughter, Asifa Bhutto, spent five minutes privately with the teenager two weeks ago. In a brief statement after the visit, he said Malala is a remarkable girl and a credit to Pakistan.
Last Monday, Malala made her first public appearance since the operations, thanking her supporters around the world. She attributes her recovery to widespread support: "Because of these prayers, God has given me a new life ... and this is a second life. And I want to serve. I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated."
She made a video in English, Urdu and Pashto, official languages of Pakistan. It's been supplemented by interviews with two other girls who were injured in the shooting. Their sentiment is "We are with Malala, we are with her mission." She was also nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
It seems a sure thing that, however long she lives, Malala has already begun her life's work.
Age is no limit to working for others
Unusual Malala may be, but she is by no means alone. Many other children have also made a difference. Such is the case of Craig Kielburger, a Canadian who began his activism in 1995 when he was 12 years old and is still going at it. Kielburger grew up in a suburb just north of Toronto. His epiphany came when he read a report in the Toronto Star about another 12-year-old, who, ironically, was also from Pakistan.
That boy, Iqbal Masih, had been forced to work in a carpet factory from the age of four. As the years went by he became an international symbol of the plight of children in bonded labour. Tragically, he was brutally murdered at 12 years old.
The story incensed young Craig, who took the article to school and rounded up some friends of the same age to found a group they called 'Twelve Twelve-Year-Olds'. It later transformed itself into 'Free The Children', an international organisation campaigning for an end to child labour.
A few months after reading the report of Iqbal's death, Craig enlisted a family friend from Bangladesh to take him on a trip to Asia to see for himself.
Free The Children has built more than 650 schools and other projects in 45 countries. Most of its money comes from fund-raising efforts by young people. Along with his brother Marc, Kielburger also founded Me to We, an enterprise which raises money through selling what it describes as socially conscious products and donates half the profits to Free The Children.
The other half is invested to make the organisation more robust. According to its website, Me to We "provides sweatshop-free and organic clothes, as well as life-changing international volunteer trips, leadership training programmes, a speakers' bureau, and artisan accessories handmade by women in developing countries".
Eight years ago, Craig and Marc released a book, also entitled Me to We, explaining their philosophy of volunteerism, service to others and social involvement. Craig has written nine other books and they co-write newspaper columns, conduct seminars and engage in a wide variety of efforts to spread the word about looking out for others and doing practical things to make their lot better.
People like the Kielburgers and Malala Yousafzai are a refreshing and delightful antidote to the evil, negativity and depravity of Neanderthals like the Taliban, who are determined to usher us into a depressingly backward past.