Imagine you are a 14 year old girl and you are suddenly flown from the U.S. to a small southern African country and dropped off at a foreign international school found far, far up on a hill without anyone but your little brother by your side. It’s 1987, you are wearing a stone-washed denim mini-skirt, far too much hairspray and you are terrified. That was me and that school was a place that shaped my soul in a way I never expected. While I quietly pouted about the outrage of it all, I marched onto the campus that first day, followed the rest of the student body into an assembly hall, slid onto a bench with other 14 year olds and, with arms folded, I waited for something to happen. And it had better be good.
Something did happen.
And it started with assembly every week. Well, it may have even been twice a week, but it always started the same way. We sang the Swaziland national anthem and then we sang the African national anthem. Every student sang loudly and beautifully and with a shocking passion unlike anything I had ever, EVER seen. No one at my old school sang my national anthem this way. What is this?? What is going on? It was so beautiful that I swallowed back tears week after week, deeply overcome.
And then we were taught about what was really going on. You see, I was at a school where we were being taught literature and history and information about current events that may or may not have been banned at the schools less than an hour away to our west, across the border in South Africa. We talked regularly about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. Why he was there. What freedom really meant. Why children were shot and killed protesting their right to be taught in a language they understood. I was astonished. They were killed? Police shot students because of this??
I sat there and I listened. At first appalled. As if MY country would ever do such a thing. (Well. It had.) And then I accepted it. And then I absorbed it. And then I found my place in it. There was a fight for freedom happening around me. There was hope and anger and so much passion for change.
At every assembly, I sat and considered all of it. Equal rights were not given, they were a chance happening. A roulette table of skin pigment, culture and nationality. Oh look, she landed on “white girl from America!” So at the border crossing, SHE gets to go to the diplomatic line and get a friendly nod and a smile from the police man with the dog. My friend’s chance at luck got her “black South African,” and she went to the back of a very different line. And I waited and watched and the dog watched her and none of it made any sense. Madness. And never equal.
Nelson Mandela being released from prison was a far-fetched dream in my mind. I’m not sure I thought it would ever happen, let alone witness him become president or live a very very long life afterall. But let’s be real, I’m not sure I fully grasped all of it anyway. I was 15. And while it would be nice to say I was deeply engrossed in political conversation at every moment of every day while I lived in Africa, I was not. I was a privileged white American girl who got to escape to her lovely embassy-issue home after school and watch VHS tapes of MTV and Twin Peaks and drink soda and have sleep overs. I cared deeply, I really did. But… oh my God you guys, TWIN PEAKS. I was 15.
A couple years later, there were rumors. There was excitement and hope at school. Discussion, wonder, it could happen. I don’t know what the reason was but I was in Johannesburg with my family in February of 1990. I was in a fancy hotel downtown and our room was on the 30th floor. It was night, after dinner and I was probably willing my parents to evaporate on the spot while I lost myself in another Stephen King book. But suddenly it happened. The world exploded. I went to the window and looked out. With my forehead pressed flat against the cold, I peered down from my silent glass tower and watched the streets FILL entirely with joy and dancing and people, so many people. And then I could hear them through that thick, extra-paned, super fancy glass. I could hear them! It was true, Nelson Mandela had been released.
Sometime soon after that, Nelson Mandela came to our school. It was a surprise visit and I believe he came to see his grandson (a student there at the time). I secretly like to think he came to thank us for our writing, and learning, and singing so so loudly every week. I think he came on a Sunday. But guess what. I wasn’t there that day. Yep, back home, probably chomping on some newly shipped-over M&Ms and teasing my bangs and… oh my god you guys, TWIN PEAKS. Sigh. I cringe deeply now.
Nelson Mandela wasn’t my leader and he didn’t fight for me. The roulette wheel had spun and already offered me the privilege to chomp on M&Ms and watch TV without one damn care in the world. But he WAS my teacher. He snapped my hair-sprayed, peroxided little blond head to attention and taught me what I had and what others did not and that every single 14 year old girl had the right to NOT have one damn care in the world, no matter which way that roulette wheel turned. He taught me grace, humility and patience. He taught me the power of words. He taught me the power of faith and hope — his release was the first time I saw the truly impossible happen.
Nelson Mandela passed today. I deeply respect the enormous impact he played on this world, even on my humble little easy life in the midst of it all. I wrote a message on my art teacher’s Facebook page today (one of my all time favorite teachers now a world away, still back in Africa) and told her I wish I was there with her mourning this loss. She wrote back and said, “But you were there when he was released and we celebrated!”
I am proud that I witnessed such an important time of transition in southern Africa. I am so proud to have understood the enormous impact of Nelson Mandela’s release. And I am so proud to feel the pain of his loss today, even here in this little home, buried deep in Florida suburbia, so very far from the place where I was taught, the community that changed me and our teacher, Madiba, who has passed away today.
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika!