Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mandela's 92nd birthday and the first annual Nelson Mandela International Day


Thinking about this celebration, I remember two days before my own (26th) birthday, when I stepped on to a ferry to tour Robben Island, the prison facility in Cape Town where Mandela spent over 17 years of his life (before spending another 10 at two other facilities). Over 27 years in total: The realization that he had spent my entire life time  plus another year  was enough to feel as if the weight of Table Mountains was crushing my head!

After a wavy 20 minute ferry ride, I quickly realized that the surrealism was only just beginning.
                           
Standing in front of the prison yard, our tour guide introduced himself as Mandezi Mncedisis, an ex-political prisoner who was on the Island the same time as Mandela. As he pointed out various sites  the lime quarry, Mandela's cell, the prison yard, the kitchen and dining hall  his humble voice, subtle smile and cautious tone resurrected stories from Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Discussions regarding the apartheid struggle while digging in the lime quarries; hunger strikes to protest beatings and detestable living conditions; smugglings of newspapers and notes between prisoners; letters that Madiba wrote to his wife Winnie; solidarity confinement when caught smuggling; and early manuscripts of Long Walk to Freedom that were buried/hidden in the dirt of the prison yard.
                                 
As these stories came to life, the sacrifice, perseverance, courage, humility, forgiveness, and love of Madiba became even more incomprehensible. Sitting back in Nairobi – thinking about the magic, country-wide unification created by the World Cup and the challenges (or opportunities?) that still lay ahead  words from Madiba's autobiography have developed a new and profound significance, and I wanted to share a few of them here...
                                                                                                                                                     
Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character… I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. I felt fear myself more times than I can remember, but I hid it behind a mask of boldness. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear...

I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me...

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for loves comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite...

I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Happy Nelson Mandela Day. 

Madiba's cell

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