3rd July 2013 Washington DC, USA

My First Memories of Nelson Mandela

I’ve never met Nelson Mandela, nor have I been to South Africa. But like many who care about Africa or human rights or history, I am thinking of him a lot these days.  And I can’t help but remember February 1990, when he was released from prison.

Back then I was ten and living in Lexington, Massachusetts. Each month my class would hold a discussion of current events.  The idea was to stimulate our interest in the wider world by getting us all to present an article. That February it just happened to fall on the 12th, the day after the great man’s release. I don’t remember what story I, or anyone else, wanted to discuss.  But I remember what my classmate Shomari chose.

Shomari was one of the handful of African-American kids in my grade. All of them were brought from deprived parts of Boston to our leafy suburb each morning on what we called the “Boston Bus”. Shomari had picked the Mandela story and I remember seeing her clutching her newspaper clipping, hardly able to contain the excitement. Then, just before she could speak, disaster struck. One of the white kids got up and told us that Nelson Mandela, a hero of civil rights in Africa, had been released from prison. He showed us a picture of Nelson and Winnie hand-in-hand, raising their fists in victory.

Shomari burst into tears. There was never any coordination about who would tell which story but this one was hers. It took some time for Mr Carlton to calm her down and my article, perhaps about ‘Buster’ Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, got lost in the commotion.

I have mixed-race parents and until that year I’d been growing up in the UAE, a melting-pot of a country. I didn’t know what apartheid was, let alone understand that people might judge me on the basis of my colour or my name. I suspect Shomari knew that only too well. In fact, though I loved the place, it was in Lexington that I first realised that people might make those assumptions. Once during after-school basketball a classmate ran over to tell me that they’d just announced the Boston Bus was leaving and I had better hurry to catch it. I looked at him uncomprehendingly.

I think now of all the things I didn’t understand. That the horrors of apartheid had been allowed to go on for so long. That your chances of being of an ethnic minority and leader of the free world were almost zero. That gay relationships were second class. Nor did I understand what it meant to be a man imprisoned for decades, who on release called not for revenge but reconciliation. A man who could put anger and divisive identities behind him to become an icon of tolerance and understanding.

And now that man lies critically ill. Have we truly heard his message? We have come a long way in two decades but our species still seems fixated on the little differences.  Race, religion, clan, the list is endless. We need to follow Nelson’s example: to put those things aside and think of the greater good.

I don’t know where Shomari is now but I hope she’s been able to forgive that little white boy who stole her moment 23 years ago.

2 comments on “My First Memories of Nelson Mandela

  1. Nice piece. Madiba is today the only leader for whom, circumstances permitting, I will make the trip to SA to attend his funeral or atleast later pay my respects. The tallest tree of Africa and the world. Unfortunately, in the midst of so many dwarfs, there are less than a handful Madibas. God bless him.

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About Omar Daair

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to…

Omar joined the British Embassy in Washington DC in June 2011 as First Secretary covering Africa, the UN and conflict issues. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office first sent him to Africa in 2004 to study Arabic in Egypt, followed by a three year posting to Sudan. In Khartoum he focused on internal politics and the Darfur crisis, as well as acting as the Embassy Spokesman. Following two years as Head of the NATO Team in London, Omar returned to Sudan but this time as Head of the UK Office in Juba, South Sudan. During that time he worked on issues relating to the Referendum on southern independence and acted as an Observer during the vote. In his current role Omar covers all of Sub-Saharan Africa but recently most of his time has been spent on Somalia, Mali, Kenya and the DRC. His interest in Africa was first stimulated by his father, who was born in Tanzania. Omar a Masters degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He wants to visit as many African countries as he can but has only got to 12 so far.

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