As a great man passes on, I am grateful to have had the honor of spending two of his approximately 50,170,000 minutes on earth with him.
In spring of 2000, I visited South Africa. My Swedish high school had a friend school in Durban, which we helped support through monetary donations and cultural exchange. I was there, along with three class mates, to report back on a computer lab that we had helped the school build. From the very moment we landed at the Durban airport, we were touched by the incredible hospitality and genuine kindness of our South African peers. The entire school, or so it seemed, were there to greet us, with handmade signs and banners and cheers. It was a slightly overwhelming experience for four Swedish 18-year-olds not used to such celebrity treatment. The experience was made even more surreal by the fact that Mary J. Blige, who arrived with her entourage on the same flight and disembarked right before us, walked out seemingly unrecognized, not a paparazzi in sight. The whole trip, we were treated like celebrities. I’m still not sure why. Maybe part of it was the novelty of being from a country as far away as Sweden, but it was also the kind of cultural exchange that had not been possible during apartheid, which was abolished not even a decade before our visit.
One afternoon, we were scheduled to attend a memorial service for the victims claimed by a terrible night club fire in Durban a few weeks before. We had been told that Nelson Mandela would be there to give an address. Filled with excitement, we sat in the small auditorium, awaiting his arrival. People were talking amongst themselves and on their cell phones (still somewhat of a novelty at the time), but once Mandela entered the room all activity seized, as we all made an attempt to absorb the feeling of being in such close proximity to a living legend. Almost 82, he was already an old man at the time, but the energy and vigor he exuded seemed ageless.
Someone had told Mandela that there were four Swedish exchange students in the audience, and on his way out he stopped to greet us. Four 18-year-old Swedes stood there, struggling to find something appropriate to say to Nelson Mandela. All I could think of was how tall he was in real life, and how powerful his handshake had been. I can’t recall what we actually said, but it was probably something about how Sweden admires and is grateful for all his work. Profound.
There have been very few moments in my life that I have been completely starstruck, and this was definitely one of them. Although Mandela was not a star in the trivial sense we use the word today. He was an inspiration to us all, a great man who tirelessly fought for freedom, who never lost sight of the mission, despite being imprisoned for twenty seven years — a star that will forever shine bright in our hearts and minds.
Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to the fight against an oppressive regime and the abolishment of apartheid. Without him, South Africa — and maybe the world — would be a very different place today.
Photo via southafrica.net