Today, my father and I traveled to Qunu, South Africa, to mark Nelson Mandela Day a bit early – it's officially tomorrow when Mandela will turn 94. I have wanted to visit Qunu, where Mandela grew up on the Eastern Cape, since I first read Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s autobiography, over Christmas in 1995. My father, mother and I read it in tandem or at least within weeks of one another. Well before that shared holiday reading, I remember vividly my father waking me up one early February morning in 1990 to watch Mandela’s long walk out of prison in Paarl from our kitchen countertop in Little Rock, Arkansas. Finally, on my fourth trip to South Africa, I made it to Qunu.
Our visit started at the No Moscow School (named after a village elder who recently passed away). The first person I saw when I got out of the car was Graça, someone I admire and am proud to call my friend – and who probably gives the best hugs on this side of the hemisphere (since my Mom is now back in Washington after her marathon trip). Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, a former Minister of Education in Mozambique and a tireless advocate for children and responsible development throughout Africa.
At No Moscow, we – Graça, my Dad and I – opened the brand-new library. To help inaugurate the new library – a repurposed shipping container – Graça and my father spoke, a couple of remarkable South African musicians performed and some of the children from the school danced for us. While my father officially cut the red ribbon, all three of us had the joy of listening to some of the children read inside the library. Since we were opening a library and our family loves to read, as a gift for Mandela’s birthday, my father and I brought 1000 books – across all reading levels – to add to the library’s collection.
After the library, Graça, my father, a few of Mandela’s children and I planted avocado trees for Mandela’s birthday. Graça promised she’ll look after my tree – and I promised I would be back to see it grown tall, and hopefully before. Tomorrow, Mandela Day will commemorate Mandela’s actual birthday by acts of service throughout South Africa and the world – I am sure even more books will be read and trees planted.
From planting trees, we went to visit Nelson Mandela at his home. We had a wonderful visit – and a delicious lunch! - with Mandela and Graça and their family. His vibrancy is amazing for someone who endured and achieved all he has. He bears the weight of inspiring people around the world, including my family, with great grace and dignity.
Today was a great gift – to see Qunu, to see my father and Mandela so happy to see each other as the old friends they are, to see Graça (and get a bounty of her generous hugs) and to know that Mandela inspired a library and a tree today – and will inspire so much more tomorrow and into the future.
Happy Birthday, Madiba.