WHEN I MET NELSON MANDELA

5.20.2014

His name was everywhere in Mali. People spoke about his bravery, humbleness, generosity, and love for his fellow Africans.  As a child, I did not know much about Mandela besides what I heard around the house and the soulful songs Miriam Makeba sang in his honor.  All I knew was that the man named Mandela spent a long time in jail. That was it. This was about to change. One afternoon in the hot sun in Bamako, I saw a limousine driving by slowly with many police cars, passing by our house.

Our house was not far from the road to the airport, so when a politician or someone important is visiting Mali my neighborhood was always the first to see the cards driving by. I loved this about our home in Kalaban Coura because I would always come out of the compound just to watch.

I had just gotten home from school. I wanted ‘bonbon’ (candy) from the corner store and my mother did not want me out in the sun.  She was busy packing some of her designs from her boutique and I snuck out to get my candy.  This day, the number of police cars and limousines was more than I had ever seen. I went closer to the road just to see who was visiting Mali this time. I saw a man standing in a one of the limousines and he was waving to the crowd, since most of my neighbors had come out by this time to see Mandela.

I, however, did not recognize that man waving to the crowd. I assumed most of the people waving knew who he was.

Growing up I was very nosey and I would always get in trouble for that (sorry mom!).  According to my mom, I was always on the hunt for a ‘story.’ This day, I was not hunting for a story. I just wanted candy and I also happened to be at the right place at the right time.

The limousine with Mandela was slowing down as the crowd grew.  Some were getting close to the limousine to check his hand. I followed. I got really close and shook Mandela’s hand. I was eight years old.

My mother said it was March of 1996 when Mandela paid his first visit to Mali to address the national assembly.

Back to the house, my mother was still packing clothes. I told her that I just shook a hand of some “big man.” Out of nowhere she picked me up and started screaming. Confused, I was! She said, “that was Nelson Mandela Cheche.” Cheche is a nickname she gave me.  I was very excited and started telling everyone.  My mother grabbed me and we ran back out to the scene but it was clear at this point (she was disappointed!). Only the neighbors and some street vendors were still at the scene talking about Mandela’s visit.

That night, footage of me shaking Mandela’s hand was one of the b-rolls of the evening newscast. I was just happy to be on the ‘journal’ (news).

The following month was my birthday. I received The Illustrated Long Walk to Freedom as a gift and my world opened up.

My fascination with inspiring African figures started from there. I became interested in African stories- before and after European Colonization.  I wanted to know my people, what they went through, and how we got to where we are. My interest in learning more about Sundiaka Keita’s life grew even more.

As I read about Nelson Mandela’s life story, I was inspired. I found it truly amazing for someone who has gone through so much like him, was still able to put a smile on his face and inspire everyone he has come across.  Mandela electrified every crowd he was among.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” - Nelson Mandela

May his soul rest in perfect peace.