Madiba. Uncle, Beloved one.
During my Junior year of college I studied abroad in Durban, South Africa. It was 1997. South Africa had been a free country for just three years. The infamous yellow trucks that had mowed people down during the apartheid resistance were decommissioned, but they sat in municipal lots on the outskirts of town. Seeing those big yellow trucks rusting in a yard of weeds is one of my first memories of my four months in the Beloved Country.
South Africa in the 90's was an intense and heady place to be. Here was history, here was revolution. Hope, survival, violence- everything at once a thousand fold. It was like being at the signing of the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation at once. As a 20 year old student I drank it in like water. I loved every minute of my time there, and my time there changed me and influenced the course of my life for the better.
One day near Easter our group of students was invited to a funeral. A funeral to bury the remains of some missing apartheid resistance fighters whose bodies had recently been found. It is important to know that during Apartheid gatherings of Black South Africans were banned. Funerals were one of the rare exceptions. So, during the 70's and 80's funerals became political protests. Someone would be killed during a protest, and his or her funeral would become a political protest... Which led to more arrests and violence and deaths and funerals...
So here we are, a bunch of young Americans at a political funeral. In a soccer stadium. We arrived early. Hundreds of people came, then more hundreds. Thousands of people filled this stadium, stands and field. One thing I had learned from riding the buses in South Africa: there is always more room. I thought the stadium was full; yet still more people came. Surging, squeezing, singing... We stood pressed against each other in the center of the field under the full African sun.
Another thing I had learned about African culture: you do not stand in the presence of someone greater than you.
The crowd in the stadium sang and grew and waited in the sun.
And Nelson Mandela arrived.
And the crowd sat.
We sat, because we must sit for him, even if we are pressed together and there is not a inch of room between us.
Which is how I ended up sitting in the center of a soccer stadium under the African sun with an older Zulu woman sitting in my lap. A beautiful, kind woman with whom I spent the afternoon singing and dancing and crying.
And I had never been happier. Madiba (as he is known in South Africa, by his family honorific), took his place on the stage along with dozens of notable people whose names 15+ years of time have erased from my mind. There were speeches; there was cheering and singing. There was dancing. Mandela was a terrible dancer! He stood on the stage and danced with his arms akimbo and stiff... The Zulu ladies we sat with laughed and cried with joy. The love that radiated from his people to him... It is indescribable. I was a young white American student in a soccer stadium filled with thousands of Black South Africans and I don't remember a moment of fear. Only love: blinding, pure, exuberant Love.
Later a few hundred of us went to the burial. The President, Madiba, stood just feet from me, surrounded by armed guards. One of my fellow students took a photo of him, which I kept framed in my room for many years.
My time in South Africa cemented a life-long love of Africa. Which was one of the reasons that we decided to adopt from Ethiopia. Which is how I came to be Daniel and Lily's mommy. An honor that I feel many days I have yet to live up to.
Thank you, Madiba, for your beautiful life. Thank you for inspiring so much love. Thank you for fostering so much hope in Africa. 16 years ago I stood a few feet from you for a few minutes. I waited in the sun; I sang and danced with strangers and was blessed to be in the presence of greatness. Somewhere those beautiful kind Zulu ladies are mourning. They are wailing and singing praises to you. Maybe they are also remembering their afternoon in the sun. Perhaps their lives were also changed. You inspired so many. Thank you.