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mandelaimage credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

I woke to the news of Mandela’s death this morning, and I cried. I never met him, so I can’t say I loved him in the way I love my friends and family, but he, and what he stood for, were clearly more precious to me than I had realised…until I heard that he was gone.

I’ve read a few tributes, been reminded of a few of his most famous quotes, and taken time to dig out a few photos of my own time in South Africa. It was a very important time in my life; I was 21, and I welcomed in the new millennium on South African soil; but more than that, it was a time when theory, words and learning became songs, hearts and the lives of real people.

I went to South Africa straight from University in England. I’d written my final paper on the work of Athol Fugard, the South African anti-apartheid playwright. His work dealt fearlessly with the painful human consequences of apartheid policy and majority political dis-empowerment. I was deeply moved by the courage of this man, this artist, and by the potential power of theatre as a medium for change. I had to see this country for myself.

I volunteered with a township youth theatre group by day, and worked in a popular South African chain restaurant by night. I had the time of my life.

P1030035I was invited to a party in honour of two teenagers who were about to go into ‘the bush’ with their elders, after which they would return to be acknowledged as men.

P1030040I directed and promoted a play the group created to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.

P1030039I danced with them, laughed with them, sang with them and, when it was time for me to leave, I invited them to have a meal with me in the restaurant where I’d worked, sharing goodbye blessings and tears over the food.

P1030033And in the days before I left I bought this painting. It hangs above my bed. I loved the movement, the colour, the natural inclusion of the next generation. It reminds me, when all else fails, raise you arms, close your eyes, and dance.

That year was so full of formative experiences and personal growth that it’s no exaggeration to say I owe much of who I am now to South Africa, and by that token, Mandela. Without what his grace, wisdom and strength made possible, I never would have set foot on that land, for I knew it was as red with blood as it was with the minerals and richness of the earth from which it was made. But knowing what he forgave, what right did I have to hold on to my petty judgements?

I’ve read many other people’s tributes, all using different words to say the same thing; we’ve lost a great leader, a giant of humanity, a great man, a light has been lost from the world. I hear that, and I do agree. I also believe we dishonour him if we create a story that claims him to be anything other than a fellow human being. As we celebrate his shining example, let us not use his ability to make the impossible possible to abdicate us of our own responsibility to do our bit to make the world a better place.

I’m sad, and it feels right to be sad, but when I’ve shed the tears let my grieving not deter me from asking, ‘What can I do to honour and share your example? What can I do to bring a little of the light they say has left with you, back into this world through my own acts of love, forgiveness and courage?’

I don’t need to save a country or win a Nobel peace prize, but I do need to commit to doing the little I can do, no matter how ‘little’. And I’ll try to remember, when life offers me opportunities to forgive, what Mandela was able to forgive, and I will ask my heart to stretch, not because I aspire to one as large and strong as his, or to a spirit as great, but just to a heart that’s a little bigger than the one I have right now, and a spirit that’s a little braver and brighter than the one I have right now.

Mandela believed love could be taught, and his life was a lesson offered through example. Let us all be teachers of love, and if there are moments when we find that too hard, then let us be willing to be students, and observe those around us who are able to teach that day. That’s how we can help to grow the greatness that I believe can be found in the heart of every single human being on this planet, for it is not another great leader we are waiting for…

The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

—The Elders Oraibi
Arizona Hopi Nation