Before I knew that Nelson Mandela existed, I thought our then-leader, Kenyan President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, was the world’s only statesman. I was five years old, and no world existed for me outside Nairagie Enkare, my birthplace in rural Maasailand. Moi was a mythical figure to me, because he didn’t live in Nairagie Enkare, yet he was always present through radio, a technology too complicated for a child like me to understand.
Every newscast from the government-controlled radio station began with what “His Excellency, Holy President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi” had said or done. He visited a school. He planted a tree. He helped a women’s group. He attended church. He said agriculture was the backbone of our nation. He said we were fortunate to live in Kenya. Throughout the day, the airwaves were filled with songs repeating the Father of the Nation’s message, and reminding Kenyans to follow in his footsteps.
Perhaps because what came over the radio was so predictable, people sought alternative news from the BBC Swahili Service. On most evenings, at six o’clock, men gathered to listen at the homes of the few, like my father, who had radios. The news lasted only 30 minutes, so everyone had to be absolutely quiet. But, on February 11, 1990, the men began to say repeatedly, “He is free! He is free! Nelson Mandela is free!”
I’m sure that my father and his friends had heard earlier from government radio that Mandela had been released, but they waited for verification from the BBC. They left before the news was over to go to a bar to celebrate. When my father came home that night, he was singing praises for Mandela. I never asked my father who Mandela was.
The following year, I enrolled in school and began to learn that the world extended beyond Nairagie Enkare. My teachers explained to me why Mandela’s freedom, after 27 years in prison, meant so much to Africans – from big cities to small villages.
Europeans, I learned, had colonized Africa and stripped Africans of the right to self-governance. As African countries began to gain independence in the 1950’s, the white minority in South Africa was tightening its grip on power through a racial-segregation system known as apartheid. It was Mandela’s fight against apartheid that led to his imprisonment.
By 1980, black Africans had taken over governance in every country on the continent except South Africa. Mandela’s release from prison ten years later moved Africa one step closer to absolute independence. That mission was completed in 1994, when apartheid fell and South Africans chose Mandela as their first democratically elected president.
As I learned more about Mandela, I wondered how he had achieved the unimaginable, overcoming a 27-year ordeal to become the leader of Africa’s largest economy. And, just when I thought that he had already made his mark on history, he shocked the world by announcing that he would not seek re-election after the end of his first term in 1999.
I was 14 then, old enough to understand how unusual it was for an incumbent African president to retire willingly. In my own country, for example, people were beginning to wonder whether Moi would leave office in 2002, when his second term expired. He had ruled Kenya for 13 years before a move in 1991 to reintroduce multi-party democracy paved the way for an election the following year. Moi was allowed to run again, as long as he honored the constitutional two-term limit.
I feel extremely fortunate and honored that the start of my formal education coincided with Mandela’s re-emergence in African politics. His patience, civility, and politics of reconciliation provided me a better example of democracy and good governance than any civics class could have done.
Mandela embodied the type of leader that Africans had in mind when they struggled for freedom from the European empires. Africans wanted leaders who would reconcile and reunite them – leaders who would restore to them the dignity that colonialism had robbed.
Unfortunately for many African countries, freedom and independence ended up in the hands of a few who had tasted and become addicted to the repressive practices that Africans had spent decades fighting. They amassed untold wealth as hunger and disease ripped their societies apart and pushed more Africans deeper into poverty.
Indeed, more than two decades after Mandela walked through the prison gates, supposedly completing Africa’s struggle for freedom, “Big Men” in countries like Congo and Zimbabwe continue to cling to power against the will of their people. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the fact that, since Mandela left office, many African presidents – including Moi and Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor – have adhered to their countries’ constitutions and left office without a fight.
I am also hopeful that Mandela has inspired other young people like me to continue Africa’s liberation peacefully – the Mandela way.
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The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of the World Economic Forum. Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.
Author: Juliet Torome, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was awarded Cinesource Magazine’s first annual Flaherty documentary award.