Mandela and Me: Living in the Shadow Of the Black Pimpernel

I might never get to meet Nelson Mandela in person, but my entire political life is measured by his standards, and inadvertently, he has always been part of my political consciousness. When Mandela was emerging from prison in 1990, I was on my way to jail. Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had just invaded Liberia. Thus, while the whole world was celebrating Mandela's freedom, Taylor authorized his rebels to arrest and incarcerate all citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) living in Liberia at the time. His decision was in retaliation for ECOWAS intervention in the Liberian civil conflict.

My father moved to Liberia in the 80s to teach at the St. Joseph's Secondary School in Voinjama, Lofa County. I had just commenced primary school when the civil war broke out in 1989. My father had the habit of tuning his radio to BBC Network Africa every day. As a child, I used to secretly listen to the headlines and commentary. In those days, I was not very familiar with British accent, so I really didn't understand everything Robin White or Elizabeth Blunt was talking about, but the name Nelson Mandela was always distinguishable. There were other names, like John Garang of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and Jonas Savimbi of the National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA), but somehow the longest interviews always concerned Mr. Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.

In the afternoons right after BBC's Focus on Africa at 3 p.m. every day was a BBC program about Beethoven. Even as a kid with no prior knowledge of Western classical music, I usually found myself in the same kind of trance classical music induces in me today. However, amidst the complicated British accents, it would be years later in college until I found out Beethoven was a composer and not the bogeyman I had pictured him to be. Somehow I thought the commentators were always describing the scariest monster on the planet. But, even as a kid and with absolutely no comprehension of what the reporters were saying about Mr. Mandela, I thought surely he must be a great man.


Unfortunately, while the whole world was celebrating Mandela's freedom and the warriors of Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), a military wing of the ANC Mandela led before he was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in apartheid prison, I was a child sitting in an NPFL prison in Voinjama for reasons I still do not adequately understand. But even in prison, Mandela's name always came through the radio. Mandela inspired even the rebels; some christened themselves Mandela. In fact, only three people inspired NPFL rebels in those days: Taylor, Mandela, and Lucky Dube — the late South African reggae superstar. The rebels were very fond of the Lucky Dube's lyrics. Dube was a lyrical warrior against apartheid in his own right, and the rebels shared his frustrations with the powers of the day. I am certain that while many youths had no option but to fight for men like Taylor, they certainly wished their commanders were more like Mandela, the so-called "black pimpernel."

I eventually survived both the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars. In 2002, I obtained a scholarship to study at the Red Cross Nordic United World College, where my advisor was a white South African. I guess my first apartheid lesson was realizing that "African" does not mean black only — Alistair, my adviser, was African too. I studied some aspects of apartheid and the life of Mandela before leaving Norway to study at Skidmore College in upstate New York. I remember the sleepless nights devoted to finishing my first copy of Long Walk To Freedom. It was so fascinating I just couldn't stop until I had travelled from cover to cover. Throughout my frustrations with contemporary African leadership, I was looking for any sign of our ability to lead our people. I found Mandela — a leader I could reckon with. This is when my love affair with Mandela became unbreakable.

The love affair has made my friends rather uncreative with birthday and Christmas gifts. I mean, how many copies of Long Walk To Freedom do I need? However, this is clear evidence of my quest to understand the man. How does one individual endure so much personal pain and suffering for a people? How does one convince the family that the nation is calling and it requires love for even the enemy? What does it take to become what Mandela calls the "sheppard leader"? But more importantly, how does a political prisoner communicate to his family that the greatest pain does not arise from incarceration for one's beliefs and values, but his inability to see them? As I watch the current Mandela family feuds concerning burials, I find myself thinking, how else can they make a dying man angry?


Mandela has emphasized on countless occasions that what ate his soul in prison more than anything else was his inability to pay his last respects to his dead relatives. He writes in one of his letters, "Many people who ponder on the problems of the average prisoner tend to concentrate more on the lengthy sentences still to be served, the hard labour to which we are condemned, the coarse and tasteless menus, the grim and tedious boredom that stalks every prisoner and the frightful frustration of a life in which human beings move in complete circles, landing today exactly at the point where you started the day before. But some of us have had experiences much more painful than these …" For Mandela, Robben Island came naturally with his struggle to dismantle apartheid, but his inability to break prison shackles to bury both Thembi and his mother ate his soul.

When I sat in prison as a child expecting my death at the volition of NPFL rebels, it was not dying that worried me the most; it was the thought of my mother, my grandmother, and my siblings in Sierra Leone not knowing what happened to me that tormented me the most. As a child prisoner, I was usually separated from my father, so whenever we had the chance to see each other, there was hardly anything to talk about. He would often ask me what I was thinking, and like most kids, I would answer: nothing. What I really wanted to say in those days was that I wished I had a way of informing my mother, grandmother, and siblings that things were terrible in prison, but I was just fine.

In graduate school, my fascination with Mandela reached a new height. I remember being the only student knowing exactly what to do when my leadership traits professor at Syracuse University told us to select a leader to study for our final projects. It was my opportunity to concentrate on the life and leadership of Mandela. I watched dozens of videos and read everything concerning his life in order to understand and be to able predict his actions or decisions. The essential question on my mind throughout that process was: what would Madiba do? I knew that a clear answer to this question could define my own political future.

I learned that Mandela is a man of principle who would not deviate from what he deems to be good for his people, even when the road seems rough. His fundamental purpose was to convince the apartheid regime that the ANC had no intent of chasing white South Africans into the sea; that in spite of all that had gone wrong, South Africa belongs to all who live in it. These values are clearly manifested in his summation at the Rivonia Tial in which he stated, "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination, I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities, it is an idea for which I hope to live for and to see realized, but my lord, if needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die."

Throughout my studies of Mandela's life and leadership, the circle always tends to meet at his unwavering commitment to a multi-racial South Africa, or what Desmond Tutu aptly refers to as a Rainbow Nation of God.

Throughout his retirement from political life, Mandela remained concerned about the failure of leadership in Africa, painfully condemning Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, a man he previously considered a comrade in the struggle for African freedom. When Mandela retired from political life, he did not want to spend the remainder of his life seeking solutions to African problems, so he quite poignantly declared, "It is in your hands now." As a young African who has grown up in Madiba's shadow, I cannot agree more. I know, after many years of studying what Madiba would do, that he is currently wagging his fingers at those fighting over the remains of his children to find something better to do, "you know."

I am sad that I'll never get to meet Mandela, but he remains the only African leader I can quote without hesitation and with confidence that he lived what he preached. And just like I was heading to jail when Mandela was getting out of prison, I have taken the time to write this article at a time when I am preparing for my own bar exam. As a lawyer, Mandela fought unjust laws and defended the oppressed. When he declared that it is in our hands now, I knew he was telling me that aluta continua and he will not be around forever. Now is the time for us, Madiba's children, to take over the struggle.

I know I should have been studying, Madiba, but I am also inspired to know that on December 12, 1984, you humbly marked the outcome of your law exams in your diary: Results: failed all 6 subjects. I will fare better.