Before I knew that Nelson Mandela existed, I thought that our then-leader, Kenyan President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, was the world’s only statesman. I was 5 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 the radio, a technology that was 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 said that agriculture was the backbone of our nation. He said that 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 British Broadcasting Corporation’s Swahili service. On most evenings, at 6 o’clock, men gathered to listen at the homes of the few, such as my father, who had radios. The news bulletin lasted only 30 minutes, so everyone had to be absolutely quiet. But, on Feb. 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 then 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 he had spent 27 years in South African prisons, meant so much to Africans – whether they came from big cities or from 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 1950s, the white minority in South Africa was tightening its grip on power through a system of racial segregation 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 in South Africa. Mandela’s release from prison 10 years later moved Africa one step closer to absolute independence. That mission was completed in 1994, when the apartheid system fell and South Africans chose Mandela as their first democratically elected president.
As I learned more about Mandela, I wondered how he had achieved what seemed to me to be the unimaginable, namely 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 years old at the time, old enough to understand how unusual it was for an incumbent African president to willingly retire from office. 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 multiparty democracy paved the way for an election the following year. Moi was allowed to run again, as long as he honored the constitutional limit of two terms.
I feel extremely fortunate and honored that the start of my formal education coincided with Mandela’s re-emergence in African politics. His patience and civility, as well as his 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 the dignity that colonialism had robbed from them.
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 such as 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.
Juliet Torome, a writer and documentary filmmaker, was awarded Cinesource Magazine’s first annual Flaherty documentary award. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).