Friday, December 6, 2013

No Axe Sharp Enough

Yesterday afternoon, I got off my plane in Cincinnati and saw on one of the airport televisions that Nelson Mandela had died.  When I got into my cab for the convention hotel I texted the news to my daughter and son.  A moment later, my Sengalese (I asked) cab driver shared the news with me.  A moment after that, my husband texted me: Mandela died.

Of course it came as no surprise.  He was 95 and had been ailing for a long time.  But his passing still came as a shock.  He is, I believe, the greatest peacemaker I will ever know.  I wasn't alive in Gandhi's lifetime and can not remember Martin Luther King, Jr, but Mandela, I think, stands above even then.

I have been to his cell on Robben Island, where he spent the first 17 years of the 27 he spent in jail.  Robben Island was for non-whitea political prisoners only.  It was a devastating place.  Mandela had no toilet in his cell.  He had a bucket.  He had two blankets.  No bed.  No glass in the barred window, and the winter winds in South Africa blow icily cold.

The men who give visitors tours of Robben Island today are themselves former inmates.  I've never forgotten the hulking, solemn black man in the prison cafeteria who showed us a poster of the food offered to Bantu--black--prisoners versus that given to non-Bantu--which in this case meant Indian or "colored," an apartheid category that signified mixed-race.  Black prisoners ate only mealie pap, a sort of grits, never bread.  They were never given sugar for their coffee.  They ate very little meat.  "You Christians," the man said fiercely, "Say, 'Give us this day our daily bread,' but for 17 years the man who became president of our country was not given bread."

My husband said, "He doesn't want our pity."

"No," I said, "he wants our witness."

Having witnessed Robbin Island, in all its cold brutality, I marvel that Mandela came out a peaceful man.  That he fought for peace, trained his fellow inmates in peace.  The cave at the back of the limestone quarry on Robbin Island became known as Mandela's university, because he taught inmates inside.  Taught them to read, to think, to love.

"No axe is sharp enough," Mandela said, "to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying."

Godspeed, Baba.  We will never forget you.