There will inevitably be a thousand blog posts today wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 94th birthday. I, of course, join them in their happy birthday song. But, more importantly, I would like to write a thank you letter from the bottom of my heart:
July 18, 2012
Dear Mr. Mandela,
We’ve never met, although I feel like you are part of my family. Being from Eritrea, there are a lot of my family members I’ve never met, or can hardly remember because it has been so long since I saw them last. With a 30-plus year fight for independence and now a dictatorship that I feel obligated to speak out against… I don’t think I’ll be seeing my home soil anytime soon. But, I know their names and their characters through those stories told to me by the family elders. Like my aunt who worked so hard to raise her children, and later her grandchildren. Like my grandfather who was chief of our village and who taught my mother to always give to the poor, even if it meant cutting her last piece of bread in two. Like the dozens who died in the struggle for independence and those who have been imprisoned since simply for their desire for real open dialog in our nation.
We might not have been born into the same family; but I have heard stories of your life, your sacrifice for others and your desire for us to learn from your example. I remember learning that you were going to leave your seat as president to the next person, peacefully, respectfully and with the hope that it would teach Africa’s children what democracy was about… what it was really about… that even the greatest leaders were intended to just be passing through.
I wish that all of Africa’s leaders followed your example. I wish that we all, as individual Africans wherever we might live, thought of others before ourselves. If all of us had just a little of you in our hearts, our continent would certainly have already reached part of its potential sooner.
I would like to thank you for lighting the road ahead that sometimes seems dark and long. I would like to thank you for being someone who took his position as a future elder seriously. We are all future elders; it’s just that some seem to know it even in their youth, like you.
Let’s face it; you are not just an African hero. You are a super-hero and the only thing you lack is a cape. But what makes you such an incredible family member to be proud of is your humility. Yes, you know what role you played. Yes, you know you come from a part of the world where it is so easy to abuse that fame and power in order to glorify yourself in the end. But you walked, and continue to walk, the high road. You decided instead to be an example that shines so brightly that it lights the way for Africa’s children, grandchildren and beyond.
I am just an African woman who tries to help in her own tiny way. I see your example and know that I’ll probably never reach the number of people that you do or have the impact that you have. But, I thank you from the bottom of my heart as a woman, as a mother and as a fellow African. Thank you for giving me hope that one day, all of Africa’s children will look to your example as a formula for success: “Make every day a Mandela day” is the perfect way to build our cities and villages to represent the Africa of our elders.
Thank you for being my elder and loving my children enough to show them by example.
PS: Here is a short note from a couple of your many granddaughters,
“Dear Mr. Mandela. How are you doing? You did very well by saving South Africa. Today, I am going to make thank you cards for the police officers and firefighters because they keep us safe. Love, A-” (Age: 5)
“Dear Mr. Mandela, I think what you did was very brave and courageous. You stood by your beliefs and it paid off. Thank you for thinking of others who can’t help themselves. I am going to do something today to help others… “ (A.R., age 12)
In honor of his 67 years spent fighting Apartheid, Mr. Mandela asks us to give 67 minutes (in lieu of a birthday gift)… 67 minutes spent doing something to make the world a better place. So, what are YOU doing to make a difference this Mandela Day?