It wasn’t an unusual morning. The sun was brilliant by six am, my bedroom was beginning to bake in the Mombasa heat and my washing was still left forgotten on the line, swaying in the breeze. It was when I was putting on my trainers to head out for my walk when I first noticed the stillness; the quietness. It wasn’t long before I realized why. Every TV set I passed was of Nelson Mandela. Every newspaper headline, every radio broadcast, every conversation I overheard was of the sorrow in South Africa. The entire continent in a state of mourning over the loss of what I can only describe as a Great Man.
I must admit, Mandela hasn’t had a large place in my heart or mind even though he has undoubtedly done incredible, courageous things. He isn’t someone that I know a great deal about or have a connection with but what I do have is an idea of what he means to the people of Kenya and to the continent of Africa.
While I do not know much of Mandela, I do know a bit about Wangari Maathai who is another great leader of Africa who has passed and had a similar vision to Mandela’s. I visited her Green Belt Movement, of which she is the founder, in Nairobi and spoke to the people involved in the grass roots development of food security, biodiversity and gender empowerment (among other endeavours) and one thing became clear: Wangari Maathai is truly missed. Not just for her incredible being but for her leadership and vision for what Kenya needs and what the GBM should do for the future of not only Kenya but of Africa. I can’t help but imagine that this is a microcosm to how South Africa and the continent feel with Mandela’s passing.
While visiting the movement I was able to speak extensively about the projects these women take on thanks to an interpreter. It was evident that the future of the movement was a precarious one because of Maathai’s absence. I believe that what Maathai truly wanted was that her leadership not be needed; to have the people of Kenya feel empowered enough to do things for themselves, on their own accord, and to do so with hope and courage towards equality and justice regardless of gender, creed, race or tribal ties. This is really the only hope for the future of GBM, of Kenya, of Africa and the World.
With prominent leaders with clear visions for this vast continent growing old and passing, I am hopeful that the vision of Maathai and of Mandela will come to fruition in the future generations I see in the schools here in Kenya and in the prominent examples from around the world. That people will feel empowered enough to lead themselves and strive towards a future of hope that these two great leaders dreamed of.
This isn’t such an easy thing though. Mandela and Maathai were imprisoned for asking for freedom, equality and basic human rights for all. Malala Yousafzai is an example of the extreme consequences that can happen when demanding these rights; being a young child in Pakistan on the target list of the Taliban, later to be shot for wanting herself and her friends to attend school. Yet she continues to raise her voice and stand up against the Taliban to protect and call for all people’s education regardless of gender. Why should she wait for someone else to ask when she has a voice herself? This is empowerment at its greatest.
The only way Africa, as well as the rest of the world, can continue to grow and shift to a more positive future is to have more people like Mandela, Maathai, and Yousafzai. To have an educated people with hope and a sense of empowerment. To feel that the world can change if you ask – no demand– it to. To feel that you can make a difference and that your voice counts.
In finishing a degree in Geography, I rejoiced that I managed to maintain a sense of hope. To still believe that the world could change and wouldn’t just accept it for the atrocities that some things are but to see the beauty in the way things might be. I don’t want to see the world through jaded, cynical eyes – but of hope. Some, shall I say ‘elders,’ scoff at how naive I sound, believing that I can ‘make a difference’ and how I’m a ‘silly girl who needs to see the real world’ but it is that exact attitude that kills the idea of change before it can even begin to happen. The only reason these people are even able to accept the status quo is because of their own privileged position in it. So before you roll your eyes at someone who believes the world can be different, that the world can change, imagine if someone did the same to Mandela or Maathai and they stopped their work because of your cynical doubts and unimaginative view of the future? Don’t be that person.
With Mandela’s passing I hope that instead of just mourning or updating a status of condolence, people will rise up and walk towards something good; something right. Help others along the way and find a cause worth standing up for – do something about it. Tell a friend, share stories, explain something to someone that has meaning in the grand scheme of this thing we call life! Encourage others to imagine a future you would be proud of when there’s so much to be ashamed of in the present. Try your best to realize this seemingly unreachable dream because you know, there’s a saying for that: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela