Nelson Mandela smiled at me everyday when I walked by him. Softly curled lips and softly curled hair, his face beckoned me and I came to him. I’d plop myself before him sometimes. On hazy afternoons, I’d wait for him to blink. When I was doing my homework, I’d look up at him, wait for him to give me the answers. And when I thought no one was watching me, I’d flash my gap-toothed smile back at him. Mandela was boxed in between a gold-painted plastic frame of four sides. About 4ft x 3ft. The colors were de-saturated. I think that was the style. My dad had admired Mandela so much that he had gone out one day to buy that picture of him. He had hung it up right there in the dining room and it perched on the crayon-marked walls above the dining table for many years. I don’t know when he bought it. I can’t even remember the dining room without that picture. It was just always there.
I saw Mandela when I ate Rice Krispies Treats cereal for breakfast and when I came home from school and threw my book bag down on the light gray carpet, even before I went to bed and when I ran around the house with my sisters, we’d pass by Mandela. He stayed just past the kitchen doorway. “Play gently,” is what he seemed to be saying whenever my sisters and I ran around the dining table. I wonder if he enjoyed the boisterous laughter of four giddy Nigerian American girls in a carefree nirvana.
Mandela even showed up in our family pictures. Aunty and Uncle and our cousins came by and sat near the dining room, on the couch with the big bold flower print all over it and we had all posed for a picture with Grandma who had recently come from Nigeria. She had dark leathery skin and she smelled “earthy,” though at that age- I must have been about eight years old- I had never heard of the word “earthy.” We sat on the couch and posed for a picture and in that picture, in the snapshot that is still placed in the family album, Mandela is in the background, grinning upon us like God. I like that picture.
Since then, I’d always felt that Mandela was part of me. He was a pillar in my childhood. The zeal and reverence my father had for Mandela rubbed off on me. My father gave us an enduring appreciation of South Africa that centered around Mandela. He ordered a VHS copy of Ipi Ntombi from Georgia Public Broadcasting Television during one of their fundraising campaign drives. My sisters and I memorized all the dances and every single song from Ipi Ntombi. South African music often played throughout the house and in the car. Hugh Masekela’s “Bring Back, Nelson Mandela” is one of my favorite songs from the music maestro. We love the 1992 Sarafina movie -the one starring Leleti Khumalo and Whoopi Goldberg.
Just a few weeks ago, I saw the movie Endgame, where re-enactments of secret talks between a young Thabo Mbeki and influential Afrikaners unfolded on the small screen. For me, it was all about Mandela.
Maybe, with that picture in our house, my dad was sending a message: Mandela is the gold standard for achievement and a life of purpose.
As the world waits for God to make the final call on his precious son, my mind goes back to that picture in the plastic frame that stayed in our house for so many years. No matter how many images of him I see – the one where he is released from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 walking hand in hand with Winnie as she gives a black power salute, or the one where he takes the oath of office in Pretoria on May 10, 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected president or the ones where age creeps like a gently prancing spider along his face – it’s the one that smiled at me when I was a little girl, from above the dining room table at our house on Aberdeen Lane in Stone Mountain, Georgia that speaks to me the most. He is regal, fatherly, with lovable eyes that sing. My family has since moved from that house.
We ended up moving to a smaller place, still in Stone Mountain. It was on Cedar Park Trail. Mandela came with us. We moved again, this time to an even smaller place, an apartment complex. We moved again, to Lithonia, Georgia. By then, I had no idea where the Mandela picture was. The last time I had seen it, Mandela’s face was badly scarred with a crack of glass. Even though that picture, that large beautiful frame of Mandela is gone, his image has since moved from the frame to my heart.
By Chika Oduah