“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela
I never got to meet him. I never got to see him and I never got to speak to him but he touched my life in more ways than one. You see Nelson Mandela has always been the paragon of a true man of character to me.
It was sometime between 2001 and 2003 when I was struggling with fitting into middle school in a new culture with new demographics. Prior to this, I had never gone to school with people of different races so you can imagine the amount of culture shock and inferiority complex I was feeling back then. Constant thoughts of "am I good enough to be among these people?" and "what do I have to offer?" crept into the back of my mind. I remember repeatedly going back home feeling despondent because of how odd I felt. I remember my mom saying to me "you're just as good as any of them Tayo." And yes that made me feel better but that good feeling was always ephemeral and then I stumbled upon a biography of Nelson Mandela and the rest as they say was history.
I would go on to read up on him. Study him. And every time I did, I kept coming back to one number. The number 27. Yes 27! "How can one man spend that many years in prison and not give up on his dream of seeing a united South Africa." "How can he not feel hate after that?" I would constantly say to myself. But this man didn't. Instead, he did quite the opposite as you all know. He sacrificed himself for what he believed in and for the greater good of his country. Even now at the age of 24 I still have not lived as long as he was in prison. That's just insane! He must have had an incredible amount of inner strength and faith to push through all those years in virtual solitude. That resonated with me and all of a sudden I didn't feel so inadequate anymore. I understood that if we understand our life's purpose and remain steadfast in our approach, then nothing can dampen our light. I realized then, as a person that I had just as much to offer as anyone. Another important thing happened to me then. My life's mission was established. I needed to leave this world a better place than it was before I came in it.
Armed with this knowledge, I started to learn as much as I could from him. Here are the five things he taught me:
Strength and Courage: Mandela once said "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." He taught me that it was OK to be imperfect because our imperfections make us who we are. We just need to be brave enough to pick ourselves up every time we fall because after all once we are down the only way is up.
The Power of Sports: It's no secret that I am a sports fanatic but few people know to what depth my fandom goes to and why. I love sports for much more than the enjoyment factor of it. I believe sport is one of the biggest equalizers we have in this world right now. It has the power to bring many people together and unite them in amazing ways. Don't believe me? Just take a look around during the World Cup or the Olympics and you see all sorts of people banding together. In my country, Nigeria there are constant rifts between ethnic groups but during every World Cup or African Nations Cup, I see people of different ethnic groups hugging and laughing all the time like they have known each other since childhood. Another example of this comes from Mandela himself when he appeared out of the tunnel during the 1995 rugby World Cup. He surprised a predominantly white crowd by shaking the hands of all the South African players while wearing the national Springbok jersey. Instead of the animosity one had come to expect in South Africa during that period between white and black people, the stadium erupted with chants of Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Such a powerful moment in history! (Go watch Invictus to see this moment in film!)
Equality: No one is better than any other person. As I said earlier I had a moment in my life when I had an inferiority complex because I was thrust into an environment with people of different races. Once I broke down the walls of insecurities I surrounded myself with in middle school, I realized that I had just as much to offer as anyone else. Ask me now what my pet peeves are and I will tell you without hesitation racism and condescending behavior. "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it's opposite."— Nelson Mandela
Self belief: As Nelson Mandela said "it always seems impossible until its done". That is really all that needs to be said. I have found that I have consistently surprised myself when I have adopted this mantra.
The Power of Education: While I believe that sports is one of the biggest equalizers in today's world, my opinion is that education is THE greatest equalizer. Education comes in all sorts of forms whether it is via documentaries, reading books or traveling around to experience different cultures. "Education is the greatest weapon one can use to change the world" as Mandela would say. I believe that education needs to start from birth because the youth are the future and if they are taught the right way then the likelihood of creating great leaders increases.
I loved this man as much as you could love anyone from afar. And as an African he meant a lot to my beloved continent AND to me. He paved the way for people all over the world to appreciate the content of people's characters instead of their outward appearances. We lost an icon. We lost a legend and I just want to express my gratitude in some way. Even right now as I am fighting back tears, I know you have made me want to be a better man and leave my permanent footprint in the sands of time as a difference maker and for that I say thank you Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Rest In Peace Sir.
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