Originally published in Times Dispatch
In 2000, I was an ignorant 18-year-old kid. Upon a visit to South Africa 13 years ago this month, I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was. One morning my father and I visited Robben Island. That day changed my life forever.
I learned of a man who spent 27 years in prison only for freedom of conscience. I learned of a man whose prison cell was so small that he could not lie down straight in it. I learned of a man who suffered with other prisoners, buried waist deep and urinated upon by racist, bigoted prison guards, just for their entertainment. I learned of a man who went into a cave set aside for urination and defecation, and in that putrid stench he instead taught unlettered prisoners how to read and write in the sand.
I learned of a man who was forbidden to have his photo taken so no one would know what he looked like. I learned of a man who was forced to work in mines, damaging his tear ducts and thus he could not cry. I learned of a man who would spend another eight years on America’s official terrorist watch list, only to be removed finally in July 2008.
I learned of a man who has inspired billions, and changed the life of that 18-year-old that day in ways I never could have then imagined. I learned, and that has made all the difference.
Thank you President Nelson Mandela. Rest in peace.