Nelson Mandela is a Human Being. So am I.


I got lost in the forest yesterday on a walk. It wasn’t really a big deal, although I kept on snapping my fingers to keep away the bears. I know it was effective because I am still alive today. Taking advantage of the time and my handy mp3 player, I listened to CBC Radio’s Ideas podcast, The Mandela Tapes. Ideas was the first broadcaster able to access over the fifty hours of interviews with Mandela, taped during 1992-1996, which they then synthesized into an hour program of sheer excellence. It is well worth the listen, not only as a desperate distraction while lost in the woods.

I tend towards hero worship. I love to place people on pedestals and admire their greatness from a distance. If I don’t think I can be perfect at something, I often do not attempt it. Listening to Mandela speak about his experiences, I felt a little of that same sense of awe. But then, in the next breath, Mandela would mention being tired or his relationship challenges: as the hour progressed, he did not become less of a hero, but did become more human. Throughout the interview, I was consistently reminded of life and leadership in Mampuján.

I arrived in Mampuján ready to idealize the community leaders. And working with the leaders in Mampuján taught me about the myriad of challenges associated with leadership: juggling meetings and newfound fame with family commitments and responsibilities, dealing with gossip and small town politics, and speaking with courage and wisdom in unsafe spaces. Working for change is exhausting! This is not a glamorous life, even though the leaders are eager to embrace new experiences. There were press interviews and prizes, but I was also a witness to the behind the scenes frustration and confusion that often accompanied moments of joy and accomplishment.
However, through everything, they remain ordinary people. I remember apologizing to Juana for some little thing, feeling like I was not living up to my heroic ideal, in the first month. She stopped in the middle of hand washing clothes, answering phone calls about meetings, and directing her children and laughed. “Anna,” she said, “you know that we, and you included, are only human beings, right? That none of us are perfect, and none of us are expecting perfection, right?”
“Oh,” I replied, “I guess I never really thought about it that way before.” And she was right. There were many moments of frustration throughout the two years, right alongside my continued admiration for the people I was working with. But only the admission that we were all humans working together allowed us to do develop a trusting relationship. They would mock my Spanish and tell me to relax and I would make fun of them for always been late and tell them to stop talking on their phones while driving motorcycles. And then we would get down to work.
During many late night huttub conversations under the midnight sun this week, percolating in hot water and wine, we discussed the responsibility of living in this world. Conclusion: life is complicated and there is no right action or ideal person available create the perfect change. Rather, change involves small steps taken together with a group seeking to make a difference in local community. That is what Mandela did, as he used the opportunities presented to him and worked with others also committed to created change.
This is part of the concept of Ubuntu. According to Mandela it “means that a person is a person because of other people.” I am slowly getting over my hero worship and learning to see the beauty in everyday people, including myself. As Mandela also says, “I had never lost hope that this great transformation would occur, because I always knew that down deep in every human heart there is mercy and generosity.” I have seen that mercy and generosity in the people I have worked with in Mampuján. As I enter into relationships with people, not because they are my heroes, but because they are my friends, I see the potential that lies in me as well to love and to take small steps. Not because I am great, but because I am human.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. If people can learn to hate they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Nelson Mandela

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