Saturday, December 7, 2013

In Memory

     In a place that is usually filled with laughter, announcements, cultural shows, and movie nights, there was a single canvas sitting upright on a chair, in the middle of the stage. Lit by a single lamp, the outline of a great man. The rest of the room just barely lit, a semi-circle of chairs.
     "Today we are sad for the death of a great man, a hero of our time. But we also celebrate his life, and all of the lives that he touched."
     It surprised me how emotional the following hour turned out to be. I'd expected a few words by our president, perhaps a song, a moment of silence. But, as always at UWC, it is the people, the personal experiences, that make the moment.
     We all stood for the South African national anthem. I admit I was surprised by the joy of the song. The anthem of my country calls for solidarity, unity, greatness. The words I heard this evening, in a language I did not understand, called for a simple celebration of life. Perhaps the words change the song, and perhaps the dimness of the room and solemnity of my fellow classmates exacerbated the moment, but nevertheless it was powerful.
     Then a song by our African Chorus. Introduced by the story of the same song being sung a world away for the first time. Written for Mandela, and performed, against all social constrains, by a group of both black and white individuals. Performed years later in a small school in New Mexico, celebrating the life of their honorary president.
     And then personal accounts. There was one from one of our students who represents South Africa, one from one of our teachers, one from a Swazi student, and another from a teacher. The short account given by J, one of our English teachers stuck with me. He spoke of growing up in Lesotho, a little boy of six who saw the world very simply. He told of growing up and learning that the world he'd thought he lived in, simple and peaceful, was not at all true. He described his friends and caretakers, who'd loved him though he wasn't one of them. And he recounted attending a concert with his black friends, who at the end had stood with a fist raised high in the air. Later he'd seen hundreds and hundreds of fists raised for Mandela. J spoke simply and earnestly and brought tears to everyone's eyes.
     It is not that any of my classmates or teachers spoke of anything unusual. In fact, I don't think anyone in the room had even met Nelson Mandela. Yet being reminded of the difficulties this one man had faced, the number of lives he'd touched, how he lived his life knowing what was right and maintained his vision of peace, it was difficult not to feel a deep sense of respect. My peers and I can only dream of living such a life.
     After the auditorium, the entire group was led up to our Mandela Peace Garden, guided by a singing African Chorus. The path was lined with candles, as was the entire garden. After a few more words from our president, and some chanting from one of our teachers, we closed the commemoration.
     I suppose it wasn't the ceremony that made the time so significant, but rather the notions. Here we were, a bunch of kids hoping to change the world, celebrating a man who had done just that. It was inspiring, and motivating, and I hope that one day we too can serve the world. I felt honored to be present at this celebration, and lucky to be a part of the UWC mission.

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