Nelson Mandela save me from the kitchen

2008-09-25 00:00

It was one of those bold yellow African days that shine any time of the year, I don’t remember the exact date. The year was 1992.

Nelson Mandela stepped into the gloom of the Greytown town hall, the tall dark-suited man had come laden with a lifetime of untold speeches to deliver to us on that warm afternoon.

His friends and fellow party members pressed in behind him. I knew nothing of him, until his recent release from prison, only that our fathers were afraid of him. The long buffet table we had prepared was heavy with food and flowers when he arrived. I had just finished arranging the palm leaves and roses from my garden. Hot dishes of spiced rice and saucy chicken lay steaming in a pool of sunlight. It was the first time I had seen black people sitting down to eat in the town hall, for apartheid was not yet finished. They were seated in dark rows, talking easily among themselves. The kitchen out back was filled with fat, singing Zulu women washing pots. None of them would ever imagine sitting down at one of those white-clothed tables in the dining hall.

When dinner was over Mr Mandela went up the steps to the podium on the stage, framed by the thick red curtains and shaded by the dim space behind. I had never listened to a political speech from that podium before, only celebratory wedding speeches or school prize-giving ceremonies. Actually I had never really listened to a political speech at all.

I took a seat in the middle of an empty row below and looked up. The audience looked up with defensive expectant faces, sitting with prejudice held in front of their hearts like little shields, sure of the fight to come.

Mr Mandela’s far-off face high up at the podium smiled slowly and began telling his story. Our ears turned like flowers towards his warm voice. He looked at us with eyes that had looked for almost an eternity through blue walls and stones and blue sea, and had seen the daily practice of terrible injustice against human beings for much longer than I had lived, for it was the year I was born that he was arrested and put into prison.

Very shortly he was interrupted, a figure approached him on stage and whispered in his ear. Nelson Mandela looked calmly across at us and said: “I would like you all to leave the hall quietly, not to panic and run, but with all calmness to leave the hall, because a message has come from the local police that there may be a bomb.”

Everyone jumped up and rushed to the door that led out to the open street. I saw that it would be futile to join the throng, so I slipped back to the kitchen to wait for the panic to subside.

Standing alone there, against that stainless steel sink, I could smell the hot bubbly dishwater, still swaying from the hands that had left it moments before. After a few minutes I heard shuffling footsteps coming to the door. Policemen were searching for the bomb, with their dogs on leads, sniffing everywhere.

A head poked around the corner and I jumped, it was Mr Mandela. He came into the room, smiled and asked: “What are you doing in here my girl?”

I mumbled something about waiting safely here for the crowd to grow thin. His bodyguards pressed and motioned him to the door. He was much taller than I had expected.

He said: “Come with me my girl,” and reached out and took my hand and pulled me to him. His hand kept mine as we shuffled along. The big soft brown hand held my small white hand. He asked me questions while we walked, and I looked up into his high face; it beamed down, and I was kept tight in this dark circle of safe men, all shuffling together down the long passage towards the bright doorway.

Something happened to me while holding the hand of Madiba. He stretched out his hand and gently led me by the heart out of the kitchen to look at the bright sky. It was a short walk to freedom.


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