My mother was only 16 years old when she first arrived in New York City from a newly independent Senegal in 1968. I was born four years later into a world where many of my parents’ friends were young revolutionaries fleeing tyranny, dictatorship, injustice and repression: Africans and African Americans, Caribbean, South and Central Americans, Jews and Palestinians. The fight for human dignity, social justice and civil rights was a struggle for right against wrong. We knew what freedom looked like. We also knew what freedom fighters looked like. They were colored like us, with families and children growing up in the middle of civil strife. Yet, I also remember distinctly what joy looked like, in spite of the paycheck-to-paycheck immigrant existence.
I remember Mandela’s homecoming parade in Harlem shortly after his release from prison in 1990. In the electricity of palpable hope, I saw what a hero meant. In Tata Mandela, I learned what a hero could do for his people. It was a bone-crushing struggle in the face of steep odds that produced this collective global victory. I saw this victory embodied in the face of a regal African man and his equally proud wife Winnie Mandela. I also saw his love for all of us.
In African tradition, nestled in the very best narratives, we learn life lessons, the moral instructions on what it means to be human, and how we might and must prevail in spite of any and all odds from the journeys of elders like Tata Mandela.
Now, in the days just after the news of Mandela’s death has circled the world, I see, particularly among many of my African brothers and sisters, a sense of quiet despair. It seems Mandela’s is the death we cannot bear – imagining an Africa without him, left to ruthless dictators, ambiguous realities, false narratives and pirated dreams. An Africa without hope, an Africa unparented.
As the director of a children’s museum in Senegal, I cannot underwrite this despair. As I did in the 1980s, our children today are watching and learning. With close to 46 percent of the continent under 14 years of age, Africa is vibrantly young, and Tata Mandela knew this. He and his contemporary freedom fighters nurtured a sense of purpose and direction and, yes, optimism and love in my generation. Even as we mourn his loss, we must take time to tell our children the story of our Mandela. In his life story, there is a how-to guide for building Africa and remaking the world.
Mandela’s middle name Rohlihlala means ‘troublemaker’ in his native isiXhosa. During his lifetime, Mandela was called many names: ‘terrorist’, ‘agitator’ and ‘communist.’ Yet none of these names impacted Tata’s vision of himself and his struggle. Our ability to name our struggle and ourselves is the power to define our legacy. We must teach African children to define themselves and their struggle even in the face of a global narrative that will characterize them as suffering, helpless and wretched. As young Africans, we must teach them to define the pride in this collective surname, as Tata did, and maintain the vision possible in this naming of ourselves.
In an instant age of social media and viral videos, time is distorted. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. We must teach children what long journeys entail and how we must never lose sight of what we are building. We struggle because we are meant to win, because in the decision to struggle there is the very transformation of our natures from passive acceptance to active resistance.
During these days of grief, our children will and must see us mourn, but they must also know that we have not suffered a loss. We are not lesser for Tata Mandela’s absence. In his life and story we have inherited a road map for justice and inspiration for equality. We must continue to point our children toward the spaces where injustice reigns and show them how persistence and courage must and will win.
We must share with them the stories of an Africa that is picking up where Mandela left: perhaps not of leaders and crumbling infrastructures, but of community empowerment, of digital advancement, of African ownership and accountability, of resilience and dignity and peacemaking.
These stories must include African women. The principal women in Mandela’s life were and are freedom fighters. Winnie Mandela and Graca Machel fought beside and in the place of men to create just societies. Our young girls and boys must know these models of women warriors. So often, their battles are within their own societies that relegate women to the sidelines. We must always feature the narratives of women succeeding despite the odds. Every partnership must be one of equals. How we treat others is an indication of how we treat ourselves, and we must teach our boys and girls this principle.
Finally, in our mourning we must remind the world that we sing and dance because we are alive. We must let the world hear our war cry. Yes, our elder statesman, our bright and shining star, Africa’s father has ascended, but the continent that birthed and nurtured him is far from over. We have a thousand million more watching in the wings.