Before my trip to South Africa I really wanted to read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom so I bought the book. I brought the book to South Africa and it sat on my night table for five months, unopened. Then I decided to jet set off to Europe and I didn’t bring the book with me which is good because I managed to accumulate an entire suitcase full of books while living in Sweden. When I went home for Christmas at the end of that year I got a Kindle. I figured this was going to help a lot with my packing issues so when I was packing for Spain I decided that Long Walk to Freedom would be the one real book I would bring to Spain. Again, Nelson Mandela found a nice cozy place on my night table where he sat for another five months.
In those five months he became a novelty for my six-year-old that I au pair for. He would come in, look at the book, look at me and ask me why I still hadn’t finished this book. I would read ten pages or so and put it down. One day he came in and asked me:
“Liz, when are you going to finish this book on Obama?” I looked at him.
“Fernando, this isn’t Obama this is Nelson Mandela.”
Who is Nelson Mandela? How do you put Nelson Mandela into words so that a six-year-old who thinks that the only famous man with black skin is Obama will understand? I don’t remember how I responded but he probably looked at me like I had six heads and asked to play something else.
After this I was determined to find a kid-friendly book on Nelson Mandela that would do a better job of explaining this amazing man than I ever could. (Aside: I finally finished Long Walk to Freedom while bouncing around Germany, Austria and Italy this past summer. Once I got into I couldn’t put it down.) I found Who Was Nelson Mandela? A kid friendly biography that is a part of the “big head” biography series that has the picture of the books’ subjects on the covers with, you guessed it, a big head.
This all brings me to the other day when I finally started reading Who Was Nelson Mandela? with my now seven-year-old. We snuggled under some blankets and began to delve into the life of Nelson Mandela. We made it through the first few pages with pictures depicting Mandela in his village in traditional clothing without too many questions. The questions started when there was a picture of young Mandela and Oliver Thambo opening their law firm wearing western styled suits.
“Liz, what are they wearing?”
“Bathing suits, what does it look like they’re wearing?” (if my kids learn nothing more from me at least they will learn the art of sarcasm)
“They wear the same clothes as us?”
Oh boy, I thought. This was going to be mind blowing for this little one. I began to explain that yes, people in South Africa wear the same clothes as us. To prove this I took him to my computer and showed him some pictures from my trip. He couldn’t believe it. I showed him pictures of kids about his age wearing the same type of clothes he wore to school. He couldn’t believe it. Then he saw some cars in one of my pictures.
“Liz, they drive the same cars as us?”
I then explained that yes they do drive the same cars as us in Spain but they drive on the opposite side of the road like those crazy people in England.
“Liz, show me a picture of him.”
“Of Nelson Mandela.” He said with as if it was obvious whom he was speaking about.
We then started to Google pictures of Mandela. It became a bit of a game as he tried to find a picture of Mandela wearing the same shirt he was wearing on the cover of the book. Then we came across a picture of Mandela mid dance move. So, I showed him a video of Mandela doing his famous dance moves. This made him laugh like crazy. (He now goes around the house moving his arms back and forth much like Mandela did when he danced.)
As we continued to Google and look at pictures from my trip more questions came.
“So people in all of Africa dress like this? What do people in Egypt look like? What do they dress like? What type of cars do they drive?” (He’s recently been learning about Ancient Egypt in school and has a new obsession with sphinxes and the Nile River.) As we continued to Google he saw pictures of women wearing scarves and asked why they dressed like that. I explained that that was a part of their religion.
The questions continued. “Why are there trees in these pictures? Isn’t Africa a desert? What do you mean Africa isn’t a desert? What do you mean Africa isn’t a country?”
I then pulled up a topographical map of Africa and explained where there were deserts and where there weren’t and how Africa was a continent and not a country. He didn’t quite understand so we spent a little bit more time on how many countries make up Africa.
As we got back to the book I could see his head was doing flips, he couldn’t get his head around everything that he had just learned. The next part was going to blow his mind too. I had to explain what an apartheid is. To bring this down to his level and emphasis the absurdity of what had happened in South Africa (and in the United States too) I explained that they tried to separate people based on their skin color. This really didn’t hit home for him. I asked him:
“What if I could only use that door to get into my room because I have green eyes and you could only use that door to get into my room because you have brown eyes?”
This sounded crazy to him, as it should have. We continued to read about the different levels of segregation from living locations to benches and everything in between. Every time I brought this back to eye color to emphasize how we wouldn’t have been able to do the same things because we don’t have the same eye color.
We’ve been reading a little bit each day and he’s slowly starting to understand more and more. The first day after we started reading he wanted to draw me a picture of something I like to do. Since reading was too boring for him to draw he choose traveling. To depict this he decided to draw a map. In drawing Africa he once again realized how many countries make up Africa and how The Sahara is not actually a country but a desert that spans over many countries.
For the past few summers my host family’s cousins have hosted a girl from “The Sahara” that comes and lives with them for the summer. I asked them where she was from and they just answered “The Sahara.” It never occurred to them that she had a country. To them she just lives in a small village in The Sahara.
As Fernando and I continue to journey through Nelson Mandela’s life my eyes are opened. Once upon a time, not too long ago, I too was ignorant to many race issues. I am still ignorant in many ways but I am continuously trying to learn more and share what I do know. Like Fernando, I try and put it into terms I can understand, for example to him apartheid is:
“When people are separated by the color of their skin; like if you had black skin, Liz,
and I had blue skin.”
“Blue skin Fernando?”
“Liz, I just like the color blue.”
He’s my future Avatar Rights Activist. This is one of my contributions to breaking the danger of a single story, may there be many more to come.
P.S. We found a picture of Mandela wearing the shirt depicted on the cover of the book:
For more on The Danger of a Single Story: