OR: THE MYSTIC CORDS OF NELSON ROLIHLAHLA MANDELA’S (Madiba’s) SHADOW
It was Spring break at Central State University, March, 1968. I was junior at Central, double majoring in English and Philosophy. Wearing blue jeans, sporting a short Afro and a flower-colored shirt which was the hippie style, I went to Louisville, Kentucky for the purpose of courting Joyce Richie and meeting her parents. She was a senior at Central.
I drove a borrowed Mustang that barely went down the road. I met her father and mother, Roscoe and Mildred. Joyce’s mother drank beer and ate cheese. For some reason, I mentioned that I did not buy gas from Gulf or British Petroleum gas stations. Joyce’s mother looked at me so oddly. I will never forget her awe and anxiety struck look. I said those gas stations supported apartheid in South Africa. That was the first time I can remember South Africa being a deeply embedded part of my life – not a passing supported social cause but a cacophony of conditions for which what I said, felt, and did where in some way substantively associated. I was very adamant about not buying from companies that supported apartheid. Joyce’s mother turned to her daughter and said, quite clearly, that she will face a different kind of life. I had not proposed marriage so I just stood, silent, respectfully. I was against the idea of marriage in any event. It was just another antiquated institution that needed to be replaced by unmitigated freedom. (By the end of 1969 I married Joyce. But I never purchased gas from Gulf or BP!)
It was the summer of 1972. I was in residence at Kivakoni Island, Dar es Salem, Tanzania, learning how to develop Ujamaa villages – their structure, principles, and the type of work I might do (teaching English, given by rudimentary Swahili). However, I was intent on doing something else – carrying arms to fight against the Portuguese colonialist in Mozambique for FRELIMO (Portuguese Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) or the front in Guinea-Bissau, PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde). I dined with Samora Machel (head of FRELIMO) and Emperor Haile Selassie at the emperor’s palace six weeks later; I eventually meet Amilcar Cabral, head of the PAIGC at the Wabi Shabeli Hotel, Mexico Circle, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We shared a beer and ate cheese at its bar and walked to another hotel for his interview with Scandinavian journalists. But before meeting Machrl and Cabral, I was dissuaded from being trained as an armed militant.
On a trip outside of Dar es Salem with trainees we passed a training camp that was neither FRELIMO, PAIGC or Tanzanian regulars. It was a small training camp for the African National Congress (ANC). It was the sophistication of the ANC members – teaching me what makes sense – that shaped what I would do next. By the fall of 1972 I had a new skill. I was neither a teacher at a Ujamaa village nor an arms carrying foreigner who did not speak the local languages nor the linqua franca of Portuguese, but a courier that could readily travel between countries as an American carrying contraband information (books, letters, etc.) and conduct financial transactions on behalf of others. It was a good year, although my new skill was never employed in Africa.
In the summer of 1984, my youngest son, L. Nawatu Harris, was four years old. There were protests at the South African embassy, at Embassy Row, Washington DC, led by Jesse Jackson. With my son on my back, we went marching. Jesse Jackson lifted my son from my shoulders and put him on his shoulders. We continued to march.
My daughter, Jamila, turned sixteen years old in the February of 1988. In the summer of 1989, I took my daughter with me for her first trip abroad to the Oxford Centre for African Studies, Jesus College, Summer Institute. By pure chance, on a walk from the conference to tea, I meet an ANC courier who was still plying the trade. I had retired, having spent my time as a courier in the Caribbean in the 1970’s. My skills were no longer needed by 1988 – especially since I was known by the government of Dominica (mistaken for me, a close friend was interrogated in Roseau, Dominica). Traveling with books by Castro, bank drafts for black power militants with US accounts and development proposals were superfluous. The potential for additional black power and socialist revolts were over. Armed guerrilla, class, and race warfare were no longer viable. Members of the progressive organizations I knew – my handlers – had become the new establishment, disbanded, integrated into new business ventures or killed.
Marcus Bishop, with whom I shared a discussion of black power in the darkest of nights by the light of a single candle at Castle Bruce Estate, Dominica, was killed in 1983 by Bernard Coard’s firing squad in Grenada. Walter Rodney who taught in Dar es Salem in the old days, returned to his home, Guyana, and was killed in 1980 by a bomb in its capital, Georgetown. Samora Machel died in a plane crash in South Africa in 1986. Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed in 1974, died in bed under dubious circumstances in 1975 and was buried unceremoniously under a concert slab/latrine. Amilcar Cabral was assassinated in 1973. The price of the ticket.
By 1989 I was a settled man engaged in work more suited to me – the work of an academician. The struggle in South Africa, however, had not abated. The cover of attending the Oxford Centre for African Studies worked for him; meeting and networking with a new generation of radical academicians worked for me.
It was at the South Africa House, just off Trafalgar Square, London, in 1990, where I saw the bronze Mandela bust. I was in London working to get a few extra funds. My oldest son, Jarrard, would soon take his maiden voyage (as a saxophone player with a band to help open Disneyland, France). The ANC, as a part of it agreement with the apartheid regime, suspended its armed struggle in 1990. There was a small celebration, which I crashed. It became an informal occasion for white counsel employees to have tense discussions about which whites would be fired or report to new black administrators with future black South African employees; and for black South Africans to figure out what the job titles meant and who was qualified to hold different positions. Macabre. Institution building does not come with a roadmap. Credulity and fallibility are handmaidens of empowerment; so too shortfalls of expectations, massive failures and grand successes. I ate well.
I traveled twice, between 2005 and 2008, to South Africa. Each time, among my activities, I researched the life of the lawyer, Pixley Kalsaka Seme. He was one of three founders of the ANC in 1912, second president, and a colleague of Alain Locke at Oxford University between 1907 and 1910. It was as if his life was a rehearsal, an act of trial and error, to help set the stage for the next lawyer who would complete the part, Mandela.
I have written the last article on Seme that I will ever write. The curtain has closed.
My daughter, mother of two daughters, passed of breast cancer in 2007. Joyce passed of breast cancer in 2012. My sons have been to Mexico Circle, the roundabout next to Wabi Shabeli Wabi Building College, Addis Abba, Ethiopia, in 1998 where I lived. L. Nawatu, an account manager for educational computers in Virginia, went with my granddaughter, Jade, for her maiden voyage abroad to New Zealand. Jarrard teaches and plays jazz in Chicago. If all goes well, before I depart the stage, I will take Jaliyah, my youngest granddaughter, on her maiden voyage abroad in 2014.
Mandela and the ANC have been a guide, a teacher, moral force, image, model, and always a part of my life – sometimes as shadow, sometimes as a person, sometimes as a moral cause and sometimes an historical figure. There. Always there.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I sit alone in the dark and quietly drink a beer and eat cheese.
Sometimes, just sometimes, a person’s life can be seen not just as a function of its facts – what they said, triumphs, sufferings – but what happens to others by how they lived. The mystic cords of images, influences, real and imagined relationships leave unpredictable traces. From Joyce Richie’s mother’s look of awe and anxiety to my look of awe and anxiety at the last courier I would ever meet, Mandela’s shadow walked, and traces have weaved their own web of, and in, multiples lives.
I have never told the above story. Mandela’s shadow, again, travels in the shadow and vagaries of my wayward soul.
Amandla. awaeitu and A luta Continua
Leonard Harris, December 2013