When Nelson Mandela Smiles, my whole being smiles with him. In all the film footage I have seen of the man, he has a warm passionate smile. I frequently ponder what keeps him going. I zip back to my grandmother, a tormented and broken spirit. My grandmother is Russian who was forced to work as a slave laborer in Nazi, Germany. She has great difficulty talking about her memories of that period. She doesn’t need to say much, the pain and horror is evident in her eyes. My grandmother is a bitter and paranoid person. She thinks the worst of everybody, always complaining about how unfair life is. Many of her opinions are racist, for example, she believes that white skin is superior to black skin and she hates all Germans with passion. My earliest memory of my grandmother is of her telling me that she will die soon and asking me if I would feel sad in that event. This was 25 years ago. She is alive and well today. Sometimes I wonder about her sanity. I can’t remember a single memory of her smiling. Who can blame my grandmother? With all the hardship that she has been through, is it any wonder that she is cynical. Yet certain people go through enormous difficulty and come out the other side whole. I remember the first speech that Nelson Mandela gave when released from prison, he said “South Africa for all South Africans”. My grandmother would have said, “Lets stick it to the white people, time for revenge”.
In the Nelson Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, there is a story that is ingrained in my imagination. Nelson Mandela as a young man is walking home, on his way he sees a white woman digging through a garbage dump looking for something to eat. He is so moved by the sight, he immediately takes the money in his pocket and hands it to her. When he goes home he reflects on this incident. He realizes that he sees black women in that same predicament daily yet he is never moved so strongly by the experience. Nelson Mandela realizes that by growing up in a racist society he has internalized the fact that when black people suffer it is just a fact of life, yet when white people suffer it is unbearable and it must be remedied immediately. Nelson Mandela has to fight apartheid that is inside his emotions, inside his thinking and inside his soul before he is able to effectively fight the apartheid on the outside.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was liberated by the American Army. One day they showed up and told everybody that they are free now, even offered my grandparents a ride out of Germany. What my grandmother remembers most about her saviors was the neatness of their uniforms, how well fed they were, the fact that the soldiers would take time to shave every morning. “It is as if they weren’t touched by the ugly reality of the war in any way, as if they were above it all”, my grandmother told me once.
Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, President George Bush broadcasted a taped message to the Iraqi people telling them that soon they will be free. Since electricity was knocked out in most Iraqi cities, I wonder how many Iraqis got to see and hear the message. I wonder what sort of freedom President George Bush has in mind for the Iraqi people; the sort of freedom that Nelson Mandela was able to achieve or the sort of freedom my grandmother got. The burning oil wells sure looked happy to be liberated. As the shooting flames danced in the wind they looked like they were greeting the American soldiers. No words can describe my feeling of despair and helplessness. I have been to countless anti-war rallies. Heard the speeches and shouted the slogans. I feel so defeated. I feel humiliated as a human being. I feel that my efforts have been in vein. Will I be able to free my heart from this feeling of defeat? …… that is another liberation story.
My goal in life is not be famous. I don’t want to be mentioned in any history books. I don’t want to be a hero. I just want to be able to smile even when I am 90 years old and give my grandchildren passionate hugs, assuming I live that long. I don’t judge my grandmother for her behavior, I am just glad she wasn’t the leader of the ANC.
This article was published in thetyee on January 2004, a fabulous publication.