Scott Person, WorldTeach Namibia Volunteer ’94, reflects about his encounter with Nelson Mandela on the airplane en route to begin his service.
The 1994 WorldTeach Namibia group, by luck, was on the same plane as Nelson Mandela travelling JFK through Johannesburg. The date was January 3, 1994 (or January 4 as we crossed timezones). Nelson Mandela walked the entire plane for hours speaking with each and every one on the plane.
What is striking: He spent many minutes talking with everyone on the plane who wanted to talk. He smiled the entire time and made everyone feel like he had nothing better to do than to speak with them about whatever was on their minds.
Some of us were standing in the back of the plane talking about WorldTeach and what awaited us in our year in Namibia. One of my (soon to be) lifelong friends was someone I had just met, Roger Rigaud (part of a Georgetown program that had a partnership with WorldTeach at the time) and I were getting to know each other.
Nelson Mandela (in 4 months to be elected President of South Africa) spoke with Roger and I. He wanted to know about this group of American graduates who were on their way to Africa and what we would be doing. He asked about us. Where we came from in the States. What our hopes were for the year. Where in Namibia our schools would be located. He asked what had brought us to volunteer to live and work in Africa. He talked about education and it’s importance for all the people of the world. And he thanked us for our service, our willingness to come to Africa, and our time. When we expressed that whatever we would be able to accomplish that year, or learn for ourselves that year, would pale in comparison to his life, he corrected our deprecation and talked of how valuable and honorable our work would be for the Namibians we would soon be working with, but also for ourselves. We all stumbled and fumbled our answers (at least I did) being overwhelmed in his presence.
In all, he likely spent nearly 5 minutes with Roger and me before moving on to others on the plane. It wasn’t enough and yet it felt like we’d been talking for hours and had no right to expect him to stay with us any longer. Of course, in reality, we had no right to expect any amount of time from him in the first place. But he never made you feel that way.
Today, I have this photo on the shelf of my library next to my journal that I was bringing along to Namibia to document my year. One the first pages of that journal is his signature. I see his picture and signature everyday. (Incidentally, I kept his signature page and the next page blank in my journal for years. Several years later I was honored to meet Paul Rusesabagina (see Hotel Rwanda) and had him sign the page next to Nelson Mandela’s signature. Paul and I both teared up when I explained to him who he was signing next to and how I had kept that page of the book empty until asking him to sign).
What struck me then (and now): He laughed so easily and freely. His joy in the face of all that he had endured. That any American politician would have stayed in the 1st class cabin and perhaps spoken only briefly to those around him. His generosity of spirit. How he made a couple of college age kids feel like what they were doing was important (it was/is), needed, and appreciated. How even though we had in our minds that we were taking too long with him, he never rushed the conversation, the moment. How he made that moment about us, and what we were doing, what we could accomplish, and not about him and the larger things he had accomplished, was in the middle of attempting, and would soon accomplish. His dignity and the manner in which he carried himself.
I have said it to everyone who asks, I have never met anyone with a personality that commands attention and focus like his. You could “feel” him walking back one side of the plane towards you, and then walking back the other side away from you.
The picture with me is at the moment he was asked to sign my journal and I’m handing him a pen. Several of the other pictures from WorldTeach volunteers have him looking at the camera and smiling larger. But for me, I love my picture as it documents the moment he gave something of himself to me. I could never have dreamed that the start of my WorldTeach experience would go like this.
– Scott Person, WorldTeach Namibia 1994