THE GREAT MAN HAS GONE

MADIBA
            On December 6th, 2013, a great man named Nelson Mandela died, at the age of 95. I will not rehash his biography here. That is not my purpose. The media is doing a fine enough job of that anyway, and it is all well-deserved. In an age of George Bushes and Maggie Thatchers, and generally the entire dogpile of politicians of the era, he stood handily above them all as a world statesman.
            What I want to tell here is about the impact he has had on my life. It goes deep. When Gerri and I were first getting together, for example, she was drawn to the anti-apartheid stance of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), where she began to participate. She learned not only about apartheid, and Mandela’s imprisonment, but also the Religious Society of Friends, called Quakers. On both things she began to educate me. I supported her in the Minneapolis anti-apartheid coalition. I also did some volunteer artwork for AFSC.
            That interest and involvement led to Gerri’s arrangement to present an anti-apartheid strategies workshop at the 1985 United Nations Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, Kenya. She had already lived overseas before she met me, so such an adventure was appealing to her. I had never traveled outside the United States, but I caught the spirit. I had always wanted to see some of the world. She had already applied for the Foreign Service, and that could mean the end of us together. I summoned my courage and asked if I could go to Africa with her. “Of course,” she said. “I was hoping you’d ask.” It would be a test to see how well I traveled.
            It was an eye-opening and educational experience. I traveled well, and was ready for the future. Africa was, of course, beautiful, and Nairobi was a very interesting experience of another culture for me. I realized I could do this. Back in Minneapolis, Gerri learned she had been accepted into the Foreign Service. With Gerri’s commission, we traveled out into the world. First, it was beautiful Portugal, which was dealing with its own ‘retornados’, people from the Mozambique and Angolan colonies returning to the home country. It was another awareness of Africa.
            We saw the monasteries and castles of European capitols. We climbed Mayan pyramids and a volcano in Guatemala, and encountered African culture in Brazil, which has its own history of slavery. In each of these countries, Gerri had become more involved with the Quakers, and their peace testimonies, and I attended meetings with her. I too was drawn to their spiritual philosophy,
            On the day Nelson Mandela was released from incarceration, it was our oldest cat’s birthday. To honor both, we extended her already lengthy name to Talulah Ashley Greycat Mandela Allard-Williams. It helped us pay attention, now that apartheid had been overturned and Mandela had been elected president of South Africa. Gerri bid on a posting in Durban and got it. Thus we lived in Durban for three years, learning about the country’s history. We heard about the influences of Gandhi, who began his career there, and the good work of Madiba and Bishop Desmond Tutu. It was all capped when we attended a ceremony where Mr. Mandela spoke. After, as he was leaving the hall, I put Gerri in front of me so she could be rewarded with his handshake. After that, he reached behind her to shake mine. Such a participation in a moment in history was one of the most exciting events in my life.
            While in South Africa, I was able to attend Technikon Natal, a university, to get my first masters degree, in print-making, which satisfied a long-held dream of mine. In the performance of my degree, I wrote a thesis that gave me the opportunity to learn the history of apartheid. A copy of that thesis is now in the African Art Museum of the Smithsonian. We also continued our association with the Quaker community there. We both visited Robben Island, now a National Heritage site, to see the prison cell and other sites where Mandela toiled for seventeen years.
            Back in Washington DC, where we then lived for a number of years, Gerri became a member of the Friends Meeting of Washington, on Florida Avenue. I continued to attend with her, becoming more and more involved there, doing non-member committee work, until finally I was convinced, and became a member myself.
            This is what I am trying to tell. Because of that great man, and our participation in that history, I have seen some of the world, and realized several dreams. I have advanced myself artistically and scholastically, and seen and done amazing things. I have accepted, and been accepted by, the Quaker community, with all the spiritual significance that entails, and have enjoyed living with the most amazing woman alive for 39 years, this month. Thank you, Madiba. Your light shines on.