This post is about a different kind of anthropology than usual. It is about the anthropology of hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity. My upbringing was unconventional and nomadic, and courtesy of my parents' wander-lust, I have visited and lived in many different countries. One of them was Swaziland, a small kingdom tucked into the corner of South Africa, overlooked by many and currently floundering under the rule of a young, naive king. I was lucky enough to live there from 1989-1993, and attend an amazing school, Waterford Kamhlaba, United World College of Southern Africa. The school was pioneering and revolutionary, set up in the early 60's because its founders believed children of all nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and cultures had a right to a good education, together. On the side of a mountain often shrouded in fog, just outside the Swazi capital Mbabane, the school offered a sanctuary from the apartheid regime of South Africa which segregated blacks and whites. News of the school's multi-racial and multi-cultural ideals soon spread around South Africa, and many political leaders and activists sent their children or relatives there, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Desmond Tutu.
When I arrived at the school in the late 1980's, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, but this did not dampen the sense of hope and resilience among the staff and students. If we could live and work in harmony, and help people in the local villages, schools and hospitals through community service, and offer an education to those who might otherwise have missed out; then it was possible for it to happen across the border in South Africa. The political agenda was never far from our thoughts, and our rallying cries for equality across the races a constant theme at school. I shared my classes (French in particular) with both Mandela's grandson Mandla and Sisulu's grand-daughter Ayanda, and Mandela's defiance in prison was often uppermost in our minds. And then came the day that none of us there will ever forget. I was 13, and suddenly there was a buzz, an electricity around the school, in the classrooms, canteen and corridors. People streamed into the TV room, crowding in, sitting on the floor, on the window sills, craning to see Mandela released from Robin Island. When he appeared on the screen, his arm raised in a fist, the room erupted into clapping, singing and dancing. I remember the distinctive African wail of joy filling the room. Everything had changed. There was a new beginning, a visible end to the oppression, a new light.
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself, soon after his release. He visited the school, on a bit of a whim, to see his grandson and his friends. I remember watching him wrapping his arms around Ayanda's shoulders and asking her how good her French was (she was very good, I knew, from our French classes). She giggled that her French was OK, and he said in a jokey way, "Good! Zaire needs an ambassador." His gentle, caring and protective nature was apparent even in that little gesture. That day, I got to shake his hand and say hello to him. I think I may have curtseyed. To him, I was one of hundreds of teenagers he said hello to on his visit to his grandson's school, but to me, he was a true leader, a hero, a martyr and an inspiration, all rolled into one.