It was just another late Thursday night. A few friends and I were sitting around, drinking whiskey, and shooting the shit in Uganda’s bustling capital city, Kampala. We were somewhere between hilarious sex stories and creepy dude stories when my BBC Breaking News tone sounded. As a bit, I picked it up and read it out loud in my very serious journalist voice: “South Africa confirms the death of Nelson Mandela.” The words were out of my mouth before I had even registered what I was saying.
The table went silent. I looked up from my phone and there we all sat, in a state of complete shock. My friend’s eyes were wide and their drinks paused mid-air, halfway to their mouths. “Oh my god,” one muttered quietly.
“This is one of those moments you’re going to remember exactly where you were…” mumbled another a she drifted off into her own thoughts.
My phone buzzed again. It was a friend across town texting me the news. “Mandela has died.” My throat tightened and I looked up again. I could see the waves of emotion cascading over the faces of my friends. We were trying to remain composed. We were at a club. Nigerian pop songs blazed over the speakers. What do we do now? What should we do now?
It was then we noticed the people around us. Their phones had also begun to buzz. Shocked faces illuminated by old Nokia screens turned to spread the news to those near them. The crowd had stopped dancing. The music continued but a trance had settled over the dancehall. Some people were visibly upset. Others just stared. This was one of those moments, all right.
Since that moment, Africa has been plunged into a state of collective mourning. It wasn’t that just a politician had been lost. We lost a role model, a humanitarian, a person we could point to and say, “Africa is more than just despair. Africa is about hope.” In truth, we did not lose what made him. His memories and his ideas live on in every speech and every beautiful gesture. But there is a hesitation. A hesitation that our Madiba is no longer with us. That a communal paternal figure is no longer watching, no longer advising, no longer forcing us to confront our demons with dignity and love.
With this comes a very real fear. When will Africa see another leader of his caliber? Certainly we’ve had a few we could point to as doing well. Dr. Joyce Banda, the President of Malawi has been inspirational to many for her frank demeanor and pragmatic approach to erasing poverty. The first lady of Zambia recently came out in support of gay rights, and here in Uganda, President Museveni and his wife Janet recently took a very public HIV test as part of the nations “Test Your Love” campaign aimed at reducing AIDS.
However, what Mandela was to South Africa, greater Africa, and the World was so much more than any of this. We will see other great leaders. I am sure of that. Africa has been staging a quiet upswing in the past decade that few in the West have bothered to notice. In East Africa, the middle class has been increasing steadily. In West Africa, modern cities with huge investments in infrastructure have been quietly assembled. And despite atrocities in the CAR, DRC, Sudan, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, there are 49 other African nations that have seen slow but steady marches towards democracy, stability, and a higher standard of living.
I live on a continent that I love. With a myriad of cultures, lives, and landscapes that are as breathtaking as they are humbling. Africa will have more inspirational leaders yet. But while we wait for those great minds to emerge, let us remember this great man, whose passing, while wholly expected, has been no less devastating. Let us remember his infectious smile and the unwavering respect he gave to those who surrounded him. Who fought bravely against apartheid, came to serve as President, and never stopped working to end injustice Now we celebrate the beauty and passions of Nelson Mandela. Our Madiba. You will be eternally missed.