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November 21, 2018

Celebrating Nelson Mandela

Most of Kenya’s population is under 30 so the idea of Nelson Mandela is predominantly academic - a smiley man who spent a chunk of his time on earth in prison.

Twenty seven years is a lifetime, in fact it is so long that none of my employees are 27 yet. It was therefore hilarious when in a brainstorming session I recalled Mandela’s release and what it meant to me and my nostalgia was met with blank stares. They’ve only read about it.

It was 1990, around my birthday and we were living in Loresho. I had just turned 12, and my sister with whom I share a birthday, turned 4. I cannot say it was a major thing in the Njoroge household.

I was not raised by academics who were given to intellectual discourse at the dinner table. Now that I think about it, it must have been the Moi-effect because these days my parents and I discuss politics all the time.

For those who don’t remember the Moi years, they were not the years to be expressing your views on politics. Even complaints about interest rates and crazy inflation rates were whispered and cut short when I walked in the room.

It was in 1990 when Saba Saba started; that violent confrontation between Kenyans who were tired of the Kanu regime. Imagine a Kenya with one radio station, one TV station, cabinet ministers that stood up and poeticised the President at functions, and an intelligence service that eavesdropped on conversations and could land you in the torture chamber.

In this Kenya, my mother and I watched a bootleg copy of Cry Freedom and I declared that I wanted to be Steve Biko and I loved Mandela. I was 10 then and my mother quickly told me to be quiet and never speak that way again.

It may seem far away, and those who are speaking about the Media Bill, NGOs et al may seem alarmist, but it is because we remember a Kenya where the media had no freedom.

It is not us media practitioners who need these freedoms, it is us Kenyans. A free media is not merely about reportage and information; rather it is discourse and questioning and we all know that these are the bedrock of patriotism and democracy.

Mandela’s long walk to freedom had an impact here, if only to refuel those who were pursuing democracy. The world is lining up to canonise this man but I think to do so, to declare him ‘special and saintly’, is to take away humanity from him and his struggle.

Mandela was a human being, not the son of God, rather a man. A very flawed and obstinate man who stuck with his convictions and they cost him dearly.

He was divorced twice, imprisoned for 27 years and I am sure that like all humans, he had moments of self-doubt when the idea of settling for a quiet life raising his six kids occurred to him as an option.

That he didn’t take that option, that he felt and dealt with all the pain we imagine he felt, that he kept going and lived to see some of his intentions for South Africa come to fruition, that act of war… that is what I want to remember and celebrate about Mandela’s life.

That we can intend for a different future, be relentless in our pursuit of it, and see it come to fruition. Happy Jubilee to you, and as you start a fresh and we go into a new phase for Kenya, let us not forget where we have been and that we can intend for a different future.

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