Dear Mandela, The Only Way I Know to Walk Now is Long and Free


“We locked hands and wouldn’t let go … because this journey—this long walk to freedom is so hard and it is ours to walk out now.”

11112124647303_131dI read Nicholas Kristof’s tweet in the late hours of Sunday night: Mandela is in critical condition.

I noticed my friend and our SheLoves contributor Desiree Adaway’s facebook update: “It is time to let the warrior rest.”

I admitted to her that I am testing my own heart in this. Am I ready to release this hero? This man I have never met, but who has critically defined my story.

I sense tension—how will we go on?

Will we make it? 

We—South Africans.

We—global citizens.


We—people hoping for a different world.

It may seem strange to think that I feel so connected to this man. I know I shouldn’t feel strange, because I understand that Ubuntu—the very ethos Mandela embraces—says, “I am, because you are.”

Ubuntu says, We are all connected. 

And so, thousands of miles removed from the warrior, I believe:

I can be, because Mandela has been. Strong, proud, wise, graciously forgiving, tenacious for freedom.

I allow my thoughts to go and stand at the threshold. To pray for peace and release …

But how will we go on, I keep wondering?

That’s when I think of the small group of South Africans at Amahoro Africa in Entebbe this year. I think of my friends: Nicole, Rob, Msizi, Bonolo, Marlyn, Rene, Roger, Francesco, Caroline and Bronwyn. And Hilary: the English girl with the South African heart, living in Cape Town.

South Africans.

We were a rainbow.

I think of these friends and the time we spent, lingering with each other and telling some of our stories.

It felt different to me this year; the circle was wider: Ten South Africans plus me.

The Afrikaner, living in Canada.

But this year I participated in the telling—no longer fighting with the voices that told me I had no right to speak. Voices that said I had no right to sit at that table. Voices that bound, saying my story and my pain don’t count

It felt different this year, thanks to conversations and deep trust that has grown—from that first year in Mombasa with Rene, when it felt like I had rocks in my mouth. I didn’t know how to talk about Apartheid or even if it was okay to say “black” and “coloured.” I didn’t have language, as I struggled in Afrikaans, sitting at that small breakfast table with her on the very last morning.

My white years hadn’t prepared me for relationship across old Apartheid lines and I ached all over. Even the language in which we were trying to hold a conversation, felt loaded.

But Rene was so gracious with me and we began a friendship.

with Rene in Bubanza

With Rene in Bubanza in 2012: our invitation to dance.

And in that, for me, a healing.

The next time we were together in Burundi, Rene co-facilitated our Women’s Theological Intensive at Amahoro. It was simple: Rene would speak and the tears would simply start dripping down my face. She couldn’t know all of what was happening inside me, but her presence, wisdom and grace, healed deep parts of me … It wasn’t always the words she spoke, but most often who she was. She loved and included me, radically. She brought wisdom. And we laughed together. O, now, over the years, how we’ve laughed.

Such grace.

Then there’s Nicole, my roommate at Amahoro in Burundi last year. There’s something about being in pyjammies together, faces scrubbed clean and being on a malaria regimen that bonds hearts.

with nicole in matara

With Nicole (left) in Matara in 2012.

Nicole suggested I read the book, Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past, by Jonathan D. Jansen. I cried my way through half of it and then had to stop–the pain so deep as he put words to the silence that lived in me. The healing needed some time.

Then, months later, Nicole and I skyped while I was in Starbucks and she told me: If I ever wanted to talk about that book together, if I ever wanted to process with her, she is here for me.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to go there. Earphones on my head, in the middle of a busy coffee shop off King George Highway, salty tears were streaming down my face. This place in me so very tender.

I also knew then: this is a friend I desperately want to walk this long walk to freedom with. 

This past Amahoro opened some fresh wounds of identity and Nicole and I held hands and I even let loose a swear word in Afrikaans as we were getting ready for communion on the last night.

Because under the trees, she told me again and I finally grasped that her cultural identity did not exist before Apartheid constructed it. My Afrikaner people constructed a group for her and defined her to it. I don’t know why history and cultural identity and my friend’s story hadn’t connected before, but in that moment under that tree, it did. And the evil brilliance of the Apartheid system astounded me, yet again. And so I swore, in Afrikaans, and I think I shocked her. And I shocked myself.

We locked hands and wouldn’t let go … because this journey—this long walk to freedom is so hard and it is ours to walk out.

Then the communion service invited us to wish each other peace and we said, “Amahoro, friend,” which means peace and we hugged long and tight.

Now, when I think about Mandela passing on and leaving us to the work of peace, I know that building friendship on deep trust is beautiful peacemaking.

I also think about my friend Msizi who walked up to lead the Amahoro gathering in a Zulu dance and in his walking, took me by the arm and pulled me up to come dance with every other South African there.

sweaty dance off amahoro

The sweaty dance-off.

My invitation, his radical inclusion. A holy work of friendship and peace.

With Msizi at Amahoro Africa 2013 in Uganda.

Then a bunch of us sat around at the edge of Lake Victoria on a Thursday afternoon at the end of our week together and we were still hungry to share our stories—to understand, as much as to be understood.

We told stories. Stories. And more stories.

And by the end of that Thursday afternoon, we joked about gathering all of our parents together for a braai* and there were stifled laughs and we awkwardly shifted in our seats, because we knew … o, how we know the deep deep chasm.

And yet, at the table of Amahoro, the beauty of all of this is that there’s room for courageous honesty and all of our awkwardness around race, still.

Now, when I think about Mandela passing, I remember this circle of treasured friendships so committed to freedom and reconciliation. This is the only way I honestly know how we go on.

I was born privileged, but not free. My life is an ache for a large, long freedom and this is the work and the walk I am committed to now, limping, grateful and often teary as I may be.

So, whenever you are ready, Madiba—not because I have any right or say to your life, but simply because you have made a way for Peace for me, here’s my prayer: May you rest in beautiful Amahoro.

Amahoro 2012 South African women

Nicole, Rene, me and Caroline at the Amahoro Women’s Theological Intensive. Could our smiles be any bigger?


*braai: a South African barbecue