opinionBy Babah Tarawally
Former South African President Nelson Mandela, whose death was announced Thursday, leaves an indelible mark on the world. Here's testament to that by a Sierra Leonean who looked to Mandela for strength in escaping a conflict-ridden country and later challenges in life.
When a road leads to a crocodile's mouth, it is not the first person who stands up to take the lead who I call my hero. It is the one who figures out how to reach the end of the road without falling prey to the crocodile.
It was after reading 'Long walk to freedom' that I decided to recognize Nelson Mandela as my hero. That was in mid-1996. He was already the first black president of South Africa. I was spending the first of my seven years in an asylum centre in the Netherlands.
Civil war in Sierra Leone caused me to flee my country. The asylum centre in which I was confined was a sort of prison, where I experienced a limitation of movement. Of course it was not a prison that could be compared with Mandela's Robben Island.
Lives in exile
I lived with three people in a small room the length and width of a football goal. Each of us occupied a corner with a bed as small as a hammock.
Food was provided by male Dutch cooks using ingredients nothing like the ones we used back home. I ate holding my breath to avoid the thick smell of garlic. I detested what I ate, but it was that or risking going to bed with an empty stomach.
The fact is that none of what I experienced could be compared to Mandela's harsh life in jail. But it was his autobiography that made me understand: prison is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is, above all, a test of one's commitment.
As a child I wanted to be an influential figure in my community, one who could change the lives of my people. I almost gave up that hope when life in exile became a bitter experience. Mandela came into my life to reawaken the dream of my childhood. He came when I thought I had already failed in life.
Mandela found wisdom through failure. He chose to learn from his mistakes rather than repeat them. He was not perfect. He could not save his marriage; he called Castro and Ghaddafi his best friends. Some called Mandela a terrorist, a sell-out and a man without much Pan-African spirit.
But what made him stand out as a hero - not just for me but for many, both white and black - is that he was not defined by his ethnicity, race, religion, country or even continent.
I never met Mandela and I sometimes ask myself: How could I be so passionate about a person I have never met? There were lots of others I could easily have chosen as my hero: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Bob Marley. But Mandela epitomized what was best in me. I was not looking for someone to save me, but rather someone to help awaken the heroic spirit in me.
When I was threatened with imminent deportation to Sierra Leone, I stood my grounds. Before the court I made an appeal not to be sent back to my country, where the worst atrocities of war were being committed. The judge was definitely impressed with my defence and I was allowed to stay.
Mandela's 'I am prepared to die' speech, delivered on 20 April 1964 while he faced trial, had influenced me. I let the judges know that being an asylum seeker was not a crime.
I ended my speech almost the same way Mandela had his. If the court would rule otherwise, I was prepared to return to my country to die.