A Walk Toward Freedom
My Favorite Memory of South Africa
They must have been 12, some older or younger, maybe 100 in all. They were kids in school uniforms, maroon sweaters with gold accents, whites shirts with gray slacks or dresses, coming up the driveway laughing and joking as kids on field trips do. I could hear them before I saw them, and they were on the opposite side of the fence along my path. I had already been inside the Nelson Mandela Capture site and apartheid museum, outside of the city of Howick, in the Natal Midlands.
The Long Walk to Freedom
I had just walked past the plaque reading “The Long Walk to Freedom,” which is a symbolic pathway and the title of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, pointing straight ahead. Although the weather was perfect, I had just walked outside from the apartheid exhibit with a somber cloud following me. The South African history of apartheid is some sad, awful stuff. At the museum’s end, after the long walk, stood the sculpture: 50 steel rods acknowledging the 50 years since Nelson Mandela was captured at this site, in 1962, and then spent the next 27 years as a political prisoner.
I stood near the fence as the kids came closer. As they saw me, they slowed a little and I, almost out of habit, raised my camera as if to say can I take your picture? The attempt showed little enthusiasm on my part as I didn’t expect them to care about the middle-aged White guy with the camera. I was wrong.
South African Enthusiasm
The boys began to cheer, which grabbed the attention of their classmates. The kids playfully threw themselves in front of my lens in a roar of fun. Each taking turns jumping in front as I clicked away. After a few minutes. I yelled, “Thank you! Yeah!” in my appreciation of their joy. They screamed back, “Yeah!,” which shook the leaves on the trees. I yelled again and they responded. They went back to what they were doing and laughed their way toward the museum; and I, in a better mood, took the “long walk.”
As I progressed along the Long Walk to Freedom, getting closer to the sculpture at the end, the steel rods slowly and impressively became the profile of Mandela. It was quite a trick of optical illusion and artistry. I stood for a moment and took some more photos. I felt both inspired and heavy with the weight of sadness, as I stood alone on the path.
Kids Running the Walk to Freedom
Then I heard some friendly clamor behind me. It was the kids. Rare is it that I see such unbridled, good-nature and happiness. They ran in single file down the narrow pathway. I received several high-fives as they ran past me and collected at the base of the statue of Mandela. They danced and paraded. I clicked and they posed. Then they crowded around me to look at the photos I took of them. I felt their breath on my cheek and smelled the sweet gum they chewed. When the initial thrill wore off, and few kids reluctantly asked if they could also have their pictures taken, I obliged. They wanted nothing except to be noticed having fun and for that moment, I forgot where I was and its significance. I only knew the joy of children not under apartheid.
When the bright yellow buses drove away, they sang out and waved at me. It was a long walk to freedom and so worth it.