The Meaning of Mandela

Mandela memorial painted on a building in Capetown, South Africa
Mandela memorial painted on a building in Cape Town, South Africa

When Nelson Mandela died last week, I was struck by the somewhat impersonal nature of the “continuous live” media coverage.  In the United States, I heard interviews with reactions from world leaders, I saw billboards with quotes from Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou about what Mandela meant to them.  We now, apparently, memorialize our greatest heroes in memes, soundbites on photos which we share and share again.    But what I really wanted to know was this:

“What are the people of South Africa feeling right now? How are they mourning the loss of the father of their nation?”

As it turns out,  my brother Jeremy is in Cape Town, South Africa.  He started sending back photos of the makeshift memorials that were springing up around the city. Touching tributes, both large and small, that showed the genuine love and respect felt for this man.   Jeremy is a professor of African history, so I asked him to share his thoughts about Nelson Mandela along with his photos.  

Rocked our World
Madiba You Rocked Our World

The Meaning of Mandela

by Jeremy Prestholdt

I arrived in South Africa a few hours after Nelson Mandela’s passing. The nation had only just begun mourning, but the way in which the former president had touched the lives of all South Africans was plain. From Soweto to Sandton, Cape Town, and Qunu, the outpouring of grief and appreciation was unlike anything I’d seen. While I knew that Mandela was revered, the deep respect for him that I’ve witnessed over the past days suggests that he was far more than a popular leader: he personified the myriad aspirations of South Africans.

Nobel Peace Prize
Nobel Peace Prize

As a professor of African history I often tell Mandela’s story. For decades Mandela was vilified as a terrorist. After he traveled to Algeria for military training, many in South Africa called for his execution. Rather than hanging Mandela, the Apartheid government tried to make him irrelevant by condemning him to a life of hard labor. During his nearly three decades in prison he became an icon in the struggle against white minority rule in Africa.

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 was a watershed in the fight against Apartheid. Yet, it was his adroitness in navigating the path to national freedom that cemented his place in the hearts of all South Africans. Unlike most political leaders, Mandela had an extraordinary ability to balance justice with reconciliation. By drawing on this skill he accomplished what many deemed impossible: he steered a deeply divided and unequal society towards peace and greater freedom. For this Mandela earned universal appreciation as well as the title Tata (father of the nation), a word now on everyone’s lips in South Africa. It’s this deep appreciation for the father of the nation that is so evident here.

Mandela Flag

Though I’ve recounted Mandela’s history many times, joining South Africans during this period of mourning and remembrance has made me rethink the conclusion to the story that I will tell in future. The new ending will not be Mandela’s presidency or his death. Rather, it will be a reflection on what Mandela means to us now. South Africans–and mourners around the world–have demonstrated that, perhaps more than any other figure of our time, Mandela represents our collective aspirations for freedom, justice, and equality. In this he is more than a South African icon. He is a global symbol of human possibility.


All photo credits to Jeremy Prestholdt

Thank you so much, Jeremy, for writing this guest post!

Haikus With My Daughter II


“I wrote a poem about you today,” I said.  “Well, just a haiku.  But actually, I wrote two.”

This caught my 8 year-old daughter’s attention.  She put down her Monster High doll, the one she just bought with money hard-earned from chores like scooping the cat’s litterbox.

“What’s a haiku?” she asked.  Apparently, they hadn’t yet covered this in her third grade class.

“It’s a kind of short Japanese poem.  It has three lines, with a total of only seventeen syllables.  The first line is five syllables, the second is seven and the third is five.”

As she read my haikus, I said,  “I wrote about you, but  usually haikus are about nature.”

“Like about animals?”

“Sure.  ‘Animals’ is three syllables, so you need two more for the first line.  Then seven, then five.”

“Syllables, like beats in music?”


She didn’t even pause to think.  She launched right in.

“Animals live in …”

“You’re doing it!  You’re writing your very own haiku!  Now seven syllables. Where do animals live?”

“Jungle, forest and…”   She counted out the syllables on the five fingers of her right hand.   Then two more on the fingers of her left hand.  She had painted her fingernails in an alternating pattern with red and blue nail polish.  Red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, red, blue, red blue.

“City? Ocean?”

“That’s great!  Which one?  Ocean or city?”

“Nature everywhere.”

“You did it!  You wrote your own haiku!”

She smiled – a small, proud smile – and then she picked up her doll again.

“That was really good.  Let me write it down.   Can you say it again?”

She shrugged, engrossed in brushing the doll’s hair.

“I forgot it already,” she said.

“But I’m your mom and I will always remember,”  I thought.

Haiku by Eliza

Animals live in

Jungle, forest and city.    (or ocean)

Nature around us!

This post, Haikus With My Daughter , Thanksgiving and Haikus With My Daughter III: Girls Rights are in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

Passing By Washington Square Park

The Washington Arch, Washington Square Park New York City
The Washington Arch, Washington Square Park New York City

When I travel to other countries, I find that I am almost always on hyper-alert lookout for the interesting, the beautiful, the unique, the historical. Sadly, it is not always so in my own country.  I can walk past a masterpiece a dozen times without truly seeing it.  Take, for example, Washington Square Park.  I’ve been to Washington Square Park dozens of times, but it wasn’t until this very week that I stopped and looked and truly saw the beauty in the Washington Arch.

It was a beautiful summer evening this past Wednesday, the city just beginning to breathe easy again after  long hot spell.  The park, green and shady under the towering old elms and sycamores, seemed especially cool and refreshing as I hurried past along Washington Square North.  There’s a fountain at the heart of the park, and its dancing water was catching the rays of the setting sun.  The cheerful sound of splashing water mingled with joyful shouts of children in the nearby play area.

Maybe it was those co-mingled sounds, filtering down through all the other sounds of traffic and people and city, that caught my attention as I hurried from West Village to East.  Whatever it was, something made me stop and turn just past Fifth Avenue.  Looking back, I pulled out my phone and caught the above view of the Washington Arch.  For which, I am eternally grateful.

With no people in the photo, the Washington Arch seems almost timeless.  It made me think of all the millions of humans who have spent time on this small patch of island – and curious to learn its history.   It turns out that, as with so many places in our world, the history of Washington Square Park contains a human rights narrative.  Native Americans lived here in the early 17th century before the Dutch attacked them and drove them out.  The Dutch farmed the land, on both sides of the brook called Minetta that once ran through area. Later, the Dutch gave the land to freed slaves to create a kind of human buffer zone between the Native Americans and the white colonial settlements.  The area that is now Washington Square Park was in possession of African-Americans from 1643-1664; at the time, it was called “The Land of the Blacks”.  (See the New-York Historical Society of Manhattan for more history of slavery in New York.)

It remained farmland until 1797, when the Common Council of New York purchased some of the farmland (which was still outside city limits) for a new potter’s field to bury unknown or indigent persons.  Most of those who died from yellow fever during New York’s epidemics of the early 19th century were also buried here.  The public cemetery was closed in 1825 and the City bought the rest of the land shortly after, turning the area into a military parade grounds. To this day, the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square Park. 

By the time the City reworked the parade grounds into a park in 1849-1850, the streets around the park had already become one of New York’s most desirable residential areas.   The park underwent several improvements, including the addition of the first fountain in 1852. To celebrate the centennial of George Washington‘s inauguration as president of the United States in 1889, a large plaster and wood Memorial Arch was erected over Fifth Avenue just north of the park.  It proved so popular that a permanent arch, designed by architect Stanford White, was commissioned.  Made of Tuckahoe marble and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, this is the Washington Arch that I know today.  It was dedicated 1895. In 1918,  two statues of George Washington were added. You see one of them – George Washington At War – in my photo.

Washington Square Park has also been the site of countless protests, testaments to the right of freedom of assembly and expression.  The first labor march in New York took place there in 1834 when stonecutters protested New York University’s decision to use cheap prison labor from Sing Sing instead of professional stonecutters to build a university building along the park. In 1912, approximately 20,000 workers (including 5,000 women) marched to the park to commemorate the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had killed 146 workers the year before. By some reports, more than 25,000 people marched on the park demanding women’s suffrage in 1915.  Beginning around the end of World War II, the park became a gathering area for the Beat generation, folk, and Hippie movements.  On April 9, 1961, about 500 folk musicians and supporters gathered in the park and sang songs without a permit, then held a procession from the park beginning at the Washington Arch.  The New York Police Department Riot Squad, sent in response to this “Beatnik Riot”, attacked civilians with billy clubs and arrested ten people.

And yes, even the tireless human rights advocate Eleanor Roosevelt has a connection to the area.  Around the time that she was helping to draft the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, she was a resident of Washington Square Park West.

Like so many others, I was just passing by Washington Square Park on a recent evening past.  But I’m glad I took the time to stop and look. And to learn.

The inscription on the Washington Arch reads:

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God. — Washington

For more information about Washington Square Park:

City of New York Parks & Recreation

Washington Square Park Blog

Washington Square Association

This post is a response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Masterpiece.  See more entries here.

Mind The Gap: Would You Bring Your Child(ren) To Work?

The current Weekly Writing Challenge got me thinking about children in one of the most adult-oriented of all places – the workplace.  Yes, I admit that I have brought each of my three children to work with me at various times, usually because of an unlucky confluence of sickness and pressing work deadlines.  It certainly isn’t my first choice, but in my experience it has worked out fine for short periods of time.  (Unless you count the unfortunate incident when my co-worker Peder accidentally got his finger chomped by my oldest son, who was teething.  New baby teeth are razor sharp. Peder claims that he saw stars, just like in the cartoons.)

But whether or not to bring children to work is an issue that many working mothers have grappled with at one time or other.  It is, in fact, the issue that has made European Parliament Member Licia Ronzulli so popular with moms like me. The photo above, taken in September 2010, of Ms. Ronzulli at work with her baby has made her a cause célèbre for working mothers around the world. 

Although she doesn’t bring her daughter to the European Parliament regularly, there are other photos of Ms. Ronzulli and her daughter Vittoria.  During a vote on the Eurozone debt crisis on February 15, 2012, reporters snapped several photos of Vittoria with her mom at the European Parliament.

Now two years old, Vittoria was back in Strausborg – and the European media – just this week. I think that the reasons that these photos resonate so much with moms here in America is that they symbolize so perfectly the work-family balance that all of us working moms struggle with every day. Ms. Ronzulli’s employer, the European Parliament, has rules that allow women to take their baby with them to work. Unfortunately, this is just not an option for most working moms. So we share the photos on Facebook and hope for a day when working mothers have better support. 

Support such as adequate parenting leave, for example, is important.  But Ms. Ronzulli herself was entitled to a parenting leave, but chose to take only 1 month of it.  She makes the point that it is about personal choice.  In 2010, she told The Guardian “It’s a very personal choice. A woman should be free to choose to come back after 48 hours. But if she wants to stay at home for six months, or a year, we should create the conditions to make that possible,” she said.   

I think that Ms. Ronzulli is right. I think that we should create the conditions to make it possible for a woman to choose the best thing for both her family and her career.  Sometimes, that might mean bringing the kids to work with her.  (And yes, I think this goes for dads as well.)

So what do YOU think?


Family Life in Kathmandu

This is a letter I wrote home from Kathmandu in January.  It gives an interesting perspective on life in Nepal – a splash of local color – so I thought I would share it on the Human Rights Warrior.

Usually, when I travel for work, I stay in a hotel.  It’s different when I travel to Nepal. Here, I stay with a family at their home in Kathmandu.  I could never give you directions to their house on the unnamed street in the warren of hundreds of small streets and alleys in the Battisputali neighborhood.  But I could show you how to get there.

Morning noises.  I lie in my bed on the third floor and listen as the house wakes up.  Doors of wood and metal creak and slam.  Outside, I hear the sounds of chickens, dogs, some kind of hoarse-cawing bird.  Women speaking in Nepali in the kitchen building below my window at the back of the house.  A man sings off-key at the top of his lungs as water sluices into his bucket from the water tap next door.  Someone is whistling loudly, someone else is hawking and spitting.  No need to modulate your voice – everyone here rises at dawn. All this before the rooster crows.  Tinny Nepali music is playing on a transistor radio. There’s a knock on my door, followed by a cheerful “Namaste!”  The tea tray is set on my bedside table. I have the first of many, many cups of tea in bed.  This is how the day begins in this home in Kathmandu.

Can you see my alarm clock in this picture?

Some things have changed since I was last here in March. There is a new security gate with a buzzer, as well as a flat screen TV.  Crime is a growing concern in some neighborhoods in Kathmandu.

The biggest news is the daughter has married.  Like most marriages in Nepal (but unlike her parents, who made a love match), this one was arranged. Her new husband is in the Army, so the wedding procession was especially grand with a military band and an antique Nepali horse-drawn carriage.  Someone told me that the only horses in Nepal are in the Army cavalry, so the only people who know how to ride are in the Army.  The polo grounds in the park in central Kathmandu are, therefore, de facto used only by the cavalry.  The daughter is 23 and has just finished university.  Her mother thought maybe she should go to graduate school first, but she was ready to get married.  Her green wedding garland, stitched in red and covered with spangles, is on the wall on the stairway to my room.  It has been framed, with a wedding picture in the middle.  The wedding couple wore their garlands during the three days of ceremonies.  She first met her future husband about two months before the wedding.  They come over for dinner and I meet her new husband.  She seems happy.

The daughter has now gone to live with her husband’s family.  The family I stay with also has two adult sons who are close to my own age.  They live here with their parents and their own families.  The oldest son just finished building a big, new house in front of the family home. The younger son and his family live in the parents’ house, which he will inherit.   Property in Kathmandu is expensive, so it is better to divide what is already in the family.  There is a driveway and small courtyard in the front.  In the back is a kitchen garden, flowers and fruit trees.  It is a small green oasis in a dirty, dusty city.

Niches in the courtyard wall are home to animal sculptures

Three grandchildren live here, too.  In the big new house, there is a grandson who is in 12th grade.  His classes in college (upper secondary school) go from 6:30 to 11 am. The granddaughter, like my middle son, is in fourth grade and “running 9” (when she turns 10, she will be “9 complete”). Unlike my son, though, she spends 2 to 4 hours a night doing homework. The Nepali is very rigorous and the examinations are taken seriously. The secondary schools post billboards with pictures of their students and their scores on the national standardized exams.  Another change since my last visit – the granddaughter is starting to help her mother and grandmother with cooking and serving meals. She shows me some of her sketches – Krishna and Disney Princesses – and gifts me with a sketch of Minnie Mouse.

Her little brother goes to preschool. He speaks Nepali, but understands English and also Hindi from watching Indian cartoons.  Nepalis have an interesting relationship with India.  In addition to enjoying Indian serials and Bollywood movies, they take the short flight to India if they need a vacation or an operation.  Yet they set their clocks 15 minutes off Indian time so they don’t have to be on the same time zone as their much larger neighbor.

Image from a compound wall in the neighborhood.

There are others who live in this household, helping with the household chores, meal preparation, laundry, washing the cars, minding the kids.  There are eight people employed on this compound by my count, but there could be more or less.  People come and go in a constant swirl of activity.

The water in the house is city water, but the water for drinking and cooking is delivered by tanker truck and pumped into the polytank on top of the kitchen building.  It runs through a filtration system of three plastic basins – one with pebbles, one with sand and one with charcoal.

View of the kitchen garden and the water filtration system on the kitchen roof.

After a sunny day, there will be hot water because the water for showers is heated by solar panels.  As your plane makes the approach to land in Kathmandu, you can see the sun winking off the solar panels on every roof. If the day has been overcast, though, you are out of luck and have to ask for someone to bring up a bucket of hot water for bathing.

The shortage of electricity in Nepal has resulted in load sharing in Kathmandu.  Each district has electricity for 4-5 hours at a time, usually twice a day.  The schedule changes every day, so you may have power from 4-8 am and 7-11 pm one day but 10 am- 1 pm and 1 – 4 am the next.  The week’s schedule is on a government website somewhere, but I never know what it is.  Twice already during my stay, a fluorescent light in my room has buzzed to light in the middle of the night.  Our house has a backup battery, but that means that there are only lights in 4 rooms in the house.  Supposedly, there are hydro-electric plants being built with the help of international community.  Once these are completed, Kathmandu will have more regular electricity. Hopefully.

The power situation makes cooking difficult, but the women of the house, who share the cooking duties, somehow manage. For Nepalis, a typical meal involves dal (lentil “soup”), bhat (rice) and tarkari (vegetable curry).  We usually also have at least two kinds of tarkari and sag (greens), as well as aloo (potatoes, usually fried).  Often, there is also chicken but served on the side.  Like my own family, this family has both vegetarians and meat-lovers in residence.  I have never eaten so well.  For dinner, I eat a healthy dal seasoned with turmeric and ginger that is served to women after childbirth. Punctuated by bright green scallions float, it contains fried chickpea lentils that give it a surprising crunch.  At breakfast, I eat papaya from the tree in the backyard. I see grapefruits the size of my head growing there, too.

Here in Nepal, people often greet each other by asking, “Bhaat khanu bhayo?”  Literally, this means, “Have you eaten rice?” but in practice it means “Have you had your meal?” Babies eat rice as their first solid food during their first rice feeding ceremony at age 5 months for girls, 6 for boys.  They will eat rice just about every day of their lives.

It is winter, so the days are short in the Kathmandu Valley.   Offices and schools are on winter hours, opening a little later – 10:30 instead of 10 – and closing a little earlier so people can be home by dark.  There is not much nightlife in Kathmandu. During the day, if there is sun, it warms up nicely but at night it is cold.  I sleep under a cotton comforter as thick as a mattress.  Buildings are not insulated and floors are often marble or tile.  I notice that people working in offices and stores are often wearing their coats.

Traffic is a huge problem in Kathmandu. The population grew during the conflict as internally displaced persons fled the Maoists in the countryside.  Now the Maoists are in a power-sharing coalition government.  The violence has ended but the coalition government is gridlocked.  Nepalis have been waiting three years for a new constitution. In the newspaper today, the government promises a completion of the process within the next four months but people are skeptical.  When the committee drafting the constitution gets paid by the month, where is the incentive to finish the job?

The Kathmandu population has continued to grow due to the country’s high unemployment.  People come to the capital looking for work.  There are now 3 million people living in the Kathmandu valley, driving too many cars and motorcycles on streets that were designed for oxcarts.  The air is polluted and many people wear masks over their lower faces.  Many Nepalis have gone abroad to study in India, the UK or the US or work in Malaysia and the Middle East.  Every Nepali I meet has a relative somewhere in the diaspora.

Right now, in January of 2012, there is a scarcity of petrol in Nepal.  I see long queues for gas and hear stories of people waiting 12-14 hours a day and still not getting to the front of the line. The government recently hiked the price of petroleum, resulting in student protests.  The protesters, who are members of different political parties,  called a nationwide bandh for today.   Bandh, the Nepali word for “closed”, is a form of protest requiring the closing of markets and schools. It was a Maoist tactic during the conflict.  Now they are in the government, but the practice continues.  The headline in one newspaper is “Maoists reap the bandhs they sowed.”

No driving is allowed today.  The Nepali Police, as well as the Armed Forces Police, are out in full riot gear today, but the bandh is enforced by the protesters themselves.  It is strange to walk in the middle of the street, with no cars and motorcycles.  There is a holiday mood, more so than yesterday – an actual public holiday.  People mill around, chat, play badminton in the street.  Most people support the protesters and their criticism of the government for the rising prices.

When I get back to the house, my friend waves from the second floor balcony.  When we arrived last week, she was the one who opened the door and said, “Welcome home!”