I sat under the Acacia tree eating my lunch of beans and rice alongside 40 orphaned boys listening to the BBC one o’clock news. I was about 10 years old by the time I learned enough English to understand what the men from the radio were talking about. John and Sarah, the white Missionaries, sat on a log across from us eating beans and rice, their white skin tanned from the hot African sun. Day after day we listened to the reporter talked about the world beyond the desert. The year was 1988 and there was one man they talked about so much: Nelson Mandela. I remember so vividly the day the news man said that Nelson Mandela had been beaten and tortured for saying that white people and black people were equal. That a white man named PW Botha had beat him and put him in prison for 20 years.
I remember looking at John and Sarah and wondering if they knew this PW Botha. It was the first time I realized that there were places where white people and black people didn’t get along. I only knew John and Sarah and they were the kindest people you could imagine. So it was quite a shock to learn that one of their relatives (I assumed that all white people were related) was really a scoundrel, and was treating a black brother of mine so badly. John and Sarah had found us boys walking across the desert having escaped with my life after a neighboring tribe killed so many of my friends and family and burned my village to the ground.
John and Sarah were like parents to us boys. They had stayed with us under that massive Acacia tree when we had no one to protect us. We were just small kids afraid of lions and hyenas and warring tribes. They took my picture and made me a WorldVision sponsor child. Sarah showed me how to draw letters and numbers in the hot desert sand. And for 5 years we slept under the stars next to a crackling fire praying for God to keep our families safe. You know it can take so long to find somebody without cell phones or cars. Nomadic villagers just walking back and forth across the Kenyan desert in search of their lost children.
As we listened to the reported say that Mandela was being beaten so badly, I remember one boy asked me “Why don’t people help him? How can he be left alone?”
This was a very understandable question coming from our nomadic Pokot culture. We nomads have a golden rule: Let no one stand alone. If someone stands alone, then you must stand beside him and ensure he is treated fairly, even if it costs you your life.
So of course I agreed with this boy. And we all decided that if any friends of Mandela came to our Acacia tree to recruit us, that we would surely join their army. But we didn’t realize that South Africa was really quite far away. In fact we didn’t know much of anything about the world outside the desert. But naïve as we were, we were willing to fight for Mandela’s freedom.
When I graduated to high school I left the desert and attended a Catholic boys school. But I lost track of Mandela because this school had no radio and rarely received even a newspaper. But in 1990 I was walking from my class to the soccer field when I saw a white teacher holding a newspaper that read “Mandela Freed!” I remember my heart leapt. I was so happy to hear that he had survived the prison and was now a free man. I rushed to my teacher to ask to read the article, but she refused me.
And to this day I really don’t know why. Perhaps she thought that the violence and anger of South Africa would spill into our little school. But to know he was free was something that really lifted my young spirit.
After High School I returned to my desert school under the tree and gathered a group of women together to teach them to read and write, hoping that they would in turn teach their own children. I shared with them what I could with a simple blackboard and chalk. Which was even quite an improvement from the sticks and sand under that Acacia tree.
And as is often the case, I fell in love with one of my students and married my wife Angelina. And soon we were blessed with a baby boy: Porot.
A while later I was offered a scholarship to a teacher college to help me become a better village teacher. And Angelina encouraged me to take the opportunity. I was already the most educated man in my village, and this was surely an opportunity that so few villagers ever get. So I packed my bags and headed back to school located just outside Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi .
It was at this teacher college in 1994 when I re-connected with Nelson Mandela. And I tell you I was so shocked to find that the former prisoner was now running for President of South Africa. As I read the newspaper headline I thought to myself “Surely this man has come a long ways.”
But Mandela was a bit of a controversial figure in Kenya. So many people in Nairobi were disagreeing with his decision to allow the whites to stay in South Africa. Kenya had expelled the British in 1963 and the black Kenyans were shocked that Mandela allowed his oppressors to remain. As for me, I echoed Mandela’s political belief that everyone is stronger when people work together, blacks and whites, rich and poor.
But Mandela went one step further. He forgave the whites. And this I felt was so Christian of him. John and Sarah had taught me about loving your enemies. I had my own enemies to love. When I was in High School I had chosen to forgive the warriors who had raided my village and scattered my family. And I suspected it was his willingness to forgive the whites that won over the whole of South Africa and the election.
After the election I returned home to my village to visit my family. I was feeling so empowered by Mandela’s victory. The way that I have heard many African Americans felt after Obama won the US Presidency.
But when I pulled the car into Angelina’s homestead I was not greeted as Pokot normally do. With singing and dancing, women jumping as their beaded necklaces rattle. No one was gathered from the neighboring village. In fact my cousins did not even look me in the eye. And I was so troubled by this, I knew something was terribly wrong. “Where is Angelina and Porot?” I asked my cousin who was milking our family’s goats.
He stood up to greet me. “I’m so sorry Michael.” And as he spoke he looked only at the ground. “I don’t know how to tell you so I will say it plainly. Angelina is in mourning because your son Porot has died of malaria.”
I stood beside the car in disbelief. I stood there as tears welled in my eyes and my stomach turned over as if I had been punched. I had lost my family for so many years, and now I had lost my son.
I walked into my hut. It was dark and cool inside, between the thatch roof and mud floor. And I sat down next to Angelina, my arm around her as she cried.
I was so defeated. In fact, I felt like giving up. But after several weeks at home I worked up the courage to visit the women I had taught to read. After all, that was the reason I had left my family for college.
And when I arrived I found the makings of a small school. The Acacia tree I had studied under was still standing, but now there were a few small buildings full of kids and women learning to read and write. I tell you it was so encouraging to see the work going on.
There was a white missionary staying there with these women. This missionary had brought enough books to start a small library. And as I browsed the few titles I saw The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. I felt as if God himself placed that book there for me. I read that book from cover to cover that day. I learned that Mandela had also grown up in humble beginnings. Like me he was a shepherd boy spending his days at a school with British missionaries. That he had gone to college and returned home to educate others. That so many people he loved had died while he was in prison on Robin’s Island for those 27 years.
And yet he never gave up. He emerged from the darkness of despair and the shackles of prison committed to helping empower those who had been left behind. And while the pain of my son was still fresh, Mandela’s words gave me hope.Since those days, I have traveled around the world only to return to my village to start a school called Daylight. Helping children like myself, like Mandela, grow up to be leaders who will bring about change for the poor and suffering in Africa.