According to African tradition, the rain that poured during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela was a sign of blessing – the gates of heaven opened to receive a great man. For me it was incredible blessing to be able to sit in South Africa’s Soweto FNB stadium, even amidst the downpour. But as historic as the service was, the highlight was not in the stadium – but on the bus, in the queue, and on the train.
Months earlier, before any news of a memorial service, I had booked a flight for Tuesday, December 10, passing through Johannesburg to Malawi for my work as a photographer – never guessing where that might lead.
I arrived in Johannesburg, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived. I wasn’t sure how I’d actually get to the the service – or even whether I’d be able to get into the stadium once there.
One of my neighbors here in Baja is South African. His sister still lives in Johannesburg. She met me, introduced herself, and said “Leave your luggage with me. You are going to have to take the bus. Good luck!”
So, umbrella in one hand and camera in the other, I joined the crowds – running down the street through the rain, searching for a bus with room for a few more. One bus stopped, opened its doors, and my new African friends pulled me along as we squeezed our way inside.
That’s when it happened – singing and dancing – poignant, joyous, solemn but celebratory – that swept it’s way down the aisle, a call and response song whose words everyone seemed to know. Called Struggle Songs, these melodies as beautiful as any professional choir’s, sang us into the stadium, and sang us back out after the service was over. These struggle songs sang us through waiting in a line of thousands to make the return bus journey. They sang us back along the bus route, and sang us through the train station.
“This is the spirit of Madiba,” said Tshego, my new friend and impromptu host for the day. “This is what he stood for – the people, becoming more together than we are on our own- Ubuntu. It is our journey to live our lives in a way that keeps his legacy alive.”
As the rain continued to fall, despite being drenched and sleep-deprived from the long journey, there was one word that sang within me – ubuntu.