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Mandela’s Children

NAIROBI – Before I knew that Nelson Mandela existed, I thought our then-leader, Kenyan President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, was the world’s only statesman. I was five years old, and no world existed for me outside Nairagie Enkare, my birthplace in rural Maasailand. Moi was a mythical figure to me, because he didn’t live in Nairagie Enkare, yet he was always present through radio, a technology too complicated for a child like me to understand.

Every newscast from the government-controlled radio station began with what “His Excellency, Holy President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi” had said or done. He visited a school. He planted a tree. He helped a women’s group. He attended church. He said agriculture was the backbone of our nation. He said we were fortunate to live in Kenya. Throughout the day, the airwaves were filled with songs repeating the Father of the Nation’s message, and reminding Kenyans to follow in his footsteps.

Perhaps because what came over the radio was so predictable, people sought alternative news from the BBC Swahili Service. On most evenings, at six o’clock, men gathered to listen at the homes of the few, like my father, who had radios. The news lasted only 30 minutes, so everyone had to be absolutely quiet. But, on February 11, 1990, the men began to say repeatedly, “He is free! He is free! Nelson Mandela is free!”

I’m sure that my father and his friends had heard earlier from government radio that Mandela had been released, but they waited for verification from the BBC. They left before the news was over to go to a bar to celebrate. When my father came home that night, he was singing praises for Mandela. I never asked my father who Mandela was.