Less than a month before Mandela died, another great Southern African Nobel laureate died. At least, that is what I thought when I heard the news that the author Doris Lessing had passed on.
Many of you will know what I did not: That although Lessing lived in Southern Africa and wrote extensively about it, she was neither born in Africa (she actually spent her first days in Iran) nor was she a Rhodesian national (she was in fact British).
I tell this story not to provide further evidence of my vast ignorance, but rather to make a different point, one which was clear enough after Mandela’s passing: The meaning of a person’s life is rooted in our personal experience and interpretation of them, not the objective facts of their lives. This is not only true of people, it is also true of events, concepts and objects.
Lessing understood this well enough when she affirmed, in an introduction to The Golden Notebook, that it was “not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what he sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as he sees it — his wanting this means that he has not understood a most fundamental point. Which is that the book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood, because that moment of seeing the shape and plan and intention is also the moment when there isn’t anything more to be got out of it.”
Put another way, part of what makes a life inspiring is its mystery and the fact that it touches people in different ways. If we knew exactly why Mandela made the choices he did, or why Lessing wrote as she did, we would see them as mechanical — the inevitable outcome of certain historical forces.
They inspire us because we don’t understand how one can live a life like ours, and yet achieve so much. For the same reason, our understanding of them is driven as much by our serendipitous connections to them, as anything they may have actually done.
Mandela was a man who did great things (I prefer this formulation to the one that says “Mandela was a great man”). But my own (limited) personal experience of Mandela was singular: I read Long Walk to Freedom in a village in Kenya’s Western Province some years ago when I was a volunteer secondary school teacher.
I had brought Tolstoy’s War and Peace with me; it was ill suited to village life. The school library had only a few other books, and one was Mandela’s. I devoured the book and Mandela’s story lightened what were, by any comparison, the minute burdens I faced as a stranger in a foreign land, struggling to teach Form I and II students without books, or electricity.
Mandela’s life for me is inextricably linked to the succour I got from his memoirs.
If we understand leaders in terms of our personal connections, we also understand the relative import of different lives by virtue of the directness of their connection to ours. While I recognise Mandela’s “world historical significance,” his passing was less significant for me personally than the recent passing of a man virtually none of you know: Henry Mutinda Kyatha.
He was not a famous man. But he was, like Paul Bunyan, the legendary logger of American folklore, larger than life. I did not know Henry particularly well, but he represented something that I admired: A man who was both incredibly strong, and yet often stood behind an exceptionally strong woman.
Henry’s wife Ruth is the driving force behind Hope Development Centre, an orphanage in Mbooni, Kenya, that supports more than 100 children. Hope sits in the middle of the family compound. There is no real separation between Henry and Ruth’s home and the orphanage.
Henry farmed the land on the compound, provided all manner of logistical support and was a father figure to the children at Hope. He was quiet but exceptionally sturdy; he radiated a deep peace. I always felt that, as long as he was around, things would be fine. That was my very personal experience of Henry — a set of impressions, more than facts, that inspired me.
I am sure that there are hundreds if not thousands of unsung heroes like Henry in Kenya and around the world. Men who did great things, but who are only known by those they touched directly.
As we close 2013 and remember Mandela and Lessing, let us also reflect upon the lives of those ordinary men and women who, in their own way, did great things. In this way, we keep them alive and ourselves, too.
Dr Jason Lakin is a senior programme officer and research fellow at the International Budget Partnership