Nelson Mandela, My Neighbor
By Ismail Mahomed
San Ramon, CA

On a crisp spring morning in Johannesburg in December 1997 we waited excitedly in the family room of President Mandela’s house for the great Madiba to come downstairs and meet us for tea. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of a man with very few equals in the 20th century. Shortly before becoming president in 1994, Mr Mandela moved to Houghton, a leafy, exclusive suburb in Northern Johannesburg. It just so happened that my parents lived across the street.

My dad, who loves to write poetry, sent Mr Mandela a card congratulating him on becoming President and wrote a little poem in his honor. A couple of days later, President Mandela’s representative called my mom to say that Madiba would love to visit my parents at their home. They were elated and my mom prepared traditional Indian dishes for his visit, including samosas, pies and tea. President Mandela came over without much fanfare and spent over an hour at my parents’ home – truly a special moment in time for my family. They also visited Mr Mandela at his home a number of times.

My mother recalls another time when she was busy cooking one evening in her kitchen. Suddenly, she noticed a bunch of security men in her front yard and then the doorbell rang. When she opened the door, lo and behold, it was none other than President Mandela. He greeted her warmly and asked her what was for dinner, to which she replied, fish biryani. He then said that he had just returned from a state function and already had dinner, but would appreciate it if she could pack some for him to take home. My mom packed him a nice, large container for which Mr Mandela thanked her profusely.

My dad is a physician and was called upon several times to take care of President Mandela’s grandchildren when they had coughs and colds – it was all so informal and neighborly, reminders of a time long gone by. Coincidently, my grandfather, Sulieman Nathie, spent jail-time with Mr Mandela in the early 1960s when my grandmother used to take biryani for the political prisoners.

Going back to my own encounter with the great Madiba, my wife usually keeps her emotions well within check, but when Mr Mandela came down she began to sob uncontrollably. Tears welled up in my eyes as well, as it was truly an overwhelming moment to meet this great man in person. At one point my father noticed that his shoelaces were untied and as Mr Mandela sat down on a bench; my dad tied them for him – an image that will be etched in my memory forever.

Mr Mandela’s strong convictions, coupled with his humility, gave him an aura that one could actually feel. We spent the next 30 minutes having samosas and tea that my mother had brought along and took pictures with him on the porch. His security staff cautioned that while incarcerated on Robben Island, his eyesight had diminished significantly due to the hard labor of breaking limestone without eye protection.

These were truly memorable experiences for my entire family – ones that we will always cherish and hold dear to our hearts. We were extremely fortunate to have such an inspiring, gentle and selfless man grace our lives in a small way.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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