What Nelson Mandela Taught Me About Empathy – My

Posted by Sarika Jain on Dec 8, 2013
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What Nelson Mandela Taught Me About Empathy

Years ago, in 2007, I visited Sierra Leone to work with an organization, iEARN, run by a friend and social entrepreneur, Andrew Greene, which was using technology to help youth recover from the gruesome war which had left millions of lives destroyed. As I listened to stories, and then some more, as part of a project that we were doing to record peoples’ lives, I became emotionally distraught and confused, and angry at the perpetrators at the same time. However, there was an interesting demographic of people that I had mixed feelings towards, even compassion – child soldiers. Those youth who were brainwashed or forced into killing their brethren - their parents, grandparents, siblings – and becoming drugged and desensitized during the process. I wondered to myself, what was the reason for wars, in general, and how do people heal from such trauma?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was ongoing to help bring forgiveness, understanding and integration within communities, such as bringing back former soldiers into their former villages. At that time, Sierra Leone was undergoing its second democratic election since the disaster; and also, Charles Taylor was in court at the International Criminal Court in Switzerland.

What I encountered in the country was nothing what I had expected – upheaval against the government, resentment, a fight for justice against perpetrators, or even rampant crime as almost no goods were available in shops. But there was none of that! It was a country with a sense of peace and acceptance, and people were looking for a way to rebuild their lives with hard work, dignity and mutual respect.

Books were a premium commodity, used ones being sold on one main street. Electricity was available for a few hours per day, and candles cost an exorbitant amount of $5 each. Buildings and schools were running off of rumbling generators. Freetown looked like a ghost town, with crumbling wooden buildings which used to have beautiful, ornate facades; rusting cars and motorcycles parked out front. The youth at iEARN would come to class, even if they were hungry and had only eaten one piece of bread all day. Food was scarce, as was water (which came in packets), cell phone use, and access to technology. I remember going to a village where a new computer center was being proposed to be set up, and people had heard about the computer over the radio – they arrived in droves to learn more about this mythical thing, as their way for connecting with the greater world and learning a skill of the future, which I simply took for granted!

Beautiful moments

I had many memorable experiences in the lovely country which still appear into my consciousness even today. The youth at iEARN were vibrant, hard-working, and had a vision for a bright future. They were funny, astute, and highly creative, coming up with new music and arts surrounding education around peace and non-violence. As I walked down the streets, people would smile at me, kindly; and in the mornings, people would ask, “’Ow di body?” to which I would respond, “Di body fine”. When I got into gypsy cabs, which were like mini buses headed in particular directions, there were window knobs missing. If I would want to roll up or down the window, the driver would hand me the sole knob he had. When I got into the taxi, people would raise their hat and elegantly say, “hello” or “’ow di body?”.

One of the most pleasant shocks was when my friend had lost his wallet from the taxi in the pouring rain; the next day, a beautiful young man named came to return it at iEARN, with everything intact. We became fast friends, and had beautiful dinners at his little restaurant, which he shared from his heart, not charging us a dime!

Once, while passing a stadium, I saw people playing football with each other, and a group of men in wheelchairs outside, peering in. The key difference was that they were playing with one leg – each person had a leg that had been chopped off! At another moment, I spent a Sunday morning at church, where I was touched by the deep connection to the divine, and a sense of faith and surrender, which I will always carry within my heart. It taught me the importance of faith, and believing in something greater.

Truth and Reconciliation

What I found most amazing was that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had worked wonders in restoring a level of peace and acceptance in the country. Understanding and forgiveness in hearts was a part of this difficult process, which helped enable the process of reintegrating former soldiers and their communities. I wondered how people could forgive, even after so much pain and suffering?

After listening to a few more stories, my heart could not hold the pain anymore, and I would turn to my analytical side, in ‘solving the problem’. It was clear to me that if an economic turn-around didn’t happen, another war would emerge. How long can people go hungry? How long could a government present solutions, with little outcome or support from other countries? The only entrepreneurs who were surviving were those with support from their countries – such as the Chinese.

My analytical mind churned away for years, trying to find solutions to this problem. I was perturbed by insurmountable amounts of suffering in the world related to violence, and couldn’t reconcile with it in my mind. While working at the World Bank, getting my MBA and working in strategy consulting, I felt it was about the right strategy and great management skills were needed to create more impactful peace-building, income generation and rehabilitation projects.

I look back on the experience, and realize that it was empathy which formed that backbone of the TRC process in Sierra Leone in peace; and that it was the only healing antidote, no matter how deep or insurmountable the problem seemed. Forgiveness formed the basis for forming new communities and healing, and faith prevailed. People flowed in a state of abundance, even if there were physical shortages. This was also the mission of iEARN, which was doing it through digital arts, music and story-telling for affected youth.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was introduced in South Africa by Nelson Mandela, and was brought to Sierra Leone after the civil war. In my mind, has proven to be one of the kindest, most powerful methods to bring healing to countries having faced major conflict. I reflected on how the TRC in Sierra Leone was implemented, silently, without being in the world’s limelight, creating an empathetic forum for people to share their truths in an open manner, and for others, including both perpetrators and victims, to listen deeply. I learned about the power of seeing the best in others, finding good in any situation, and having a heart overflowing with feelings for others’ pain and joy.

I am coming to realize, that if we, as humans, are able to listen to each other deeply, we may be able to prevent the mini-wars within and between us as individuals, and those on much larger scales.

I am grateful to Nelson Mandela, to show me the path of empathy - deep listening, love, forgiveness, openness, and the ability to increase one’s capacity to hold another’s suffering. The world will miss the wisdom and compassion from this great elder, but his legacy has touched every inch of this globe and his truths will continue to resound for many generations.       

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Comments (6)

  • Pallavi Ramam wrote ...

    Wow! This is very, very beautiful and there is profound wisdom in your experience. Thank you for sharing.

  • Sarah Mozelle wrote ...

    stunning. thank you for taking the time to related your personal experience within the context of our collective reflections about Mandela.

  • Pavi Mehta wrote ...

    Beautifully written Sarika! Thank you for sharing your experiences with such heart.

  • Megha Sahgal wrote ...

    Aw, that's amazing! Thank you for sharing the experience first hand -- I just watched "Reconciliation: Mandela's Miracle" and saw some of the TRC's efforts/people speaking honestly and being able to move past 27 years of brainwashing/indoctrination to recognize the humanity of the other side. It was indeed so inspiring to see it in SA and to hear of its spread over the continent. :)

  • arathi Ravichandran wrote ...

    woww very beautiful. thank you so much for sharing

  • kamlesh Trivedi wrote ...

    sarika, thank u for sharing great services of Nelson Mandela