Two NYC Students Remember Meeting Mandela

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In 2009, 13 students in New York City won a rare honor: a chance to meet Nelson Mandela. They had submitted winning essays to the Mandela Foundation about the life and legacy of the South African leader. Among them were Allen Salama and Khaya Cohen who shared their memories of meeting Mandela with WNYC.

Allen Salama is in eleventh grade at Eleanor Roosevelt High School.

What happened when you met Mandela?

I was feeling a little nervous. I mean, he isn’t this imposing figure, but when I walked in, there were like 20 different cameraman. He was kind of sitting there like a grandpa. He was wearing a foundation T-shirt and he was smiling. I shook his hand and even though he was weak and sickly at the time his handshake was one of the firmest I’ve ever had.He asked, what do you want to be when you grow up. I said a doctor, which I don’t want to be anymore. But when I said that, he said, oh you are the people we need.

What kind of legacy do you think Nelson Mandela is leaving in this world?

Well, I think it will be the same legacy that Mahatma Gandhi left and Martin Luther King left. They both inspired Nelson Mandela, and I think now, It’s Nelson Mandela’s legacy. And in the tumultuous areas of the world, people will rise in a similarly nonviolent and peaceful way.

Khaya Cohen is in eleventh grade at Beacon High School.

Why did you want to go to South Africa and meet Nelson Mandela in sixth grade?

 My dad is from South Africa, so I knew a lot about Nelson Mandela already because my dad taught me so much. [Mandela] is the only person I know who’s single-handedly saved a country. That really inspired me that he took such a big risk and sacrificed a good majority of his life to prison in order to save his country and fight for something he believed in.

Tell us about meeting Nelson Mandela.

I remember we were waiting outside in a line and we were really nervous. Then you walk into the room and it was like a bubble of calm. He just radiates peace and calmness.I sat down and shook his hand and he seemed so nice. He was really friendly and he shook my hand and asked me what my name meant. My name is Zulu, which is an African language. He said it was pretty.

How has meeting Nelson Mandela impacted your life?

The whole purpose of the trip besides meeting him was to use our voices as students to change the world and change how people thought. He was a great figure to represent all that.The legacy of being kind to everyone has stuck with me. I do community service for different places now. There is this program called Musicians on Call, where I sing to hospital patients every Monday. So I’ve definitely learned from him. Even as Nelson Mandela isn’t as close to me as he was before, I definitely have kept his legacy in mind.