Freedom & Friendship

This past week I had the opportunity to hang out with Ndaba Mandela, my brother from another grandfather. Nelson Mandela and Gertrude Gelb, our grandparents, were African National Congress members and freedom fighters in South Africa.

President Nelson Mandela and Gertrude Trudy Gelb, veteran members of the African National Congress (ANC), a banned party under apartheid. Photo taken at the Rothko Chapel on December 5, 1991, two years after being released from 27 years behind bars in his native South Africa. Former President Jimmy Carter and Rothko Chapel founder Dominique de Menil presented Mr. Mandela with the Carter-Menil Award for human rights. Texas governor Ann Richards and other dignitaries attended the event. My Granny Trudy was living in Texas at the time, she returned to South Africa shortly thereafter to organize voters for the referendum, and was caught in action speaking, no doubt, her mind, with Madiba. The yellow, green, and black ribbon on her chest is a symbol of the ANC. Granny Trudy was a banned person in South Africa for over 15 years, and was imprisoned by the racist government for her political actions and beliefs.

My family left South Africa in 1977, nine months after the Soweto uprisings. Born in Johannesburg not far from (and six years prior to) the Soweto of Ndaba’s birth, I was raised thousands of miles away, yet held in a deep familial space of intellectual awareness of and reverence towards the anti-apartheid movement. Ndaba’s visit to Central Oregon was a significant homecoming as many of the placeholders of my intellectual curiosity about life in South Africa were filled as we mused about the movement, our grandparents, and our own complex lives.

We share a love of rooibos, roses, fashion, music, dancing, travel, NYC, education, farming, conversation, grassroots activism, human rights, intellectualism, and tequila.

We share disdain of nationalism, and hope the limitations of democracy in its current global incarnations will be courageously re-imagined by youth.

Ndaba and I delineated two key aspects of freedom, security (feeling safe, feeling loved, shelter, food, education) and movement (the ability to self-determine and change course based on individual and communal needs).

Justine Fanarof & Ndaba Mandela at The Pantry in Bend, Oregon, USA.

Our time together further allowed me to reflect upon the relationship between freedom and friendship. Here are my embodied understandings of these two terms:

Freedom is related to boundlessness, a quality of spiritual practice.

Friendship is the mutual and active practice of slowing down to share with and care for another.

A constraint of one can yield a tightness and contraction in the other. An opening in one can yield lightness and spaciousness in the other.

When we give space to another to feel free, how is friendship impacted?

With too much freedom how does friendship remain something active, tangible, and embodied?

With so many ways to connect these days, what does it mean to be someone’s friend?

The relationships we choose to be in require effort, attention, maintenance, patience, spaciousness, humour, and nurturing. Within that framework there may be created a range of feelings when our needs are met including, a sense of trust, comfort, care, joy, connection, intimacy, and love.

Ndaba and I met a lama at Smith Rock. Fortunately said lama did not bite us.

At times I wonder why on earth am I in Central Oregon, far from my ancestral and migratory home, no family around, limited cellphone service, no good Indian food … and yet in the high desert, this magical time shared with Ndaba reminded me that although the mystery of the source of the gift of friendship may be unknown, the freedom I feel in the space of authentic friendship is welcome and wonderful.

As I ponder the intersections of friendship and freedom, I breathe and relax into a felt sense of care. I connect into the place in the heart where no questions need to be asked because all is known. Just as trauma passes along via our ancestors, so does joy and right action.This space of awareness directs me back to freedom, and I know, from the teachings of Madiba and Granny Trudy, Ndaba’s and my grandparents, the true practice of both friendship and freedom is one of embodied action.

Ndaba Mandela at Smith Rock, Oregon, USA, January 2023, photo by Justine Fanarof

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
-Nelson Mandela

Ndaba Mandela lost both of his parents to HIV and was raised by Nelson Mandela. Ndaba’s book Going to the Mountain: Life Lessons from My Grandfather Nelson Mandela can be found here.

You can also learn more about his efforts to support grassroots advocacy, education, and public health through the Mandela Institute for Humanity here.

With a comic image circa 1995 of our hero, Nelson “Madiba” Mandela.


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