A book that shaped me… Long Walk to Freedom

…with Trudi Taylor (an executive coach based in Wiltshire).

A book that shaped me in a most significant way was Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – not so much because of what it stands for on a global stage but because of how it spoke to my personal history. I read it as an adult, 20 years after leaving South Africa – a South Africa nearing the height of it political instability and violence.

At 16 years of age I had walked away from a situation that felt wrong, and there I was back at 36 with a strange sense of turmoil. As a young British girl, there had been nothing I could do against the might of the white Afrikaaner state; all I could do was leave. I left and felt vindicated.

But going back 20 years later I was able to learn much more about the atrocities committed while I had been there. And this left me with a sense of shame. Had I just stood aside without speaking up? Had I too turned a blind eye? Even though I was just a teenager, could I have done more?

Mandela’s book initially heightened that feeling. The details of how people were treated and how deep the conflict ran made me feel that for too long I had been pretending not to know very much. Long Walk to Freedom taught me to let go of these feelings, look to the future and chose to see who I want to be and what I want to be about.

From then on, I decided, on I would walk with eyes open, and step into the shoes of those I saw as ‘enemies’, even if I detested what they stood for. Whatever I could or could not have achieved as a 16-year-old in the struggle against the regime in South Africa, the things that I can do are the things right in front of me now – shaping communities and building relationships between different people in my own backyard. We can’t all be Nelson Mandela, but we can take his blend of commitment, empathy, intelligence and tenacity to make our history count.

I have just finished building a village pre-school. I did it by standing firm on what needed to happen and bringing people together, listening and inviting them to table. I am as proud of how this brought different groups of people together as friends as I am about the bricks and mortar.

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