Guess who I met on the plane?

Danica Shaw, Georgetown/WorldTeach Namibia Volunteer '94 and WorldTeach Namibia Field Director '96-'98, also recounts meeting Nelson Mandela on her way to Namibia to begin volunteer service. 

I was sitting alone on the plane, having just met all the other volunteers at JFK. After they cleared dinner, I looked up and a man walked into the main section of the plane. I thought to myself, “Wow – he looks like Mandela.” A split-second later I realized it was him. At that moment I knew that I had made the absolute right choice in coming to work in Namibia, to contribute to this very young nation overcoming apartheid in any small way that I could. I went to high school with Amy Biehl, so her death just months before hit me and my family with force. I put on a much braver face than I felt, but seeing Mandela erased all my fears.

The patience he took in speaking to everyone on the flight, genuinely interested in them as people was humbling. When my turn came I was nervous, but feeling so fortunate. He took my hand and looked directly at me, holding my hand for some time. He asked if I was one of the volunteer teachers and I said yes that I was going to Namibia to teach science. He thanked me for my contribution and said how important education was for Southern Africa. I stammered that I was so honored to meet him and thanked him for all he has done for the world. I would have been quite happy with that. 

Mandela on the other hand said, “It’s okay for you to take a picture and ask for my autograph.” That thought hadn’t crossed my mind, although cameras were flashing the entire time. We both laughed and I rushed to find my camera and a piece of paper. A fellow volunteer ripped a page out of the back of her book for him to autograph. I still have it, safe and sound in my journal from that life-changing year

I managed to touch greatness that day, as did all of us on that flight. There is not another politician, celebrity, personality or hero that I would have liked to meet more.

When we arrived in Johannesburg I phoned my family. I said to my mom, “Guess who I met on the plane?” She thought it was a family friend or an old friend of mine. When I told her, “Nelson Mandela,” I could hear astonishment and excitement, but also relief – she also realized that I had done the right thing.
- Danica Shaw, Georgetown/WorldTeach Namibia 1994

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