When a plant in your garden dies, you pull it up and throw it onto the compost heap to rot.
Not Nelson Mandela.
When his beloved Robben Island tomato plant withered and died despite his best efforts to save it, he says:
‘I removed the roots from the soil, washed them and buried them in the corner of the garden.’
Something deep inside of me stirred as I read these words. I could see the heartbroken Mandela, probably with tears in his eyes as there were in mine, tenderly laying his dead plant to rest. He loved that living plant, and when it died he afforded it the dignity of a proper burial according to his custom.
This one sentence alone in ‘A Long Walk To Freedom’ told me more about Mandela than the entire 700 pages did. Have you ever heard of someone burying their deceased plant? I never had until I read this, and I’m sure I never will again.
WHY DID MANDELA DO THIS?
I believe there are two things that contributed to his love for that tomato plant:
Mandela loved nature. He tells us that he was grateful to do hard labour in the lime quarry each day because the march there and back gave him the opportunity to:
‘… see the grass and trees, to observe the birds flitting overhead, to feel the wind blowing from the sea…and smell the eucalyptus blossoms. Although some of the men regarded the march as drudgery, I never did.’
Even in the confined space of the prison courtyard he was able to feel that:
‘… every living thing there, the seagulls and wagtails, the small trees, and even the stray blades of grass seemed to smile and shine in the sun.’
Throughout ‘ALWTF’ Mandela repeatedly refers to his anguish at having not been able to look after those that he loved as he should have – as a son, a husband and a father. This was his greatest regret in having followed the path that he did.
I believe that tending to his little patch of garden, and nurturing his tomato plant, was a substitute for this loss. In this way Mandela was able to care for something living that depended upon him, and when it died he was able to bury it with all the love that he was deprived of when his son and mother died in his absence.
Why do you think Mandela loved that tomato plant so?