A hug to remember: 11-year-old Niya Powell meets Mandela

Niya with Nelson Mandela

I remember the day that we got the call from the White House. It was a call that was prompted by a letter that our 11-year-old daughter Niya had written to former President Bill Clinton. Niya was doing a report on South Africa and Nelson Mandela was soon to arrive in the United States after being elected President. What better way to capture the spirit of a country than to speak to its leader, I thought …so the suggestion was made and the invite was granted–some call it power of the pen, I call it favor!

The ceremony took place on the White House lawn. We were surrounded by dignitaries and world leaders from near and far. The media had followed us there to tell the story from an 11-year-old’s point of view. For me, Mandela’s presence spoke louder than his words. Who was this man who dared to love those who left him for dead; those who snuffed 27 years from his life with a wicked apartheid system that tried to bury him and his people? We witnessed history in the making at the inaugural ceremony and would become a part of it the next day.

Lunch with Nelson Mandela

The media reported that the little girl (Niya) didn’t get her chance to meet Mandela at the White House and was disappointed to say the least. On that same day we received another call…this time it was from the President of the National Press Club inviting Niya to a private luncheon with President Mandela; we would meet his daughter Zinzi, as well.

I can’t recall what was served for lunch but will never forget that moment when Niya gave the Honorable Nelson Mandela a “Niya” doll and a note that said: “To the children of South Africa, keep believing!”

He reached out with a hug and spoke to her like she was his granddaughter. That was 19 years ago. I asked Niya, who is now 30 years old,how did she feel then and how does she feel now having met Nelson Mandela? She said:

“I didn’t fully understand what was going on and didn’t know all of what he (Mandela) had done but I did feel the weight of how important his presence was at the White House…I am grateful that I had that moment to be able to hug a man who changed the world…incredible!”

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