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December 14. 2013 1:09AM

Nashua woman in South Africa as nation pays tribute to its hero


People sing during the "Nelson Mandela: A Life Celebrated" memorial service at Cape Town Stadium Dec. 11. Mandela died Dec. 5. (REUTERS/Mark Wessels)


Sydney Choate Turnbull inside Nelson Mandela's cell at Robben Island. COURTESY PHOTO 

Sydney Choate Turnbull was en route to a conference when the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela was announced on Dec. 5. Turnbull's destination: Stellenbosch, South Africa, not far from where Mandela spent most of his 27 years of political imprisonment under his country's apartheid government.

A 2008 graduate of Nashua High School North, Turnbull is an event coordinator for the Aspen Global Leadership Network, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C., and comprising "Fellows" from 46 countries.

The event she was sent to South Africa to coordinate was called "Leading in an Era of Globalization." The aim of the conference's 60 participants: "to reflect on the attributes of effective, enlightened leadership."The New Hampshire Sunday News interviewed Turnbull, the daughter of former tv13 Nashua owners Carolyn Choate and Gordon Turnbull Jackson, in an email exchange on Thursday, the next-to-last day of the conference.

SN: What was it like to arrive in South Africa to the news that Nelson Mandela had died?

T: No one mentioned Mandela's death until we landed and the customs agent said we had arrived on a "most auspicious day." When we asked what he was talking about, he told us of Mr. Mandela's death. We were stunned and heartbroken. Here we were, a group of 60 leaders trying to build a good society and change the world, and the iconic man who had done just that had died. Every flag was at half-staff, and all LED billboards had some sort of memorial message. It was all over the news when we got to the hotel.

SN: What is the mood of the people? What kind of demonstrations or celebrations have you seen in the streets?

T: Our venue is about an hour away from Cape Town, so I did not witness any demonstrations or celebrations, but it's obvious that millions of people adored this man.

SN: What have you seen and done during your stay?


T: As event coordinator, I make sure the seminar runs smoothly, from both the human and the technical perspectives.... (Then,) after making sure all parties are "at the table," I have the luxury of absorbing some of the most incredible discussions and insights from Fellows, and sometimes guest speakers, from every walk of life and country. It gives me so much hope for the future when I hear their ideas for resolving the world's challenges.

SN: Tell us about your visit to the jail where Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner. What struck you most?

T: He actually spent 18 years on Robben Island. The other years were spent at a different prison, and then four years were spent under house arrest. The day I went to visit Robben Island is an experience that is indescribable and one I will never forget. We were standing on the pier to take the boat over to the island when another coincidence happened. We passed a large outdoor amphitheater with a large screen exactly at the same moment President Obama began his speech in Johannesburg. I had to take a few minutes to meditate on this moment. Here I was, thousands of miles away from home, about to visit Robben Island, the site where Mandela and so many others had suffered so terribly, and the President of the United States, my country, was eulogizing President Mandela. I felt like I was in the vortex of history!

The boat ride itself is an experience. I can only imagine how Mandela felt, being chained to a ship, watching the coast get farther and farther away, leaving your wife and son for a prison sentence, not knowing what will happen. I can't begin to imagine the pain he felt emotionally.

Our group took a bus tour around the island, which was originally an island to care for lepers, and we saw the warden's homes, the lime quarries where prisoners were forced to work manual labor and finally the prison here Mandela was kept. The amazing thing about the tour was that it was given by a gentleman who was previously a prisoner himself, arrested as a young man during a protest and charged with terrorism. He discussed the atrocities of the prison, how wardens tried to mentally and physically break the bodies and souls of the blacks, especially the political prisoners.Mandela's cell was tiny. Bare. Stacked blankets on the floor. A bucket toilet. Only 60 minutes of physical activity outside the cell. This is how he lived his 17 years of his life. But instead of prison hardening him, making him vengeful of his experience, he came out of the cell a peaceful man, forgiving those who wronged him.

SN: How has news of Mandela's death affected the spirit and the work of the conference you're attending there?

T: It's a very somber atmosphere. In a way, we are mourning the loss of a great leader who promoted social justice and equality around the world, but at the same time, we're celebrating his life and how far the country has come. As all 60 leaders converged in South Africa, I believe, as it was for me, that it must be a very special experience for them. Hopefully, the combination of it all will only serve to empower them more to rectify the wrongs of this world.

SN: For some in New Hampshire, South Africa feels like a world apart, and Nelson Mandela is a figure who now "belongs to the ages," as President Obama said. Why is what happens there relevant to people here?

T: Mandela took a stand against all forms of injustice. And even when he was a victim of such treatment, he made it a point to forgive those who had wronged him. The world would be a better place if people were able to forgive.


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