When Mr Mandela Came to Town: The Story Behind the Book

by Kemi Bamgbose

I remember the day so vividly. It was the summer of 1996—July to be exact. I was 11 years old and in my last year of primary school. I can remember the atmosphere was electric. There was such jubilation in the air as Black, White, and Brown faces, young and old, rich, poor, male and female all came to celebrate a living legend gracing our midst. I explicitly remember my dad saying: “This is history in the making, better than any book you will ever read.” Ironically, 25 years later, I have now written about this very experience in a book titled When Mr Mandela Came to Town.

I remember the day so vividly. It was the summer of 1996—July to be exact.

My dad said that my younger brother and I were going to take the day off school to witness President Nelson Mandela’s visit to Brixton. This was highly unusual as Nigerian parents would never allow it, unless it was an exceptional circumstance. This clearly was that sort of occasion.

A man of Nigerian, Sierra Leonean, and Afro Brazilian heritage, my father was a very wise, vibrant, and intelligent man well-versed in world affairs. He was not academic: his experience came from the university of life. He was also a masterful storyteller, drawing on his varied, colourful, and sometimes painful life experiences. He captivated audiences wherever he went.

“He captivated audiences wherever he went.”

I was 11 years old and in my last year of primary school. My younger brother and I were so excited at the prospect of joining thousands to witness history in the making. I can remember the atmosphere was electric. It felt like being at Notting Hill Carnival. There was such jubilation in the air as Black, White, and Brown faces, young and old, rich, poor, male and female all came together to celebrate a living legend gracing our midst.

I had seen the headlines about Mandela’s 27-year-long imprisonment for challenging Apartheid in South Africa, going on to later become the nation’s first Black president. But it was only as I grew older that I came to realise the magnitude of his life and legacy, and the incredible privilege of having seen him in the flesh that day. I explicitly remember my dad saying: “This is history in the making, better than any book you will ever read.”

Ironically, 25 years later, I have now written about this very experience in a book titled When Mr Mandela Came to Town.

I wrote the book over the second covid lockdown. It was, truthfully, handed down to me by God himself. It was he who retrieved this experience from the depths of my memories, commanding me to write. The writing just flowed.

I never had a desire to write a children’s book before. Little did I know that, as time would have it, the book would be ready in time for the 25th anniversary of Mandela’s visit to Brixton as well as his 100th birthday, both of which fell within the same week in July 2021.

Set in Brixton, When Mr Mandela Came to Town tells the story of 9-year-old Tinu Dos Santos who is forced to watch the dinnertime news with her family every single day. She finds it utterly boring and depressing because, as she sees it, the news is mostly negative and filled with stories of conflict, famine, and pain. Her parents, however, insist she be informed of what is happening in the world. One day, she sees a news story that piques her interest: President Mandela is coming to town! Excited at this prospect, her parents let Tinu and her younger brother take the day off school. With thousands present and the global media watching, what happens next stuns everyone.

“With thousands present and the global media watching, what happens next stuns everyone.”

Mr Mandela Came to Town was inspired by a historical event, with a certain amount of creative reimagining. For example, I didn’t get to meet President Mandela as Tinu did. Yet the book is heavily influenced by my own upbringing: like Tinu, my parents were interested in socio-political issues and wanted us to be, too. While—unlike Tinu—the younger me didn’t find the news boring, I was certainly overwhelmed by how opinionated and passionate my parents were. They had polar opposite political views and anything, even a brief news story, could quickly ignite a heated debate. I know now that this robust dialogue opened me to hearing different perspectives and developed my love of current affairs.

That is how I know it is not surprising that Mandela chose to visit Brixton and personally thank those who had campaigned for his liberation. Not many know that Brixton is the home of the Black Civil Rights Movement in the UK. After arriving in the UK in the 1950s to help rebuild post-war Britain, which they called the “Mother Country”, many of the West Indians that make up the Windrush Generation made Brixton their home. Today it is also home to the Black Cultural Archives, Britain’s foremost and only national heritage centre dedicated to collecting, preserving, and celebrating the histories of African and Caribbean people on the island. In When Mr Mandela Came to Town, I, as a Black British person, wanted to capture this critical history with the hope that our children will learn about the importance of this place and an incredibly significant event that took place in it.

As such, When Mr Mandela Came to Town explores race and reconciliation in a way that feels age-appropriate. It is the first picture book about this history aimed at children aged 7 and older, complete with illustrations, comprehension quizzes, and creative tasks. These activities will not only encourage learning but also spark creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity. It is also very timely, given all that is happening in the world at present, and I hope that the book will ignite productive conversations for adults, too. I pray that When Mr Mandela Came to Town will be used as an educational tool to examine the past, explore the present, and secure our future.

By Kemi Bamgbose

KEMI BAMGBOSE is a communications manager for Thy Kingdom Come. A trained multi-media journalist and PR professional, she has a passion for God, social justice, creativity, and people. WHEN MR MANDELA CAME TO TOWN is her debut book and you can learn more about it here. You can find her on Twitter @KemiCBamgbose.

When Mr Mandela Came to Town: The Story Behind the BookWhen Mr Mandela Came to Town by Kemi Bamgbose, Nada Helmy
Published by Carobee on 22 August 2021
Genres: Children's, Debut, Black British, History
Pages: 48
Format: Paperback
Buy on Amazon

Tinu Dos Santos thinks watching the news is utterly boring and depressing. Yet every single day she must watch the news along with her siblings because her parents insist it is "good for them". One day a news story pops up that piques her curiosity: Mr Nelson Mandela, the newly elected President of South Africa, is coming to town! Her parents are so excited at this prospect that Tinu is allowed to take the day off school to join the crowds as they welcome Mr. Mandela on this historic trip to Brixton. With thousands of people lining the streets, a strong police presence and the nation’s media watching, what happens next astounds everyone and Tinu and her family are at the heart of it!

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