Find Your Own Garden


I had never been to Kabale. I was all smiles after packing my sunglasses, cap, and light clothes all dressed like a white pensioner on his summer holiday trip to Africa (destination western Uganda) not until I realized after reaching, that I had made a wrong choice of clothes. Kabale is a very cold place!

It is an exceedingly beautiful place on the other hand. The landscape and hilly setting, makes a first time visitor to believe that the place can be a very good location for a Hollywood adventure movie shooting but not going there with sweaters and jackets, is a wrong turn!

I was heading to ‘the Switzerland of Africa’ as a delegate student from Uganda Christian University (UCU) to the Semi-Final interface debate rounds organized by the Centre For Constitutional Governance under the topic “Freedom of speech, Assembly and Association in Uganda: Which way forward?” from last Thursday to Saturday.

Together with three other delegates from UCU, we set off from Kampala at exactly 2pm aboard Global Coach. I knew the journey was going to be long and in order to contain the boredom; I carried a couple of books to give me company during the eight hours plus journey with a sleep over in Mbarara.

It seems the choice I made by first reading Richard Stengel’s book Nelson Mandela: Portrait of an Extraordinary Man during the long journey, didn’t disappoint. It is one book I have found the best in giving another side of a person from what the TV shows you. It is the most insightful explanation yet of what has become known as the “Mandela Magic”.

For starters, Richard Stengel is the 16th Managing Editor of The Time Magazine. He spent almost three years collaborating with Nelson Mandela on his bestselling and critically acclaimed autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. During that time, he almost saw him every day, traveled with him, ate with him, tied his shoes—and spent hours and hours in conversations with him about his life and work. However, Mandela’s autobiography deals more with his struggle for freedom than personal life.

In Nelson Mandela: Portrait of an Extraordinary man, Stengel recounts the moments in which ‘the grandfather of South Africa’ was tested and shares the wisdom he learnt. This profoundly inspiring book captures the spirit of this extraordinary man—warrior, martyr, husband, statesman, and moral leader—and spurs us to look within ourselves, reconsider the things we take for granted, and contemplate the legacy we’ll leave behind.

Stengel arranges the book in fifteen chapters each explaining the lessons he learnt from the world’s most famous political prisoner ever. From patience, courage, principle, love, quitting and courtesy among others, it explains how different Nelson Mandela was as a person who lived a lonely life, cheerful, jolly but also a living with a broken heart for, he had been betrayed by his wife (of course Winnie is human. You wouldn’t expect her to be faithful for twenty seven years when her husband was away).

His famous beaming smile however on the other side, is what made him tick.  It conveyed warmth and wisdom, power and generosity, understanding and forgiveness but yet this was all for a show. The private Mandela was deeply hurt about what had happened to him. He was aware that he had spent the best years of his life behind bars, knew he had lost his family but he knew he could not let people see behind the curtain, that he would never expose his true feelings.


*Find your own garden*

The last and smallest chapter of Stengel’s lessons he learnt from Mandela named Find Your Own Garden, is perhaps the chapter which left me uplifted.

Even on a remote but beautiful Island, Mandela needed a place apart. A place where he could lose himself and find himself. To him, life in prison was tough and life outside prison was equally harsh. He had lost his son, his wife was constantly under attack and the apartheid government was getting stronger.

The only way he could find peace was to be alone. So, in the early 1970s amidst all troubles, Mandela decided to plant a garden while at Robben Island prison in the backyard (which he later realized it had a graveyard). This was his greatest companion while in prison.

This garden which he used to speak fondly about long after being released from prison is what gave him pleasure in life.  Mandela’s garden had become his own private island. It quieted his mind. It distracted him from his constant worries about the outside world, his family, and the freedom struggle. While so much of was withering outside, his garden was thriving!

The moral of Mandela’s garden story is simple. Each of use needs something away from the world that gives us pleasure and satisfaction, a place apart.

Samuel Johnson once said that there was nothing more relaxing than concentrating on a pleasant task that engages the mind but does not tax it too much. For Johnson, that was a chemistry set, for Usain Bolt it was that abandoned pitch in his home town, for Steve Jobs that was his Father’s garage and for Nelson Mandela, it was a garden.

That is the garden am also looking for. A garden which is a respite from the turmoil and storms of this world. In that way, it will help me do my main work and make me a better person. It is not a place of retreat but a place of renewal and that doesn’t mean that it will remove me from life in order to do it.

For Mandela, in a world where he had no privacy and very few possessions, the garden had been a bit of land that was entirely his. In a world that he could not control, that defied and punished him, that seemed hostile to his values and dreams, it had been a place of beauty, regularity and renewal.

Everyone needs that place of renewal and personal meditation. A place which makes you realize who you are and appreciate yourself even where the world seems to be at a standstill. You won’t only find happiness but also you will find personal pleasure and satisfaction.

As Mandela told Stengel “You must find your own garden”, he simply meant that he should find what interests him as a person, exploit it and get the inner happiness to achieve success and what he desires at work. That is also what I need to do.



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