How I spent Mandela Day

South Africa. Nelson Mandela.

You cannot think of one without the other. They often come up in the same sentence. Think of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. combined, and you will have an idea of what Nelson Mandela means to this country. I’ve talked a little bit about him before, here and here.

This week, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It’s easy to remember for me because it’s the day after mine.

making beanies for Manila day

Sometime in 2009 somebody came up with the idea of honoring Nelson Mandela every July 18th. Okay, I guess not just somebody, I think it was the United Nations that declared July 18th Mandela Day henceforth. Here in this country it is commemorated by a call for everyone to contribute 67 minutes of their day to give back to the community. Be it by helping out in an orphanage. Or cleaning up a stretch of road. Or randomly helping strangers.

Or by getting a bunch of high school kids to sew a total of 670 beanie hats for needy babies.

making beanies for Mandela day
Sewing beanie hats at Dainfern College for Mandela Day

This is what was happening at Dainfern College this year on Mandela Day. Do you know how hard it is to get high school kids to sew a beanie hat? With actual seams on them that run in straight lines? With stitches that are much shorter than toothpick-length? Where the two pieces of fabric actually end up being sewn to each other and not something else entirely?Okay, maybe it’s not that hard, but let me just say that I’m signing up for the all-girls table next time.

making beanies for Mandela day

making beanies for Mandela day
Even the teachers got busy sewing

For some reason, my table attracted all the novices as if I’d been wearing a huge sign around my neck: “If you have no clue, come this way!” I had contemplated this being a leisurely affair, with all of us sitting around and sewing away, but at my table I was constantly putting out fires.

Though I’m quite proud to say I doggedly introduced the art of sewing to all those boys who somehow found their way to my all-boys table in a steady stream. I didn’t let anyone off the hook. They might not ever sew anything again and they were probably relieved to escape my lectures 67 minutes and two beanie hats later, but they sure heard about the virtues of stringing up a long enough piece of thread and of listening well and doing it right the first time around. Because, by golly, I was making them redo a sloppy seam.

It might have been the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.

About half-way through the morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen my own boys doing any sewing yet. When I set out looking for them, I was surprised to find Jabulani in the midst of an all-girls group, the one table where they were doing the difficult  pattern, not the simple one.

making beanies for Mandela day
Jabulani engrossed with needle and thread

“I thought this one’s only for people who have sewn before,” I ventured.”I HAVE sewn before,” he says. “You showed me how to do it!”

I do not recall ever showing Jabulani how to sew. Sometimes I surprise even myself. But I must have done a good job of it, because he ended ups sewing three hats, with decorations on them, and was eager to go for more, had the day not eventually ended. But lest I pat myself on the back for turning out such a cooperative child, I should confess that it was much harder going with the other one. I finally hunted down Zax, milling around outside with friends, and he flat out refused to enter “that room.” I admit, it was very loud and crowded and I was desperate to eventually retreat from it myself, but what is so hard about sitting down for an hour and doing some sewing? When you don’t even have to help anyone else?

making beanies for Mandela day

making beanies for Mandela day
The demand for beanie-hat-sewing at Dainfern College was huge!

But such logic has never worked on Zax and there was no changing his mind. He claimed to have found some other service project in a different corner of the school grounds, planting an herb garden (yeah right, this is the child who cannot abide any dirt under his fingernails and washes his hands a million times a day) and even my decree of  “no xBox without beanie” did not change his mind.

We eventually compromised on me bringing home leftover fabric and him making the beanie hat at home the next day. Which, lo and behold, he ended up having fun with. It was actually a Tom Sawyer kind of moment. I showed him how to do it at the kitchen counter, and eventually Jabulani came and joined us, then Sunshine, and finally Impatience. Here they were all making beanie hats and I left them to it after a while, needing to run an errand. When I came home later, a happy row of beanie hats were greeting me on the windowsill.

making beanies for Mandela day

While the other kids faded away again after their one hat was done, Jabulani and I got so into it, we requested more leftover fabric, dug out my old sewing machine, and spent the following weekend sewing one beanie after the other. He’d pin the fabric and thread needles for me – I suck at threading needles because at this stage in my life I can neither see the needle nor the thread properly –  we’d both sew the bottom seams, and then I’d run the side seams on the machine while he finished off the tops and even got fancy with the occasional button. Most importantly, we talked with each other for hours.

What I want to know is this: How can one child of mine be so passionate about everything, while the other is passionate about nothing? (Not counting the passion he summons when debating me on why he shouldn’t be required to do something).

But I suppose on average our family did fine this Mandela Day. A big thank you to the ladies of the Dainfern College PA who put in a lot more of their time cutting up fabric and getting everything organized! (And whoever baked those heavenly brownies deserves a special medal.)

I know you’ve been dying to ask: Why 67 minutes? It took a bit of digging to figure this out. When the community service idea was created back in 2009, Nelson Mandela had spent 67 years (since 1942) in pursuit of the struggle to bring freedom to his people. 

Yes, it seems a bit lame or cheap, if you think about it, to do a community service for just over an hour once a year when one man contributed 67 whole years instead, 27 of them imprisoned. But the beauty of Mandela day lies in the power of the community. People coming together doing good things, and finding out they’re having a great time.

making beanies for Mandela day
Can I just mention here that these reading glasses are not mine but Noisette’s – he makes me ferry them around in my purse so he can read the menu when we go out for dinner. But they did come in handy for threading those devilish needles.


To be fair, Zax did come back later that weekend to do more sewing. He was actually quite good at it. Between him, Jabulani, Impatience, myself, and, briefly, they neighbors’ son, we sewed 37 more beanie hats.

making beanies for Mandela day
Zax, Jabulani – who was taking a lunch break – and our neighbor all working on beanie making
making beanies for Mandela day
All 37 hats on display. I can’t believe we have so many stuffed animals and dolls at our house!
Thank you, Mr. Mandela, for being such an inspiration to us all!

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