Paper Lanterns Memorialize Mandela at Madiba Restaurant

Outside Madiba Restaurant on DeKalb Avenue, people lit paper lanterns in honor of Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Daniel Lewis)
Outside Madiba Restaurant on DeKalb Avenue, people lit paper lanterns in honor of Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Daniel Lewis)

South Africans and native New Yorkers alike gathered outside of Madiba Restaurant last night to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Dozens of people came to bid farewell and to celebrate Mandela’s legacy by lighting paper lanterns and sending them off into the night sky.

“I feel a personal connection to Mandela because when I was younger, I was told that I was named after Winnie Mandela,” said Winnie Arthur, 23. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was Nelson Mandela’s second wife. They were married for 38 years, including the 27 years during which Mandela was imprisoned.

“Teachers everywhere in Africa would call me Winnie Mandela, Mrs. Mandela,” Arthur said. “If I don’t get to eat here tonight, that’s fine. I want to light a lantern.”

The restaurant, which is named after Mandela, has been a center for the South African community in New York City since the death of the former president. By 6 p.m., the restaurant was packed to capacity with diners and those there for the memorial. The remainder of the crowd spilled out onto the street.

At around 6:30 p.m., restaurant employees passed out paper lanterns to the crowd outside. After a few moments, glowing lanterns began to rise up past the brownstone apartment buildings, drifting east with the wind. Cheers went up from the crowd and some began to sing.

“This song is called ‘Asimbonanga,’” said Phumzile Sitole, 24. Originally from South Africa, Sitole recently moved to New York to study for a master’s degree in acting at Columbia University.

“It means ‘we haven’t seen Mandela,’” Sitole said. “It was written when he was in prison.”

While most of the lanterns flew skyward, some were a bit quirkier – bobbing back down and skimming the crowd after rising, forcing people to duck to avoid the flames. Others drifted towards DeKalb Avenue, gliding at just the right height to be on eye level with the cars making their way down the street. A few became lodged in the branches of the trees in Edmonds Playground across the street, but the flames died out before they caused any damage.

Back inside the packed restaurant, owner Mark Henegan spoke to the crowd.

“Why do I cry for Mandela?” Henegan said. “Nelson Mandela walked down the streets of freedom after 27 years of incarceration firing words of peace and not weapons of revenge. Don’t ever say it can’t be done, or that it just won’t work. Don’t ever say it’s over and then turn off the light. Mandela turned it on for us.”


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