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ken wiwa

The passing of an old man in Africa is not a time for mourning but a moment for reflection and communal celebration. For Africans, the death of a patriarch is merely a journey to join the pantheon of ancestors that watch over us and all that is required of the living is to recount his blessings, give the old man a vote of thanks and a befitting burial.

At the handsome old age of 95, Madiba took his final step to freedom, adding another iconic number to the stock of his legend – 27 years in jail as prisoner number 46664. I imagine that henceforth December 5 will, throughout the world, be known as Nelson Mandela day. I raise my glass and propose the idea with a libation.

Celebration it is but there is relief too because the stories surrounding Nelson Mandela have made for unsettling reading in the last few months. The rumours of his passing and the subsequent squabbling for the right to bury him reminded me that a great man's legacy is not always the stuff of fairytales. Martyrdom is inspiring but it can also be a draining, corrosive experience for those who inhabit the immediate slipstream of our heroes.

I was not close to the Mandela family in any deep sense but after spending an afternoon with his feisty daughter Zindzi at the family home in Soweto in 1997 and after walking around the family home in the serene hills of his beloved village Qunu in the Eastern Cape, I got close enough to the inner turmoil and psychological shadow that his legend had cast over his community, his family and even the man himself. In that sense his death is a merciful release from the rigours of life as a living martyr, but I have to confess that I wanted a different ending; I secretly hoped and still wish that Madiba had passed during President Obama's visit to South Africa.

There have been triumphant picturebook endings to the Mandela story; that walk from Robben Island, the erect bearing, grey and unbroken, raising Winnie's hand high above their heads towards the blue Cape sky. That was not so much an end but a beginning. Then there is that picture of him in the Springbok rugby jersey and cap, shaking hands with the blonde blue-eyed South African captain Francois Pienaar before the 1995 World Cup final. That too was meant to be a beginning of some sort; the pot of world cup gold at the end of the Rainbow Nation.

In between there have been more anguished episodes: the divorce from Winnie, the deaths of his son and grandsons and then the painful and stomach-churning deathbed chronicles, all of which betrayed the ugly reality that a Saint is also a human being.

That's why I wanted an iconic, storybook ending featuring Barack Obama. For all Mr. Obama's domestic challenges, that picture might have provided us with one final triumphant defining image – the symbolism of Nelson Mandela passing on the torch and the audacity of hope to an African-American President.

For me that would have perfectly captured an end and a beginning, an image to inspire us all to embrace the virtues of forgiveness and shared humanity.

The death of Mandela represents, in a sense, the end of the 20th Century for Africa – a century where the black man's burden was the struggle to end colonialism and face down racism. Obama represents the 21st century, a century where Africans must dare to dream, to build on the foundations, the sacrifices and the faith of our fathers.

Such is the startlingly youthful demographic profile of Africa that it is possible to speculate that about half of all Africans on the continent were not even alive when Mr. Mandela was released from prison. I cannot imagine what Nelson Mandela's passing means to that generation, but the global outpouring from praise singers and professional eulogists should contextualise the present and the future for them.

For me, this end brings a soft tear and a grateful smile to my face. I think of the old man now, among the ancestors, standing tall with all those who refused to be intimidated, all those who vowed to make the world safe for their children and for all of us. Whatever pain and torment we endure, it is a long walk but the journey is the destination.

Ken Wiwa, a former Globe and Mail columnist, is a senior aide to Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan.