Book Reviews Great Lives

Through My Eyes: Children writing about Nelson Mandela

We can smile when you are free. Happy Birthday Mr Mandela – Aklisur

It won’t surprise you to hear we have a lot of material about Nelson Mandela in the library. The influence of this one man has been so far reaching it’s difficult to comprehend, and in these weeks after his death the whole world is reflecting on his impact. Of course, his influence is felt no less strongly at the local level – here in Manchester and in our schools.

Through My Eyes: Poetry against apartheid by Manchester children is a little booklet produced by the Education Team at Manchester City Council. It contains poems and pictures, which are the outputs of poetry workshops done with local school children as part of 1989 Anti-Apartheid Fortnight.

I really love this poem, written by a pupil from North Manchester High School for Girls. The words but also the rhythm – the way the poem builds up to the last two lines (if my poet colleague Angela was in the office today she could tell me the technical term!) – speak so directly to the reader, it’s very affecting:


Apartheid Apartheid
All Mandela was doing was trying to fight for his rights
What is wrong with that?
You would do the same wouldn’t you?
How about people picking and poking and calling you a name!
That’s just the same
So you think before you say
You want your own way
Mandela has been in a cell for 20 years
Thinking and caring for all our fears

Although the poetry was written in 1989 the book itself wasn’t produced until March 1990; just after Mandela was finally released from prison. To mark this, a poem was written by a class at Poundswick Junior School and included as the opening piece:


Mandela is Free
Africans sing for joy
Nelson is home
Dancing in Soweto
Everybody happy
Laughing and Crying
All People hoping that he will set them free

The poem begins and ends with freedom – the freedom attained by Mandela, the freedom anticipated by the nation. This little book was produced at this tipping point in history; so much momentum had gone into the campaign to free Mandela, but the outpouring of joy when he walked out of prison on 11th February 1990 must have been tinged by caution. There was so much work still to be done. As Poundswick Junior School knew, the whole world was hoping he could set them free.

Through My Eyes is one of three books we have here, containing work produced by school children about Nelson Mandela.

Images of three books

Happy Birthday Mr Mandela records school children celebrating Mandela’s 70th birthday during Anti-Apartheid Fortnight of 1988. Cards, poems, drawings, and some really amazing messages:

To Nelson Mandela
Happy Birthday. I hope all your dreams come true. I hear 70 is a lucky number. Love Carol

The birthday cards were in fact sent to the ANC headquarters in London, who sent back a thank you letter.



Mandela, Manchester is one of our own books – an anthology of poems by secondary school students, published in 2008 to celebrate Mandela’s 90th birthday. In the Introduction Chris Searle says:

Yet these poems are not strictly about Mandela … They are poems about Manchester and its people, forged in Mandela’s spirit by its schoolchildren. And what is that spirit, so inspiring for these young poets? It is the spirit of freedom, to live and write freely without constraint or coercion.

For me, this really sums up why the work we do through our Education Trust is so important. Allowing children to explore the big themes of justice, freedom and equality through their own art and writing helps to make these ideas real. It helps to turn them into deeply held values that young people can embody, in their own way, in their own community. Just like Nelson Mandela.

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

3 replies on “Through My Eyes: Children writing about Nelson Mandela”

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