Salambo in Addis

Salambo discovering Ethiopia

Mandela’s gun

As the whole World is in mourning after Nelson Mandela’s death, a famous story is being recalled and talked about in Ethiopia: that of Mandela’s gun. Nelson Mandela visited Ethiopia in 1962 at the invitation of the empereur Hailé Selassié, who strongly supported the ANC cause. At that time, Hailé Sélassié had a big plan to transform Ethiopia into a powerful African country and Addis Ababa into the new capital of a united continent. The Organisation of African Unity (precursor to the African Union) had just been created in Addis following the African wave of decolonisation; the city was going through a building boom, attracting renowned international architects to contribute to its development.

Nelson Mandela being remembered at the South African Embassy in Addis

Nelson Mandela being remembered at the South African Embassy in Addis

In that context, Mandela was invited to Ethiopia for military training, particularly guerilla warfare. Ethiopia had one of the most powerful armed forces in Africa, which also got involved in conflicts outside its borders such as the Korean war of the 1950s, so it was the place to go to gain new skills. In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba recalls his brief time on Ethiopian soil. He spent a few weeks going through arduous physical training and learnt to use a gun. As he left Ethiopia, he was given a pistol as a symbol of his continuous fight, which, for some reason, became famous in the Ethiopian collective memory. Prior to Mandela’s death, I saw “his” gun featured in a painting by contemporary local artist, Behaylu Bezabih; I didn’t understand the connection at the time, the artist had to explain his work to me. It has become much clearer since.

As it turned out, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned a year after his return to South Africa. During his long time in confinement, he reflected, read and studied and consequently changed his philosophy from a violent struggle to a more peaceful activism. Without ever using his famous gun, he became the great leader and man the World came to discover as he was freed.

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