It is a familiar routine. Arrive at the airport, check in, through security with almost automated response to plastic bins needing feeding with tech toys, to the lounge, boarding gate, board, find seat, sit, ready for take-off. Ready for travel.

We may pass by 10 people, we may pass by several hundred. Sadly the number, they, go unnoticed. And yet we are in the process of travel to go somewhere to meet new people, discover new stories, even feel renewed. It happens, often, naturally. The in-transit white noise. Comfortable, safe, silent, alone, amongst millions.

But every so often the pause button is hit, because a feeling takes over that something more important than the laptop is at work on a flight. Something…if one is still, is open, is patient, and is quiet.


Flight number cannot-recall for the year thus far even though the new year is still ‘new’.

Flight A to B en route to C. Plane is boarded, seat is found, 4F, and someone is in the seat. A gentle, common question is extended “excuse me, what seat are you in?”


Ah…that is 4F. 4E is here.

A pause, and offer.

But if you would like to sit there that is fine.”

It is a familiar conversation of travellers. The response, however, was not.

“No, I am 82. The older you get the less you like window seats.

Quick swap. Sorted. Ready for 2hrs of work at 35k.

As soon as permitted to open electronic devices, laptop is at the ready. And so, within eyeline and arms reach, is the inflight magazine featuring a tribute to the late President Mandela. He was 95…4E is 82…this was all during her lifetime. She lived his long walk. She was there, from the beginning until the end. How did she say ‘goodbye‘?

Wait. There is something at work, and it’s not a PPT document.

Excuse me, you said you were 82.”  A brief though awkward quiet.

Stroking the magazine,What has this time meant to you?”

She sees the magazine’s elegant cover photo of South Africa’s father, icon, pride, tearful ache.

And so began almost two hrs, full flight duration, of discovery of 4E, a beautiful elderly African woman many would respectfully refer to as Gogo – Grandmother, with hands like soft yet well weathered dark leather, eyes deep pools full of stories that have flowed through her life – some to be shared, some to be stored in silence, and a serenity that projected a comfort in being engaged, or quite happy actually if left alone. She is a teacher. Retired. Yet still ‘participating’ in community projects. Her humility is exposed. Her community work is a 24/7/365 crusade of compassion. She grew up in ‘the struggle’, ‘not knowing anything different’, once a messenger of notes needing to be passed on to advance the cause. She is from Rustenberg. 5 children, grandchildren only recently aware of her own long walk. She grew up thinking that what was was what life was. She knew nothing about politics, it was never about politics. She lived, and lives, a life of courage, a cause. She feels that while she now lives in a ‘new South Africa’, this is no time to sit back and moan, when there are so many that gave so much to her, to others, when even they themselves had nothing, so that her messenger path was clear, her hunger was suppressed, her future was possible.

And, then she shared in a whisper, ‘what others don’t know: Rolihlahla (President Mandela) was my uncle’s best friend. My uncle married his cousin. He was a father to me…” She was there, praying with her family, as President Mandela faced the Rivonia trials, thinking he would face hanging for his charges of treason. However, when he was instead given life in prison, from that point on she knew “After that, nothing could ever make me feel despair”.

How did she make sense of all that happened? Courage, with a curious smile. “Why did God at that time blunt our feelings of danger? I knew God was with me. I could hear his footsteps.”

She speaks not of when she dies…she speaks of ‘if’. Her philosophy is simple: “You don’t achieve anything by looking at yourself.”

The power of the moment was clear. This sharing, this discovery, 4E and 4F, was meant to happen. It was allowed to happen, because the safe, secure, silent bubble of the on-board workspace was broken. And others were let in…and the desire was there to step out.

As travellers, so often we defer our discoveries of new people, new cultures, new stories, to when we reach our ultimate destination. The richest moments may, in fact, be in the journey itself…

The world we seek to discover may actually be sitting in the seat right next to us.

Her name: ‘Grace‘.




Postscript: to the world she is Grace Masuku, amongst other things the South African recipient of the prestigious ‘Presidential Order of the Baobab‘. She is also the blessing of 4E, the in-that-moment nameless woman who took my hand into hers and told me her story…

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2014