Fairfield man guest speaker in South AfricaCraig Pearson’s visit coincided with Nelson Mandela’s funeral
Maharishi University of Management’s executive vice president Craig Pearson received quite the honor in December when he was asked to give a college commencement address in South Africa.
Pearson just so happened to be in Johannesburg when all eyes were on the country after the death of former president Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5. Pearson was able to witness first-hand the outpouring of support and admiration the locals had for the man who symbolized the nation’s struggle against racial separation.
Upon his arrival in the country Dec. 2, the M.U.M. vice president learned he was staying a mere five blocks from Mandela’s home. Pearson planned to walk by the home to take photos, which would not be too difficult since it was normally a quiet street. Within a few days, the street outside Mandela’s home was packed full of people dropping off flowers and singing songs in honor of their fallen leader.
On the morning of Mandela’s death, Pearson opened his laptop to check the news. He saw a headline that read, “The World Mourns,” and he knew right away what it was about.
“When I went down to take photos outside his home, instead of empty streets there were hundreds and hundreds of people,” he said. “People of every age and skin color were standing there. Singing spontaneously came from this epicenter of the crowd and it rang out until everyone joined in.”
Pearson saw a “mountain range of flowers and hand-written notes” placed on the gate outside Mandela’s home.
“Some of the notes were from children who expressed how they felt about their leader with quotes from ‘Madiba,’ as they called him, which is his tribal name,” Pearson said. “He was also referred to as ‘tata,’ which means ‘father.’”
The Associated Press dubbed Mandela a “master of forgiveness” for his insistence on a peaceful cessation to the state-enforced racial separation known as “apartheid.” Mandela brought apartheid to an end after he became president of the country in 1994. Mandela became the country’s first black president after spending 27 years in prison for championing equality against the white-minority government.
“The significance of what he accomplished goes far beyond the borders of the country,” Pearson said.
After the memorial service for Mandela at a large soccer stadium, South Africans approached Pearson to tell him they were touched by the words of President Barack Obama, who spoke during the service.
Maharishi Institute in Johannesburg held an assembly the day after Mandela died. Pearson was asked to speak at the assembly, and he said it was clear from the other speakers how much Mandela meant to everyone.
“It’s extraordinary to see a leader be so beloved by the people these days,” he said. “Mandela was not without opposition for a long time, but once he became president and people saw he was a harmonizing force, then there was full support for him. I told the students they have a leadership role to play by building on his legacy.”
Pearson said when he visited Mandela’s home he was only able to see the roof because the rest was obscured by a wall. He said that was not unusual and that nearly every house in the city has a wall around it topped with barbed wire.
“They’re beautiful walls and the city has beautiful tree-lined streets,” he said. “Johannesburg claims to have the largest man-made forest, and it really is a forest of a city. When you go on a hill you can see all the trees covering the streets.”
Pearson said Mandela lived in a well-off neighborhood but his house did not seem any more extravagant than his neighbors.
Maharishi Institute, where Pearson gave his commencement address, began in 2006 and is affiliated with M.U.M. in Fairfield. In fact, the students at the institute are actually earning degrees from M.U.M.. In some cases their instruction is provided online and in other cases a professor from M.U.M. travels to South Africa to teach a class in person. The 27 students who received their diplomas in December are the first to graduate from the institute. Pearson said the institute hopes to expand in the near future by adding 1,000 students in February.
Despite the end of state-sanctioned racial discrimination in 1994, blacks still lag far behind whites in educational attainment. Pearson said the institute was founded in Johannesburg to correct for the lack of higher education for blacks.
Students at the institute receive 1.5 years of free education and then begin a work-study program. One form work-study takes is to work at a call center in the same building as the school. Students who don’t work in the call center work as janitors or some other occupation that maintains the school.
“People living in the shanties may get an education through high school but their opportunities for college education are pretty miniscule,” he said. “Maharishi Institute takes the students who are ready for college and gives them a college education at no cost. One student told me he might be in a gang if not for the institute.”