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Feature Story

Beyond Business: Fuqua Student Creates Song for Nelson Mandela's Fellow Prisoner

GATE trip to South Africa forges a unique bond for one Daytime student

Ahmed Kathrada, left, with Evelyn Powery, right

Ahmed Kathrada, left, with Evelyn Powery, right

May 05, 2014

When Duke University Fuqua School of Business student Evelyn Powery went to South Africa for one of her courses, she didn't realize she would leave the country with a mission: to record a song honoring anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada.

Powery was traveling as part of Fuqua's Global Academic Travel Experience (GATE) and was in Cape Town and Johannesburg on the same days as Kathrada.

Kathrada was a friend of Nelson Mandela and joined him in fighting against apartheid. Kathrada ultimately became a political prisoner, serving 26 years on Robben Island and Pollsmoor alongside Mandela.

Powery was excited to learn that she would get to meet Kathrada on the trip. She had long admired the sacrifice of anti-apartheid activists and was especially touched by Mandela's passing. In fact, Powery had recorded a cover of a song about Mandela and thought it would be a great opportunity for Kathrada to hear it. 

"I was just going to say, 'Here, listen to this song, I can e-mail it to you,'" she said.

But when Kathrada learned of the song, he had other ideas.

Before she knew it, Powery was in an auditorium, and she played the recording of the song in front of a crowd that included Kathrada.

Kathrada liked the song so much, he asked for her recording to be put in his foundation's archives.

Powery left, happy she had made such an impact, but she had no expectation of what would happen next.

Kathrada's niece sent a request through a contact asking Powery to write an original song to honor Kathrada.

Powery says she was speechless. 

"First of all, he is a huge figure in South Africa's history and here I was, just a tourist who wanted to say thanks. What a privilege to honor him through what I love - music," she said.

When she got back stateside, Powery started working on the lyrics and melody. She read three books written by Kathrada and incorporated events from his life into the song.

"I really wanted the song to capture a lot of the moments and the memories that he has had," she said. "For example, he mentioned numerous times how he planted a garden at Robben Island and that it was a bright spot in the midst of the gray prison, particularly for Mandela. It clearly meant a lot to him, so I wanted that in the song."

With the help of Fuqua staff, she located a Durham recording studio where she could lay down her tracks. In a marathon recording session, she put the song together and called it "Dear Uncle Kathy," referencing Kathrada's endearing nickname.

Now that the song is complete, she is sending it along to Kathrada's niece to be placed on the foundation website. She doesn't know what will happen next, but what she will remember most from the experience is the parting advice Kathrada gave her and her fellow business students:

"I just want you to remember that all around the world, people fought for freedom. The freedom that you now experience did not come for free."

Listen to the song: "Dear Uncle Kathy"

(For more information about the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, visit http://www.kathradafoundation.org/.)