This story features Thembi, a young South African girl, and her great grandmother, Gogo, at the time when black South Africans were first accorded the right to vote and Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa.
Gogo is a one hundred year old woman who hasn’t left the house since she was treated with disrespect in a civil service office years before. But when she has the opportunity to vote in her first election, she is determined to do whatever it takes to cast her ballot for president of South Africa. With the aid of the entire community– a neighbor’s rich relative who volunteers his car and driver, the presiding officer at the polling site who allows Gogo to skip the line, and Thembi who has the job of holding Gogo’s blue cloth bag while she fills out her ballot– Gogo votes for her first, and what will likely be her last, time. Her presence in the polling site occasions cheers which are echoed later upon Mandela’s victory “when people danced and sang in the streets all day and all night.”
The power of this book lies in its intimate portrayal of a momentous historical occasion. The close relationship between the narrator and her great-grandmother is prominent in every step Gogo takes to cast her first ballot. In the critical polling scene, the story is brought to life by factual details such as Gogo’s showing her ID and putting her hand in the ultraviolet machine. The step-by- step process inside the polling site builds to a crescendo when Gogo places her ballot in the ballot box; it’s echoed on a larger scale a few pages later in the grand finale of Mandela’s victory. The personal importance of this historic milestone is beautifully illustrated in Sharon Wilson’s pastel drawings which focus on individual people in warm enclosed spaces.
Some third and fourth grade teachers use this book in exploring the history of voting rights and discrimination. Others use it to bring to light Nelson Mandela’s accomplishments as a “change-maker.” An interesting note: the author Elinor Batezat Sisulu is the daughter-in-law of Walter Sisulu who was imprisoned at Robben Island with Mandela.