More than 100 people gathered in Portland’s Monument Square on Tuesday to honor the life of South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

Participants stood in front of the city’s 55-foot-tall blue spruce tree, held candles in Mandela’s memory, sang the South African national anthem and listened to a reading of “His Day Is Done,” a tribute poem that the American author and poet Maya Angelou composed after Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

Despite cold weather and wet sidewalks, people in the diverse crowd of young and old, black and white, held candles and hugged each other as they listened to speakers talk about the man who led the movement that brought down South Africa’s apartheid government. For opposing that regime, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

Maxwell Chikuta of Portland, who helped organize the candlelight vigil, told the audience that the gathering was an opportunity for the Portland community to say farewell to one of the world’s most respected freedom fighters and advocates for peace.

Speakers frequently referred to Mandela as Madiba, a clan name that’s a sign of respect and affection, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

“It means a lot for this many people to come here tonight,” Chikuta said after the ceremony. “It symbolizes our unity and the fact that Nelson Mandela was color-blind. We want everyone to carry on that same spirit and we want to treat everyone in our community with respect.”

City officials used the opportunity to announce a new scholarship program for seniors graduating from Portland’s three high schools: Deering, Portland and Casco Bay. Mayor Michael Brennan quoted a line that Mandela liked before announcing details of the scholarship program: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Brennan said that beginning in June, one senior from each high school will be chosen to receive a $500 Nelson Mandela scholarship. The money will be raised by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and administered by Portland Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk.

“We want at least three students from Portland to carry on Nelson Mandela’s legacy. We think it’s a fitting tribute to the city and to Nelson Mandela,” Brennan said.

Rachel Talbot-Ross, director of Portland’s Equal Opportunity and Multi-Cultural Affairs Office, said she went to South Africa 10 years ago and met Mandela.

“I met Madiba and shared the same space with him. It was one of the greatest honors of my life,” Talbot-Ross said. “He was a great spirit.”

After asking everyone to light a candle, Talbot-Ross said, “May his light never be extinguished.”

Pious Ali, a newly elected member of Portland’s school board, led the crowd in singing the South African national anthem.

“Nelson Mandela may be gone but his legacy lives on,” Ali said. “The candle that Nelson Mandela lighted lit the candles in our hearts and souls.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:[email protected]

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