The exceptional Malala Yousafzai

'OMG!" I heard one teenager shriek. "She is amaaazing! I want to be like her!" "She is just gorgeous isn't she?" confirmed her young red-haired friend.

"I wanted to cry when I shook her hand," added another.

You would be forgiven to think that these teenage girls just met their favourite pop star. But it was not some gelled up X-Factor winner that had the young Dublin girls swooning. It was a tiny Pakistani teenager, only a few years older than them, wearing a hijab. There are so few role models and heroes, especially for young people, but these young girls had found someone that they could admire. And so had I.

I have met many celebrities and VIPs. Although most of them were friendly and some even interesting, only three – Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – left me in total awe. In their company I was constantly aware that I was in the presence of greatness. They are humble, have a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour and their love for people, in particular children, is evident in the way they engage with everyone they meet. More importantly, they have an aura that attests to the fact that they are the best humanity can be.

I had long ago accepted that it is highly unlikely that I would again meet anyone in my lifetime who will come even close to those three exceptional and mature human beings. But then I met Malala Yousafzai, aged 16.

Malala grew up in a region of Pakistan controlled by the Taliban, who frequently banned girls from attending school. While still a young child, she began to campaign for education rights for girls. In October 2012, a gunman got on to her school bus and, in an effort to silence the brave, outspoken girl, shot her point-blank in the head.

She survived the attack and moved to the United Kingdom, to be treated in Birmingham, where she lives still. She has had reconstructive surgery and suffers persistent hearing difficulties.

Malala was in Dublin to receive the prestigious Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International on September 17 and I was privileged to have been asked to receive her at the airport and accompany her during her short visit.

While waiting for her at the airport, I wasn't sure what to expect. She was, after all, just a teenager but had already gone through more than most people would in a lifetime. A girl who, instead of going to dances, playing sports, watching TV or socialising with friends, took up a cause with the focus and determination of a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Like Gandhi and King, she became the target of those who hated her for speaking the truth but, thankfully, unlike them, she survived an assassination attempt.

Where does she get the strength and the courage to keep going after being shot? I wondered. And then, after surviving something so brutal, both physically and psychologically and with her life still under threat, how does she get the courage to continue to fight for that same cause? I knew I was about to meet someone special but I was not prepared for what I encountered.

She was simply breathtaking. From the moment she shook my hand with a shy smile and said quietly, "I am so honoured to meet you", I knew that I was in the company of greatness. But like all truly great human beings, she seemed totally unaware of it and imposed no demands. She graciously thanked everyone at the airport and, as with Madiba years ago, I saw many eyes well up as she went past.

In the car, she practised her speech over and over again. She asked who she should acknowledge and who she should thank. I ran down the list of who was going to be there. Like a seasoned politician, she nodded and made notes as I mentioned the minister, the lord mayor and other dignitaries.

"Oh, yes, and Bono," I said. She frowned slightly. "Do you know who Bono is?" I asked gently. She looked slightly anxious and frowned. "He is in this rock band called U2," I said. Her face instantly lit up. "The guy who always wears glasses, even inside and when there is no sun, right?" she smiled.

At the venue, she handled the endless line of people wanting to say hello and have a photo taken with her with the grace of a person four times her age. I marvelled as I watched how every person she met felt that she gave them her total attention and respect.

One of the most poignant moments came when she met a group of school children. There was the obligatory photo session and then, when the cameras had turned to someone else, she looked lovingly at the young ones that surrounded her. "Hello," she said softly. "I hope you have all done your homework?"

"I think you are so brave!" a nine-year-old burst out, turning blood red. "You are brave too," answered Malala.

"We will pray for you," said another before handing her an Irish bracelet and suddenly I saw deep emotion on Malala's face. "Thank you!" she whispered.

But then it was time to move on. I warned her that Bono was on his way and a few minutes later she whispered with a giggle in my ear: "I see him! I can see the glasses!"

An hour later, after being presented with the award, she stood up on the stage and, with an authority born out of deep conviction, she reminded us "that there were millions of children across the world who fight every day for the right to go to school".

Many in the audience wiped away tears as they gave her a lengthy standing ovation. Then she had to rush back to the airport to travel home so she could finish her homework and get some sleep before school the next day.

I read somewhere that Malala described Mandela as her hero. In the car, Malala told me that she would like to meet him, since she wants to be more like him. Sadly, because of his poor health she will most probably never be able to, but, if her reason for meeting him is to be more like him, I know that there is no need. I believe Malala Yousafzai already exemplifies all the qualities that make her part of that handful of exceptional human beings that so rarely enter this world.

Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African ambassador to Ireland

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