Monday, 14 March 2016

Robben Island

I will not cry! I will not cry! I will not cry!..... I cried. 

I'm not the most emotionally expressive person you've ever met. To the outside world I often teeter on the side of robot, so imagine my surprise as my eyes began to water and a tear, then two, then too many to count ran down my cheek.  Robben Island moved me like no place had before.  

I was born in 1982 (quit doing my age math!) and that means that when apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994 I was 12 and doing a unit on current events.  Which meant I read a lot of newspapers and learned a lot about the effects racism, the importance of perseverance and the strength of Nelson Mandela.   My mom will attest to the fact that I have always been drawn to this story and so South Africa had been at the top of my travel list for a number of years.  One day I would see where it all happened. 

Fast forward to 2015 and there I was  at the Cape Town Waterfront headed to this place I'd read about where terrible things had happened to people who were fighting for freedom, justice and equality.  

That's where I met Spox, my tour guide.  He was imprisoned at Robben Island for acts of terrorism for seven years.  He had a very strong and proud presence and a booming voice.  I was instantly drawn to him. 

Then he took us into his cell.  

He told us about the uniforms the prisoners wore: shorts and t-shirts in the winter.  Their diets: the small quantities of food with little nutritional value.  Hygiene: they were allowed a limited about of time and water for baths, but were beaten for being unclean.  He explained how this cell was overcrowded by men sleeping on mats on the floor and how the windows did not have panes and the wind and rain would enter the cell. 

I could not believe that this strong, proud man standing before me had been treated so inhumanly.  How could one person treat another so cruelly? Especially when the hatred is based on something no deeper than the colour of their skin? 

Then I cried. 

I must not be the only one to have ever broken down in tears, but I was the only one in this group who couldn't "keep it together".  At first I was surprised at myself and then a little embarrassed.  But then I realized that empathy and compassion are nothing to be ashamed of.  

Spox has an unbelievable story of triumph and in some way my tears were a celebration of his success.  Imagine how much personal strength it takes to live in those conditions because you are fighting for the rights of not only yourself, but others.  It's kind of beautiful in it's own twisted way. 

The tour continued through the prison, to the yard where Mandela hid his book as he wrote it, to Mandela's cell and even to the limestone mine.  And although Mandela is definitely the star of the tour, his is not the only story to be told.  If you ever find yourself in South Africa or in Cape Town please visit Robben Island.  I promise that it will open your mind and your heart.