For the Ones they Forgot on Robben Island

Robben Island Maximum Security Prison was where the South African government held black male prisoners during apartheid. For decades, this island was home for many of the freedom fighters who had dedicated themselves to the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa. The most famous inmates of the notorious prison was none other than Nelson Mandela. Mandela would become the face of those who were subjected to the horrid atrocities of life on the island. Mandela, while a remarkable man in every sense, was not alone on the island.

In its earlier years, Robben Island was a colony for lepers, so naturally it was again used for the purpose of separation and isolating people. As we toured the island, we saw the graves of the people condemned to die there from the horrible disease and it was a stark and painful reminder of the cruelty people can be capable of once they have managed to dehumanize someone else.

Yesterday, my cohort went to visit Robben Island and our tour was led in part by a former political prisoner who had served 12 years on the island for charges similar to t Mandela’s and other anti-Apartheid activists (treason, sabotage, conspiracy, etc…). As he described the horrors of his experience, I couldn’t help but think of all those who were stuck on the island because they weren’t Nelson Mandela or some other high profile inmate. The man who led our tour was one of many other inmates who endured the same harsh and inhumane conditions as Mandela. They too had sacrificed their lives and bodies for the purpose of casting off South Africa’s chains of hatred and intolerance. There were no statues for them, no celebrations held in their honor. They bore their scars away from the eyes of the world and in spite of this, they were there. They suffered daily and continued to believe their efforts and sacrifice would not be in vain. They were there. They were humiliated and tormented and they persevered. They were there. The guards urinated on them and set dogs loose on them as they were shacked to walls and left helpless. Still they were there and they were determined to continue to be present in the cause for bringing liberty to their fellow South Africans. Interestingly enough, there were hardly ever any suicides on the island. As the tour guide put it, the prisoners were willing to live and die for the struggle and there would be no other way out for them.

At the beginning of the tour, our guide spoke in the room where he and other prisoner were housed. Up to fifty of them were confined to a room hardly fit for half of them. Their beds were hard cold metal bunk beds. He spoke of how they were often forced to go without food and water or denied visitors and correspondence with their families for even the simplest infractions. When they were fed, it was serving sizes hardly fit to feed anyone much less full grown adult men who were forced to labor day in and day out in a limestone quarry on the island.

As he spoke, there stood behind him two pillars with names of people who had died on the island and were buried as paupers in nearby Bellville, a section of Cape Town. As I read the names on the lists and listened to our guide, my thoughts went to those whose lives had been lost in the struggle to create a free and democratic South Africa and have had their names lost or forgotten. Some were buried in unmarked graves and others never had their remains found or returned to their families. Even some high school students as young as 16 were sentenced the horrors of the island and several of them had met their demise on the island. Students I have worked with could have been one of the Robben Island’s lost in another time or place. The very thought of this was unsettling and I haven’t shaken the feeling even after leaving the island.

Our tour guide paused for questions and was asked by a member of the tour group how he could continue to return so frequently to the island where he endured such hardships. He said he was able to do it because the story needed to be told and it was his story to tell. Being in the presence of such grace and courage was staggering. The man who led our tour showed us scars he had gotten during his time on the island. His own body was a reminder of his strength and resilience. His body, his voice and his words are reminders of those who were forgotten on Robben Island. For the first time in my entire life, I had felt inadequate in someone’s presence. Here was this man who had gone through hell and was brave enough to go back there almost daily to ensure no one forgets the plight of those who walked through the flames with him. Most importantly, he used his own story to show the horrors of unchecked hatred mixed with power. He told us he wanted his story to heal and to teach and to show the world the power of the human spirit. I hugged him at the end of our tour and I felt the tears in my eyes. He comforted me and said now that I know I his story, use it to ensure no one else suffers as he and the others of Robben Island did. I agreed to take him up on his task and thanked him for his strength and his grace. I promised to do all I can to make a world where people will know his story. I want to make a world where no one else is subjected to the pain of he and the others. I promised to remember him and his suffering. I promised to remember him and the people indigenous to the Americas who laid their lives to resist colonialism. To never forget those in countries in Africa who paid the ultimate price for freedom and the rights afforded to them on the simple basis of their humanity. I vowed to never forget people in the American South who died for the purpose of freedom and equality in what is supposed to be the land of the free. Nor will I ever forget countless nameless people who gave up their lives to see the world move further down the road to true freedom.

If you’re reading this, I urge you to remember all of those people on all of the Robben Islands all over the world. We owe it to them to see that the world becomes a place worthy of their sacrifices.

Thank you for reading.

T.

Our tour guide.
Names of men who died at Robben Island and weren’t returned to their families.
Censored correspondence of Robben Island inmate

The five photos above show the limestone quarry where people incarcerated on the island were forced to labor. Nelson Mandela’s vision deteriorated after years of exposure to bright sunlight on the stones. Placards commemorate the return of former prisoners to the island at the dedication of the museum. A pile of stones in the entrance to the quarry made by said people mark the space.
Robert Sobukwe, a political prisoner was housed here completely separate from others. The red roofed house was where he was kept. He shared this space with the dogs in the kennels building across from his cell.

Inside Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. While the picture didn’t capture the whole cell, there is very little space not shown in the photo.

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Hurt & Healing: South Africa’s Apartheid Museum

“i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.”

-Warsan Shire

The first time I ever read this quote I stopped and was floored by the validity of the statement. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the world and some of the very ugly truths about the history of some places.

As a lover of history, I’ve always known that some people in some parts of the world have known immense suffering. From the horrors imposed on indigenous populations the world over,  to the current plight of those living in lands ravaged by war or crushing poverty, there has been hurt to go around.

In South Africa much of,  if not all of the hurt and suffering has come as result of the country’s former practice of Apartheid. Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s. This was not unlike America’s Jim Crow and the scores of other practices the US put into place to discriminate against its own citizens. Apartheid divided a country and left tremendous scars in the hearts and minds of the people affected by it.

Yesterday, our group visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Here we saw how the concept came about and how the policy became commonplace and relegated an entire race of people to status as second-class citizen. (Talk about Deja vu) In the museum, one of the features of the museum was a wing dedicated to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC was an court-like body assembled for the purpose of restorative justice after the end of Apartheid. The TRC gave those who were subjected to the human rights violations associated with Apartheid were invited to give statements about their experiences. Conversely, those who were perpetrators of the injustices could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution.

The TRC wing was near the end of the museum. The placement all the more poignant after touring the main exhibit and seeing and reading of the horrors of South Africa’s practice of segregation.

The work of the TRC took South Africa on the first steps toward healing the hurt its people had come to know. In the exhibit for the TRC, a monitor shows testimony given to the TRC by the mother of an anti-Apartheid student activist who vanished after visitng a hospital shortly after his release from prison. Her testimony is raw and emotive as she describes the pain she’s had to endure over the loss of her son. As I sat and watched more testimony from those directly impacted by the state-sanctioned segregation I had saw that the deaths of those who had lost their lives in the fight against injustice would not go in vain. After hearing from people in the museum who native to South Africa and had lived through Apartheid, we learned that the TRC fell short of some of its aims and failed to hold those  who violated the rights of others and killed people for daring to rise against such depravity accountable for their misdeeds.

In spite of this, the country did a great deal toward healing its own hurt and made tremendous strides in this effort. Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela (I could write a book on the  museum’s Mandela exhibit and just how incredible of a human being he was) the country took steps down a path few other countries have gone. Mandela was able to lead this charge because he himself practiced the ideals of forgiveness and reconciliation in his own life. Upon his release from prison (Sidenote: It came to light that the CIA informed South African police of Mandela’s location out fear of his associations with Communists), Mandela was often accompanied by his former jailers.  Mandela worked tirelessly to lead his nation in a new direction and to ease some of the pain of the past.

South Africa has provided an example for the world to follow. In acknowledging its own sins, the country has afforded its people a chance to heal. In keeping with the Warsan Shire quote above, Mandela dedicated his life’s work to easing the pain on the atlas.

A quote by Nelson Mandela I saw outside the museum read “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” This resonated deeply with me mostly because I’ve paraphrased this quote to young people at my job on countless occasion.

With that, I left the Apartheid Museum with a fresh sense of optimism and deeper and greater respect and admiration for Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s work showed us that the road to freedom is a long walk. His example showed us that it would not come without sacrifice and dedication. The Apartheid Museum and South Africa in general have given the world a glimpse of the freedom attache to forgiveness, all the while reminding us that equally as important as forgiveness is the acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

If more countries hurting around the atlas could at the least acknowledge the pain they’ve brought about, we’d be one step closer down our long road to freedom.  It is my hope as  both an educator and as a human being to do all I can to help us all continue to make strides on this road.

The world is full of pain and the atlas is indeed hurting all over. In spite of this, there is freedom the pain to be found in healing. In the years to come, more healing will be done and we’ll be closer to living in the world Nelson Mandela and those like him sough to create.

If you’re reading this, I implore you to ponder what ways you can help us all get to where we need to be and to go there with love.

Thank you for reading.

T. SA Pic 2

 

Touchdown in South Africa

After a day long delay, I have arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. For 3 weeks this month, I’ll be traveling throughout South Africa with a Rutgers University Study Abroad program. While here our group will engage with several different non-Governmental organizations and taking an in-depth look at the  work they do surrounding education in South Africa. As an added bonus, we’ll be exploring how South Africa’s work for reconciliation has impacted their culture and their education as a whole.

One of the first organizations we were connected with was Teboho Trust. Teboho Trust provides educational support to students throughout South Africa. The young people they serve are orphans and others from unprotected circumstances. The Trust provides everything a student may need from school books and supplies to their monthly toiletries.  While, I hadn’t arrived by the time my group had gone on their visit, I was well aware of Teboho Trust, the work they did and what it meant for the young people they serve. Prior to our arrival, the cohort had a Skype session with the director of the organization. A former student who himself had benefited from the work of the Trust, David has taken the helm of the cherished organization. Despite immense challenges ranging from lack of funding to theft of computers and other equipment for the students, he continues to persevere with an unwavering dedication to the young people his organization works for. Given, the uphill battle he’s faced with the recent loss of the headquarters for the organization, still he persists. When I asked him on our Skype call what kept him going his answer was simple. “The learners.”  David’s courageous was admirable and it shows in his smile when he spoke of his students.

In pondering for this post, I thought of the importance of the work the people in my cohort are doing day in and day out. With about 3 exceptions, the people on the trip are educators in some form. My work in outdoor education only differs in location from the work of my colleagues.  In thinking about the mission of the Teboho Trust, I was reminded of the work I have been doing at the Princeton-Blairstown Center in New Jersey. Our mission is for us to provide youths from unprotected communities with skills and knowledge to affect change in their community and in the world. The mission of the two organizations is similar and given the focus in South Africa of helping to develop children to be their best selves speaks to this country’s determination to develop people who can push their society forward.

It is my hope to learn all I can about how this country has worked to heal itself from its harmful past all while teaching the importance of  forgiveness and community. In my quest to make the world a better place, I’ve began to learn from a country that has begun to the work to make itself and its people better.

Thank you for joining me on this journey!

 

 

 

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