Tuesday, November 3, 2015

November 3, 2015 - The Great Cape (Town) Escape Part 2

Day 3!

One gift that Kristoffer gave me during our trip to Cape Town was:  Robben Island.  I took an amazing class in high school called Odyssey, which was a blend of history, literature, art and culture. We did an indepth unit of study on South Africa and apartheid, and it has always been of special interest to me since that time.  I knew that going to Cape Town, a trip to Robben Island had to happen.  But the trip takes 4 hours and is not very "little kid" friendly.  It is a 4-hour trip involving a round trip ferry ride to and from the island, a bus ride around the island, and a walk through some parts of the prison.  It was fascinating to say the least, but not super interactive for kids.  I was afraid that some component would go wrong, or Aya would be screaming, or the kids would have a meltdown and ruin the experience for me.  I would have preferred to go with Kristoffer, but he gave me the gift of a morning to myself, knowing how much I wanted to go there.  

The highlight of the trip is that the tour guides on the bus and in the prison are all former prisoners on the island.  One of them, Sedick Levy (prisoner number 60/63 - which means the 60th prisoner in 1963, the year of his incarceration), was my guide on the bus.  He was soft-spoken but passionate.  Seemed like a kind, wise soul.  He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 12 years for activities in protest to apartheid laws.  He was a leader of the Coloured People's Congress, accused by the government of being a terrorist.  His organization eventually merged with other activist political parties to form the Congress Alliance which drafted the Freedom Charter

My second guide was Lulamile Madolo (I did not get his prison number but he entered Robben Island in 1977), who had been in prison for 5 years (you can find him here) after participating in the Soweto Uprising of 1976, during which time he and other students refused to be educated in Afrikaans as the language of instruction (an apartheid era law).  He spoke a lot about the terrible conditions of the prison (no or little food, no blankets or bed, etc.) and how the International Red Cross advocated on behalf of the prisoners to improve the conditions during his stay.  It was harder to understand his English than Mr. Levy's.  He seemed harder too.  But both men spoke about forgiveness - and that had a huge impact on me.  They said that forgiveness began in the prison, where very educated prisoners like Nelson Mandela (a lawyer) and other professionals (doctors, lawyers, teachers) taught the uneducated prisoners and even the wardens.  They had a motto: "each one teach one" and made it their priority that when they were free, they would be an educated population who could lead the country out of segregation.   Many men earned multiple higher level degrees while they were in prison.  And the wardens too!  I'll just never forget Mr. Levy talking about forgiving the wardens: "boys", he called them, "who did not even know why we were the enemy."

The view of Cape Town's Table Mountain from the ferry...
South Africa's beautiful flag...
When you get off the ferry on the island, which is a museum and UN World Heritage Site, this is what you see...

I didn't know that before the island was a prison it was a leper colony.  And when they began to build the prison they found that the island was just a mass grave.
Mr. Levy, speaking to us about many of the political prisoners, or prisoners of conscience as they called themselves, on Robben Island.  The most famous prisoner there was Nelson Mandela, who was there for 18 years before being transferred to two other prisons for the next 9 years. Mr. Levy was there for 12 years.
This is the limestone quarry where the prisoners worked.  They were not given any kind of mask or protective eyewear and many of them died of or still live with both lung problems and vision problems.  Mandela himself had several eye surgeries and eventually died of a problem with his lungs, stemming from his years here.  The government knew that the work they were doing would slowly kill them.  In this quarry, you can see a cave...
 This cave is where the men had to go to the bathroom, and where they ate their food.  Wardens would not go in the cave, so it was also the only place where the prisoners could talk freely.  The men agreed that they would try to go to the bathroom in the mornings and evenings only, so that they could use their time in the cave for educating one another and not eat in their own waste. The original prison building was not big enough to house all of the political prisoners the government was incarcerating, so the original prisoners living in that building that had to build the rest of the prison themselves.  When that work was finished, they were just in the quarry moving limestone.
This is Mr. Madolo talking to us inside the prison buildlings.
Here is Nelson Mandela's prison cell. 18 years. 
Below was a prison room for those not in solitary confinement.  All prisoners were given a category (based on the threat they posed the government, I believe) and each category was afforded different privileges.  In this room, there would be men mixed together who were both "coloured" (the term used in South Africa for people who are mixed race) and "Bantu" (used to describe completely African people).  In this room, even those people were given different privileges...coloured men were given more and better food than Bantu men.  They didn't want them to become too close - they wanted the prisoners to feel seperated.  Eventually, in the late 70s and early 80s the prison conditions were improved and instead of sleeping on flat mats on the floor, the bed you see in the back was introduced and the prisoners also had blankets for the first time.  Before the blankets, men would get very sick because it gets really cold there and the windows are open so they would get quite sick with pneumonia, frost bite, etc.


I learned a lot that morning - above is just a bit to share.  It was incredibly powerful to be there.  As I said before, I found the most impact from the former prisoners' statements about forgiveness.  Mr. Levy said something to the affect of:  if I cannot forgive those who jailed me, many of whom were young men who did not know what they were doing, then even when I am free I am still a prisoner.  He said the anti-apartheid movement did strongly believe that all South Africans could be united as one people, under one flag, as equal citizens. Now...whether or not that has happened "perfectly" in real life, is another thing. While I imagine there is still racial tension in the country, and there are definite racial and economic disparities rooted in apartheid, it seems they have done a pretty good job of progressing from and reconciling that time in their history.  (Note that current president, Jacob Zuma, was also incarcerated on Robben Island. He has always had a cloud of controversy around him for such crimes as rape and corruption.) For ex-political prisoners to bear no ill will to those who imprisoned them...well, that was very powerful.  I could almost feel the pulse of being in a very special place - not a happy place, but a very important place.  And, as I said, I'm so grateful to have visited.  I still get goosebumps remembering it and it will stay with me for a long time. 

Meanwhile, Kristoffer and the kiddos had some toy store and ferris wheel fun at the Waterfront (an amazing shopping, cultural, dining area of Cape Town) and I was very happy to hug them all when I got back from the island.






Unfortunately, Noah became sick in the evening - first complaining of a stomach ache and then throwing up several times.  He seemed to have what Aya had.  Once he finished throwing up, he was fine.  Kristoffer and I had gotten a babysitter again to go out to a recommended contemporary Italian restaurant in a cool part of town.  The meal was lovely but I started to not feel well towards the end of the evening, and by the time we got home and said goodbye to the babysitter - it was clear that I had the stomach bug we brought from Dar and I was quite sick during the night!  ACK!  

LMW

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