There is More to Robben Island than Nelson Mendela’s Jail Cell

Greetings from Cape Town!


On Saturday the 9th our class took a trip to go visit one of the most historically prominent sites in all of South Africa, Robben Island.  This is one of the first things that Calvin, our remarkable tour guide, pointed out to us upon arriving to the city the first morning.  It is about five kilometres of the coast and is easily visible from the mainland.  Robben Island is so historically important because it is the sight where Nelson Mendala and hundreds of other political prisoners were imprisoned during the Apartheid Era. 

To start off the morning, we drove to the waterfront in order to catch the ferry leaving from the mainland museum.  Immediately I was amazed by the security measures that the museum took before we were allowed to board the ferry.  They had two separate walk through metal detectors similar to those at museums as well as two machines to scan our belongings.   Upon arriving to the island along with many other tourists we were instructed to run towards the buses to ensure that we could all ride on a bus together as a group.   Once the group made it to the tour bus we were all greeted by a vibrant man standing in the front of the bus with a microphone.   We could hear the passion in his voice as he began talking about the history of the island.  We soon learned that our tour guide for the day on that bus was a former political prisoner himself.  I felt that this was the most interesting aspect of the trip because our other tour guide inside the prison itself was also a former prisoner from the island during the apartheid era.  It was a remarkable experience to hear their stories first hand and it really gave us an understanding for what happened to these poor men during that time period.  At first I asked myself, “why would these men want to return to the island that essentially stole their lives?”  This question was answered when our tour guide explained that since he was put in the prison as a young man he never got the opportunity to get a formal education with a degree.  Sure, most of these political prisoners were smart men, but an employer is not going to higher a man that is 35 years old or older with no degree and no work experience which was the case for many of these men.  In order to try to correct this situation, the government and museum officials created a pension to pay the political prisoner per every year they spent at the island as well as create many job opportunities for them at the museum.  I was surprised by the amount of past prisoner still at the island, but being able to hear them speak was my favourite part of the trip. 

Another surprising aspect of Robben Island is that people still willingly live there in houses and it is a fully functional community.  There are homes, churches, schools, an extensive road system, and even an infirmary available on the island.  This is something that I did not expect when we left the mainland that morning.  I only expected a small boat to take us out there, a shop with souvenirs, and an un-enthusiastic tour guide to show us Mendela’s cell.  We got so much more out of this trip.

Later in the day after eating lunch we were treated to another amazing opportunity as Mr. James Mathews, an accomplished poet and former prisoner himself, came to talk to the class and share his stories.  Mr. Matthews is a remarkable man who still lives in Cape Town, is 81 years young, and still manages to walk everywhere he goes no matter how far.  He actually told us that he is not mad that he spent so many years in prison because it gave him the opportunity to see the world the way he does today and write the kind of poems that he is currently able to write.  My jaw dropped when I heard this comment because I know that if I was imprisoned for essentially no reason I would have a bitter taste in my mouth.  Before meeting him our class read some of his poetry from a book called Poems From a Prison Cell.  I feel it is important to share an excerpt from one of his poems,

“Think of me, sometime as you walk unschackled and your movement takes you into shaded walked and pleasant places horizon stretched beyond the eye while I am confined.

Think of me, sometime as you fill your cup with wine and sing your song finding merriment in your meaning with friendship all around while my cup is dry.

Think of me sometime, as you look at your son at play with his sister around their mother’s feet a scene of family complete while I have fathered none.

Think of me, sometime as you enjoy life and watch flowers bloom to grow and give delight life as light as air while life for me has died.”

Our day at Robben Island was an eye-opening experience and a day full of learning first hand from the people who spent a good chunk of their lives there.  Most people know the story of Nelson Mendela and go simpily to see his old jail cell, but we laerned that there is much more to Robben Island I cannot help but think about all of the political prisoners who were trapped and isolated behind bars.  How many other “Nelson Mendelas” were stuck on that island and died before having the opportunity to impact the world”?  How many minds were wasted behind bars on the island simply because they were born with different color skin?

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