Robben Island Prisoner 466/64
1/25/2013 11:33 AM
It is mid-afternoon as tourists march methodically past the "photo hawker" waving his arms wildly, directing every embarking passenger to pose on the ramp entrance to the ferry that will take us to the now infamous Robben Island, also referenced as "Mandela University." "Hey, you look beautiful man (imagine a lilting Jamaican tone), glorious; the sea breeze is blowing your hair man, love it man..." He will attempt to sell his photos to exhausted returnees as they stumble across the ferry threshold and once again face his authoritative taunt, "Memories here! Hey, man, get your photo while you can!" It could be any vacation spot in the world, anytime, anyplace. Same routine...tourists shuffling across the dock in clusters--- anticipation palpable, posing stiffly in front the entrance of what they hope will be a seaworthy vessel that will transport them to freedom...release them from the troubles of their world. On the first leg of the journey, headed to the island, I watch from the top deck of the Ferry as people continue to load--a steady flow, their numbers seemingly endless. I think to myself---Nelson Mandela made this trip, had his picture taken most likely upon arrival...not beautiful, not glorious. He must have been anxious, anticipating anything but freedom. People pose for their "photo shoot"---arms wrapped around each other, as the local photographer directs, "One, two, three. Smile big and say Man-delll-aaah!"
On the return trip, I go below to the mid-deck area and sit in one of the multiple rows of theater seats facing a line of television screens. Apartheid news reels run for the entire hour and a half journey. The constant technological exposure to the horrific reality of oppression is exhausting...the critical aspects of the news reels become a din, are lost on me, and I long for the breezes and unruly shifting of personal possessions on the upper-deck. Freedom. I resist the temptation to crawl over laps to get to the aisle to climb the stairs to a higher level. I choose to remain in the crowded, every seat taken, mid-deck seating area. I am nestled next to three women from Atlanta who obviously enjoy each other's company. They politely involve me in their recounting of the bargains of the "Green Market" in Capetown (an outdoor African crafts extravaganza). I tell them, I was there and loved it when I was beckoned over and over, from one space to another by graceful hand motions and the words, "Come Mother and see." Memories... ebony carvings of "the big five" wildlife---two sets.
Across the aisle a young woman looks queasy and halfway closes her eyes. She is in my group. When we disembark, I ask if it was the experience of the "Museum" (the entire prison complex) or the rough seas that made her sick. She replies, "A little of both." In a monotone she begins talking about the prison cells--- the lack of light, the ten minutes of "outside time" twice a day---"How could anyone's spirit survive that kind of torture?" she whispers in my direction. I don't answer, but I have thoughts. I reflect on the idea of confinement to an island and many scenarios come to mind...Tom Hanks and his volleyball companion, Wilson, in the movie, "Castaway", the takeover of Alcatraz Island, and finally John Donne's famous lines, "No Man is an Island entire of himself...Each is a part of the continent a part of the main..." and then, "Each man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind." The horror and fascination of the island museum exists in the realization that Mandela and the prisoners who survived with him were isolated and disconnected, diminished in so many ways, and yet they moved in and out of spaces of hope. The "garden" where they spent their outdoor time (aside from the lime pits and hard labor) provided a hiding place for Nelson Mandela's writings which were successfully smuggled out when he and other political prisoners were released...
Docked at the island, we disembark from the ferry and eye the waiting tour buses. It is the 50 yard dash. No more shuffling. It is a downright race. I am one of the last groups to hit the ground hustling with dignity. Three of us from the top of the ferry bring up the rear of the herd. Like Ostriches, we trot from bus to bus, one of us climbing the tour bus steps to survey the seating situation while the two hopefuls still on the ground, endure the blank stares of those peering through bus windows sporting smug expressions of belonging. We find a place on the next to the last bus in the line-up and brush by our edgy, somewhat disheveled tour guide who begins her spiel with the following words of welcome: (again, imagine the Jamaican rhythm)
"Do I have any Germans on my tour today, man?" Three men in the back of the bus halfway raise their hands. She spots them, and continues, "Don't worry; we will be on time today, right on schedule. Precision is my goal on this tour." She then scans the crowd and asks, "Do I have any French People on this bus today?" After a moment's pause, one woman toward the front turns slightly sideways (I think in search of support) and weakly smiles. The tour guide, within whispering distance, says loudly, "I will not be speaking MY VERSION of your language today, so you don't have to worry about correcting me. Just relax." How many more groups is she going to address? She goes through several countries with no responses---good---lack of diversity in this scenario is welcome. She then pauses, stands and puts her hand on her hip. "Listen, do I have any guests from Holland on this tour?" Several blonde people to my left are shifting in their seats. I am beginning to sweat. I am on a prison island, confined to a tour bus with an interrogating guide in control. At this point, I am craning my neck, wishing for more cervical flexibility, searching for my fellow ostriches, to see if there is any escape plan afoot. They have blended into the crowd. I am alone with suspected Hollanders to my left...dangerous territory. After what seems like a long day in the African sun, one person in the suspect group raises his hand and wiggles his fingers. Good, at least he is confident. Maybe our tour guide will admire his courage and spare us acrid commentary. No chance. "Okay, all I ask of you is that you keep your seat. I just hope you are not here to attempt to colonize us again." At this comment, there are a few nervous titters.
The final "greeting" is for the Americans. She keeps it short. "Thank you for the solidarity in our struggle." She turns around and points out various buildings on the grounds and lets us know that a handful of people live on the island, but no prisoners---not any more. There is a pile of stones at the entrance to the lime pit, a church, a graveyard, and now the prisoner’s quarters come into view. We disembark. My group is led by a soft-spoken, elder, black man, dressed in Khaki pants, a non-descript shirt, and running shoes. He introduces himself, but I do not catch his name. He asks if we know of the 1976 uprising in Soweto, and we are a dumbstruck group. If we know, we do not acknowledge. If we don't, we don't confess our ignorance. A pregnant pause as he surveys our group. He smiles knowingly and then says, "I spent five years here, in this place. I was a political prisoner for my part in protesting the imposition of Africaans as the teaching medium in schools." The word, "Africaans" has captured the attention of some in my group. There is a low muttering among some in my group--in a language I do not understand. Distracted, I try to take in the meaning of these past few moments---our tour guide was a political prisoner here. He most likely spent time in the lime pits we recently passed. Some of his compatriots are most likely buried on this island. And then the question, "Why does he continue to relive his past, returning to memories that must be painful, talking to strangers about the "everyday" routine of prison life, enduring what must be the same questions over and over again....The food? Visitors? Did you know Mandela?
Leaving the island. Back on the bus. Lost track of my three friends, and of time. In somewhat of a daze, I enter the door of the "Souvenir Shop." I am drawn to a red, white and blue canvas bag with Khaki colored straps. On the front, purposefully tattered cloth numbers are sewn on...466/64. The words, "Robben Island and South Africa" are stamped on the blue background. I buy it. I leave with an artifact of this place, of Mandela. From the showcase shopping area, we shuffle silently toward the ferry aptly named, "Sikhululekile" which translates, "We are free."
Winona Wynn, Ph.D.
Chair, English and Humanities
Coordinator, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Office Location: Harry Kent Work
Phone: (509) 865-8500