Taking Time to Learn: Touring Robben Island

Work Update:

I finished the first draft of data collection for the Ghana case study ahead of schedule and shared it with the rest of the research team on Monday of this week. On Tuesday, the team met via Microsoft Teams and we each shared about our case studies, and we were able to workshop any questions we had as a group. This was a great collaborative meeting, and I think we all were able to make progress as a result. I was also able to mention a few areas that I would like specific feedback on regarding the data sheet I had just sent out to the team the day prior. On Thursday, some of the research team met virtually again to work on the switch to using Google Forms and to discuss the codebook.

My current task is writing up the Country Note for Ghana. Essentially, it should be a narrative form of the database so I should have most of the necessary sources for the report already. I spent part of one morning reading through examples from some of the other researchers to gain a better understanding of what needs to be included as well as what format I should be using. I finished up the week by working through drafting the Country Note, going section by section to ensure the content matches the dataset. I hope to have a full draft of the paper sent to the rest of the team by the end of next week.

Life in Cape Town:

I am pleased to share that I’ve been feeling much better overall and I was able to do some exploring again this week! One trip in particular this week was something that had been on my list to do since arriving in Cape Town: visiting Robben Island.

I met the tour group at the V&A Waterfront around 8:30am and we boarded a ferry out to Robben Island. The ferry ride was around half an hour and the view of Cape Town from out on the water was incredible. We docked at the island and from there we all boarded large tour busses that took us around the island. The bus driver told us the history of the island itself and specifically its long history as a prison. One notable stop on the bus tour was by a pile of rocks that Nelson Mandela started on one of his visits back to the island after becoming President. Each former political prisoner that was with him that day added a stone until it formed a pile that still sits there today. From that same spot on the tour, the guide pointed out a cave where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were able to have some of their first private discussions about post-Apartheid government. The cave was used as a bathroom during the day by the prisoners while working on the island, so the prison guards did not enter it due to the smell. This allowed for the only private conversations among prisoners, because all other areas had guards listening in directly or through speakers inside the cells. Learning about such important moments while present on the island where so much suffering occurred but also where such important strides toward equality began, was a really impactful experience.

At the end of the bus ride portion of our tour, we stopped at a rocky beach area for a twenty-minute break. There was a small shop to buy coffee or snacks, but I spent my break admiring the ocean and chatting with other passengers from my bus tour. After the break we then headed back on the bus to be dropped off at the prison gates. We were assigned a new tour guide, a former political prisoner who had spent many years in the Robben Island prison.  He started by explaining the different buildings and telling us the nicknames the prisoners gave each one. Then he told us his story and how he ended up as a political prisoner on Robben Island. After that, he led us inside one of the communal cells where we sat along the walls. He explained how the prisoners slept, how they were fed, and they were identified. It was at this point that he discussed his decision to return to Robben Island years after his sentence had ended. He talked about how he had initially struggled to come back but did it because he needed work. On his first tour, he was unable to find words to say until a visitor gently asked a question. He did that entire tour as a Q&A session and said that much of what he spoke about on his first tour is still what he speaks about today. Ultimately, he shared how returning had been healing for him. He now lives on the island full-time with his family and seemed to find comfort in giving tours and teaching visitors.

After this he took us into the leaders’ quarters, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and he explained how political leaders were kept separate from other political prisoners as an attempt to prevent them from starting a movement. Our guide told us about Nelson Mandela, showed us his cell and the bushes where the first manuscript of his book Long Walk to Freedom was found, and then told us what meeting Nelson Mandela in person meant to him. There is really no way to describe the experience of listening to the guide share his experiences on the island and what his life was like during and post-Apartheid. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him.