It was so amazing to have arrived in a place we had never been that was filled with people that we did not know, and to have them welcome us into their homes. This past week we had the opportunity to live in the homes of people in the Strandfontein area, and it was been filled with so much hospitality, and caring that so many of us were able to feel a slight bit of home away from home. It seems like the relationships that we build with the people around us is a pillar on which this Outtatown experience stands, and a lot of this past week we were able to immerse ourselves in a few amazing relationships. The time that we spent with our homestays was accompanied by being able to learn a little bit about the area we were staying.
We also had the privilege to visit Robben Island, as well as the District Six Museum which is filled with the history of Coloured people in the Cape Town area.
“I’ve been wanting to visit Robben Island ever since I knew who Nelson Mandela was. I’ve always been a huge history nerd and this experience gave me the full course history meal that I was craving to eat. I brought Long Walk To Freedom along on the trip with me, and I read the section about Mandela being imprisoned on Robben Island the day before we went, as well as on the boat on the way to the Island. It made the experience as a whole a lot more powerful and haunting. We started off with a bus tour of the island. Our guide told us all about the history of the island and how it used to be an island for lepers in the 1800s, and then obviously the infamous prison. The interesting thing was that the island is beautiful. Watching the deep blue water crashing up against the rocks, while walking on white sand littered with unique shells and being able to see an amazing view of Table Mountain and Cape Town was something I wasn’t expecting. It was almost peaceful. We drove past an old church, a leper cemetery, some old barracks, the building where people can stay voluntarily overnight (Mandela stayed the night there 3 times after he was released), and the quarry that had a pile of rocks as a small memorial. It was all barren and quite haunting, but in a beautiful way.
“That part of the tour lasted about 45 minutes. Then it was time for the heavier stuff, inside the maximum security prison. The tour being given to us was lead by an ex-political prisoner who was imprisoned at Robben Island. We entered a communal cell to begin the tour. It was clear that the prison had been heavily renovated. Our guide started talking about how he got arrested, and a bit of his time in prison, but he didn’t dwell on it too much for obvious reasons. He talked about how the Black people got less clothing, food, and blankets than the Indian and Coloured people. He talked about how the solitary cells (where the majority of the political prisoners were kept) were -if I’m correct- 2 by 2.5 metres. On the weekends, prisoners would have to stay in there for 23 hours per day. They had to use a bucket for a toilet. He said that this was not only gross, but it’s embarrassing and shameful as well. He showed us the straw mats the prisoners had to sleep on, and let me tell you, they were not much more comfortable than the ground itself. Our guide also said that the inmates were given 3 blankets when they first got to the island and that it was not uncommon for them to be already infected with lice.
“Then he took us outside to the concrete pad. You know the one I’m talking about. We stood on that thing. The concrete had been redone, but it still felt like we were standing on something much more powerful than a slab of concrete- and we were. Our guide pointed to a window across the court and said: “You guys see that window? 4th one from the left? That’s Mandela’s cell.” Oh man. That’s his cell. We went into this building and inside was a narrow hallway filled with tons of these 2 x 2.5 metre cells (all of which were repainted as well). Then I got to Mandela’s cell. We couldn’t go inside, but I grabbed onto those prison bars and stared into that room where he spent so much of his time. He said in his book that if he stretched out on his “bed” all the way, he could touch wall to wall. Some people’s mattresses are bigger than that cell was. It’s crazy to think that a person who spent that much time in that place, was able to come out of it a sane and forgiving man; one of the greatest leaders of all time. Time and time again it comes up that there is beauty in brokenness and I think Nelson Mandela is the epitome of that. It was truly an unforgettable experience.” – Emma Martens