On Their Shoulders: A Visit to Robben Island


IT’S MY LAST MORNING in Cape Town and for the first time in the week that I’ve been visiting this country, the sun is not trying to scorch my skin five shades darker. Ahead of me is pure blue, the kind that makes you want to call it some snotty name like ‘azure’ because your heart feels lighter just looking at it. This azure now laps softly at the sides of the ferry I’m on, stretching languidly out and touching the faint line of the horizon with a definite navy to its edges.

The ferry is swinging back and forth, and I hope fervently that the Dramamine I swallowed just before we boarded will take away both the previous night’s alcohol over-indulgence and my natural preference to have my feet on land. It moves forward, cutting easily through the half-hearted waves of the South Africa Bay, taking one of the several journeys it’ll make today between Cape Town and Robben Island. I’m standing at the bow of the boat surrounded by timbres of women’s voices conversing in Xhosa, Zulu and a bit of English. They are all old women in their 70s and into their 90s. And I can feel their lives and their experiences in the variation of heft in their voices. Like safari ants migrating to a new home, they are sprawled along the bow of the ship, some sitting on the benches scattered randomly from bow to port, others standing and moving slowly from one cluster to another, talking and listening to the other passengers, laughing amongst themselves, a touch on a shoulder here, a hand held; women comfortable with each other and themselves. They smile at me as they pass and I try and integrate more into their group, sitting on this bench and that, catching snippets of words that I don’t know the meaning of. And I stare at the water as much as I can, letting the azure calm my euphoria.

The women are the surprise guests of honors on this tour to Robben Island. I and several other tourists from every part of the world have waited to board our ferry for almost two hours at the pier terminal this morning with little information being provided on why we were delayed. The Germans had become restless, the Americans and Brits shuffled their feet and looked at their watches impatiently. We Africans in the line shrugged our shoulders, leaned in deeper into our respective walls and rails, or just slouched a little more on the benches we were seated on. We understood, #thisisafrica, #TIA. Time works different here.

Then the women had come shambling in, walking slowly with wooden sticks to support them, limping or being wheeled in decrepit wheelchairs. Their heads were mostly covered with colorful cloth branded with unapologetic greens, reds, blues and yellows, and their dresses were long, flowing and shapeless. Even from a distance, I could see the furrows, blemishes, and wrinkles that sat like home on their coffee-, toffee-, and sand-colored faces.

We learned that the South African government had started a program where they honored former freedom fighters by taking them on tours of past apartheid prisons and other historical sites of the struggle against apartheid that still existed around the country. The women who are on this tour with us are from different parts of the country, Pretoria, Durban, KwaZulu, Johannesburg, etc. and most have never been outside of their areas of birth. All, however, participated in the struggle to end apartheid and free its political prisoners. Some are wives of ex-Robben Island political prisoners, others activists in the struggle in different ways: organized the masses, writing and distributing political literature, participating in strikes and marching, etc.

There had always been a mixture of awe, pity and disdain towards South Africa from the adults around me in when I was growing up in Nairobi. For years, we’d hear and see images about the South African struggle against apartheid. Kenya had been independent for a while, and we were proud of that achievement and tended to look upon South Africans being late in the game. I’d hear disdain in statements like, “These South Africans only know how to sing,” while we watched on television a contingent of them peacefully marching and singing many of the freedom songs that they had in their arsenal. “Why don’t they just go into the forest like we did with our Mau Mau and tell that white man to go back where he came from?” Or other times, when we’d hear the details of how apartheid was truly a separation by skin color, we’d be sympathetic if not perplexed, “Those poor blacks. Treated like that in their own country.” Or awe, “How long has Mandela been in jail now?” So to be visiting this country now, as an African adult who had grown up watching this struggle from afar, knowing that I would have been treated very differently or perhaps not have been allowed in some places because of the color of my skin if these women had not agitated, marched, been beaten, gone on hunger strikes, hid and distributed arms to the militant arm of the ANC, bled, lost husbands, daughters, sons, friends, carried wounded comrades away from danger as police dogs, tear gas and bullets roared around them, washed the tears off each others faces and their own, encouraged each other when it was almost unimaginable that the grip of the evil that was apartheid would ever loosen, was amazing. Like the giants that are the Mau Mau in my life, I know that with these women, I am also standing on their shoulders.

When we get to the island, we are moved into buses each with its own guide that will drive us around the island. I walk behind the group of women, offering a hand to one woman as she struggles to take the first step into the bus. Her hand is raspy and dry in mine, and I feel the feathery thin skin of her elbow as I grasp it to give her a little extra push. Once in and settled in her seat, she turns and gives me a radiant smile and I feel a glow in my chest that I haven’t felt since I sat with my grandmother in her wooden house in front of a fading fire, listening to her stories of being imprisoned for her participation in Mau Mau activities. I can tell this woman would be full of similar stories that should be told to fill the hidden spaces history books are never able to tell.

The guide explains to us in English, Xhosa and Zulu the history of the island all the way from it being a leper colony (what?!), to housing criminal prisoners, to its most infamous history of being a political prison. We stop at the quarry where the limestone blinds our eyes as soon as we remove our sunglasses. The guide asks us to imagine how it was working in that kind of blinding light for years as many of the political prisoners had to do as part of their sentence. Many, he says, have vision issues today and also most have breathing and lung problems as well. The women nod as they survey the quarry, the clicks of their Xhosa and the roundness of their Zulu filling the bus.

At the prison, we move from cellblock to cellblock, and in turns, the women emotionally hug our guide, also a former political inmate. Even though I did not understand the language they converse in, I can feel the appreciation that is felt on both ends of that embrace.

As I walk with them, the women fold me into their midst, treating me like a daughter or a granddaughter. They hold my hand as we walk into the Section F cellblock and listen to our guide talk of his time here with 30 or so other inmates. He tells of how segregation was so innate that even in prison, people of color were segregated amongst themselves. The hierarchy always ended up being Blacks at the bottom of the pile. The food that the prisoners were fed was also segregated. Diets for “Coloureds/Asiates” was different and yes, better, than those for “Bantus” (read, Black). The Coloureds/Asiates would get bread for example, while Bantus would not. Or Bantus would get 5oz. of meat while Coloureds/Asiates would get 6oz. a day. The guide tries not to break down as one woman hobbles over to take his hand as he narrates how he and his fellow inmates would have nightly sessions after the guards left, endeavoring to educate each other, particularly those who could not read. He remembers how they’d smuggle in the news from South Africa and from around the world through the kitchen staff and the criminal prisoners and as a group, they’d analyze the significance of these political events to their own struggle against apartheid.

In Section A, the halls are long and narrow. The concrete floors are polished to perfection. There is a little light coming in from each cell’s window that have all been flung open to give us a better view. Section A is where most people who come to Robben Island want to visit. Nelson Mandela spent many of his 27 years in jail in this section. I cannot imagine how he has the capacity for forgiveness after that. I often think and know that he is a far greater person than I ever could be. The women stop just a bit longer as they pass by Mr. Mandela’s tiny cell, whispering and murmuring. I observe that they do not shed one tear as they take in the scratchy wool blanket neatly folded on the floor sitting on top of a thin mattress, a short, wooden stool, green paint faded and chipping and a waste pail, flimsy aluminum. I, in the meantime, as we trudge down that narrow hallway, peeking into each cell, battle constantly to keep my emotions in check not wanting to embarrass them but also so overwhelmed.

On the ferry back, I stand at the back of the boat with the group watching the island recede into the background and the modern skyline of Cape Town with the majestic Table Mountain behind it coming closer into view. The women hug me tightly, heaping mountains of blessings on my family, my life and me. And I want so desperately for this ferry ride to take just a little bit longer. I stubbornly refuse to look behind me but instead, stare ahead until Robben Island is a mist in my horizon. It is apt to see the fog rolling in and starting to sit thickly and wetly on top of the water. It feels like the misty fingers of grey are playing hide and seek with Robben Island until finally, the fog wins.

The women are gathering their belongings, joking with each other, looking towards Cape Town. They pat my hand as we dock, ready to move on to their next stop. They repeat the refrain I’ve heard many times in South Africa: “Never again, never again”.  And I can see that their next stop will be more of this, more remembrance, more commemoration, but always looking forward. I give thanks to them and say a silent thank you to my grandmother as well. Taking a cue from all these women, I turn and look forward. As all of us too, must.


About Muthoni Kiarie

Mũthoni Kiarie is an Oakland-based Kenyan writer. She is an MFA graduate of Mills College and an alumna of both the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and the Las Dos Brujas Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been published in Narrative Magazine, where she was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Short Story Contest and in Generations Literature Magazine.
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