To the Island

18 July 09

Nelson Mandela is 91.

Prior to arriving in Africa, I’ll admit, Mandela was really one of the few national icons with whom I was familiar. Even that knowledge wasn’t appreciably deep.

Having had a few weeks in Cape Town and traveling within the province of Western Cape, I’ve gained a better understanding of what this man has meant to his country and what he continues to represent.

One of the things that strikes me about driving or walking through the townships or working with educators in their schools here is the air of hope I can’t help but breath in. The people I’ve met have hope and faith that their schools will improve and provide stronger, more connected educations for their learners.

Yes, they will admire their problems with the same rockstar status of any other group of teachers I’ve met, but when all’s said and done, they are hopeful.

More than anything else, Mandela embodies that hope.

This made visiting Robben Island, the prison island where Mandela spent 18 years of his life, on his birthday especially poignant.

I remember, as a teenager, watching Mandela’s release from prison, and knowing, but not understanding that something important was happening. It wasn’t until the boat ride on the Susan Kruger (the boat that first ferried political prisoners to Robben Island in 1961) that I started to grasp (if only feebly) the what it would have meant to be imprisoned for 18 years for holding onto an idea.

During each day of their imprisonment, the political prisoners on the island were forced to work 8 hours a day in one of the island’s limestone quarries. The stone was eventually used to pave the roads of the island and some of Cape Town. Initially, though, none of it was put to any actually use. It was meant as a soul-crushing exercise in futility.

What struck me, though. What truly hit home was the walk back to the prison from the quarry. Just over the rise at the pit’s mouth, Cape Town comes into view. As my tour group moved back along the same route, I imagined what it must have been like to toil purposelessly for 8 hours a day for 18 years and to return to your cell each day with a clear view of the home and country you love so much but to which you were forbidden to return.

In some ways, I wonder if South African teachers, if not many educators around the world, aren’t facing the same struggle – working each day for 8 hours for often unclear reasons only to come out of the pit at the end of the day feeling where they want to be is just as clear, but just as distant as when they they began.

I choose to believe the desperation is misplaced. Yes, we’ve a long way to go, but our own “long walk to freedom” is well under way.