The GoGlobal Blog

Tag: Marquette University Service Learning

Visit to Robben Island

Visit to Robben Island

Hello friends. Long time, no talk. Lots has happened since my last post.

First of all, my body is very sore as I am writing this as on this past weekend, I completed the “three peaks challenge,” in which I climbed the three “main” mountains here in Cape Town (Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head) in one day. It took about eleven hours and was very physically taxing but definitely worth it!

Since I last wrote – notably – I went on visit to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, along with many other political prisoners during apartheid), went shark cage diving, and travelled to Johannesburg. I have much to tell you about interesting guest speakers we’ve had in our classes, people we’ve met, our trip to Johannesburg and other activities but in this entry, I’d like to focus on our visit to Robben Island.

Visiting Robben Island is a valuable and informative experience that everyone should partake in if they go to South Africa. As I mentioned, it is where Mandela was for the majority of his imprisonment, and a imprisoned many political prisoners during apartheid, like Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan-African Congress (PAC), a prominent breakaway movement from Mandela’s party, the African Nationalist Congress (ANC). The experience of visiting the island is very unique. All of the tour guides are former prisoners of the island, meaning that they’ve chosen to stay on the place filled with horrible memories and which serves of a constant reminder of a system that once oppressed them so violently. It is incredible that they are willing and able to do this, and makes the visitors’ experience much more valuable and impactful. We first took a boat out to the island – we’ve been meant to go a couple of time before this, but trips often get canceled because the boats can’t sail due to bad weather, wind, et cetera. Once we got to the island, we waited to take a bus to enter the prison, where we met our tour guide.

Our tour guide told us that he was imprisoned for acts of terrorism and sabotage, but did not tell us the specifics. He then explained to us the categorization process that was used to classify the prisoners. People were either White, Indian, Coloured, or Black. He talked about the difference in food that was given to different groups of people, but he also said that even though people were given different food they all shared it together whenever possible. He told to us that the room we were in was a general population block that housed roughly fifty prisoners. The room would have been extremely packed had fifty bunk beds and fifty men been in there. We left the room and walked through the prison to an open area outside. There were pictures showing what it looked like during the apartheid era, including staged propaganda pictures of the prisoners that were circulated to make it look like they were treated humanely, which was not the case. Here, our tour guide told us about the many political prisoners who had gone missing during their time on Robben Island and how their bodies had just been found in 2013 in a graveyard in Bellville (in Cape Town) that was strictly reserved for white people only. This was very shocking and showed us how the effects of apartheid are still very much alive today.

Next, we went back inside the prison into a block of individual cells. This is where we got to see Mandela’s cell (pictured). You can see how small it was, with only a cot, table, and trash can. It was obviously very powerful to see how small the cells were, that these people had to live in for so long, but honestly, I think that regardless of how much you learn about life in the prison, it’s ultimately impossible to internalize their experience being there.

Mandela’s cell.
Mandela’s cell.

We then left the prison and got onto another bus to see around the island. One very interesting thing that we got to see was the quarry where they worked. In the quarry, there was a cave (pictured). The prisoners would regularly eat lunch and converse in that cave because the sun’s heat was too unbearable. Our tour guide detailed how important the conversations in the cave were by telling us how it was the only spot that they could speak freely without any fear of being recorded secretly. This is pretty cool as it was where the first meetings of the new government met, even before they left prison.


In the lime quarry, there was a pile of rocks that were neatly stacked near the cave (pictured below). Our tour guide explained to us how it was created in 1995 after Apartheid had ended and Mandela was president. Mandela and all the political prisoners that were still alive had gone back to Robben Island to celebrate their freedom and remember all the injustices of the past. Mandela had laid the first rock down and the rest of the former prisoners followed, creating this pile of rocks of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. The pile symbolized the diversity of the country and the coming together of all the people within Robben Island as well as the greater South Africa. This symbolic act showed the forgiveness that was in the hearts of these people who had been so unjustly and inhumanly treated.

Throughout our visit, a few of us kept having this conversation about how these men were able to come back to Robben Island, a place that had been such a painful part of their lives, to work as tour guides. Every day they were forced to relive a moment in their lives that I am sure they wanted to forget. Someone actually asked our second tour guide if it was more therapeutic or traumatic for him to come back to the island. He said that it was definitely more traumatic for him because every day he was forced to relive his worst experiences. The tour guides were given no therapy or counseling when they were asked to come back and that has not changed over the years. It’s amazing that they still willingingly come back everyday and tell their experience to visitors. Obviously this cannot be the case always as many of the former prisoners are older and as time goes on, there will have to be new tour guides, so I feel privileged that I was able to get this experience.

I’ll be back soon with more about our trip to Johannesburg and more fun, educational, and interesting things! See you soon. x

Top of Table + Approaching Community Development

Top of Table + Approaching Community Development

Hello friends. Welcome to the fifth installment of my blog during my semester abroad in Cape Town.

Firstly, I’m going to add some pictures at the end of this post of my trip to Zimbabwe / Zambia / Botswana a couple of weeks ago. There’s not much else to say about that trip other than to describe it in one word: euphoric. Victoria Falls is like nothing I’ve ever experienced, or likely will experience again in my life, and is generally quite amazing – I would recommend to anyone. Enjoy the photos of rainbows, waterfalls, and animals I’ll attach!

One notable thing I did during these past two weeks was climb Table Mountain. Despite seeing Table every day while being in Cape Town, I hadn’t yet been to the top. We made it up on accident; we started on a different trail quite far from Table, and walked around Devil’s Peak – the mountain next to Table – and ran across a trail (Platteklip Gorge) that would take us to the top of Table. We’d already been walking for about four hours in the very hot sun at that point, and we were all basically out of water, so the hour-long steep hike up was difficult. As per usual, the payoff from the views at the top made the five-hour day completely worth it, and we made it up in time to watch the sunset, which was…. good. I run out adjectives to describe the skies here, so I often resort to simply calling the incredible and beautiful sunrises and sunsets I see as “good,” rather than taking the time and energy to make a sordid attempt to actually give them an accurate representation with words. So the view from Table Mountain was good. Hiking, in general, is one of my favorite things to do here – the walk just around the mountain always gives a different perspective of Cape Town.

Other than finally making it up to Table, we’ve gotten back into our school and service routine, while going to various excursions on weekends. I visited two markets in the Cape Town area – Old Biscuit Mill, which is in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town that isn’t far from Observatory, the neighborhood where we live, and incidentally also where my service site is located. The other market we visited was the Hout Bay Market (in Hout Bay), which is about thirty minutes away. If you’re coming to Cape Town and looking for recommendations, I would highly encourage you to visit either of these markets as there was lots of good shopping and food.

Last week, we visited Lotus Park, a township in Cape Town, and talked to a community leader named Fraser, about his work and his development efforts in Lotus Park. It was very cool to hear about real community development efforts occuring in Cape Town. We have been learning about community development in our Grassroots Leadership class theoretically, so it was refreshing to actually hear from a person who works with a community on a daily basis and has been working on a project for a long time with success. He emphasized communication with the community itself and the people who have real knowledge about what should be changed. The main thing that is emphasized in our Grassroots Leadership class is people-centered development, in which the members of the community are consulted and thoroughly involved in changing their community. This is a bottom-up approach, and is preferable to a top-down approach which is usually a bunch of people who don’t know about the community attempting to implement policies that don’t actually create the change that is needed.

Fraser’s approach reminded me of an organization I worked with in Peru, which promotes indigenous peoples’ rights in the Andes. The organization was formed in conjunction with the native peoples because the communities were passionate about sharing their heritage and way of life with outsiders. They also wanted to form relationships with the communities around them in order to help their biocultural heritage and promote agrotourism. The non-profit organization uses representatives from each of the communities in order to implement tourism programs that are true to their culture and beneficial for the indigenous people as well. They constantly communicate with the indigenous people when thinking of new programs and trying to fix problems. This model, which is sort of a mix of both a top-down and bottom-up approach, I think, is an ideal way to approach community development, and can translate to development efforts in my own communities. It is similar to the approach Fraser spoke of in terms involving and valuing the local peoples’ input, encouraging them, rather than coming in and taking over as an outsider.

While it was very cool to talk to someone who has had a large hand in transforming a community and our conversation gave me hope for our own ability to help our communities, talking with Fraser also made me realize how incredibly difficult it is to implement change. We (referring to the students in this program) all have big ideas for how we want to help marginalized groups and create change on a large scale, but we have to realize that often we can’t focus on those big ideas, and instead we should look at concrete ways in which we can make a difference, like focusing on building a community center. It was eye-opening to hear him talk about the process and the length of time it took to build one building – the practical elements of that, like obtaining permits and building one wall at a time.

So yes, that’s all. Hope the little note about community development perhaps makes you think about the difficulty currently facing those attempting to create change in underprivileged communities, and the most effective way to do so. Again, enjoy these pictures from Victoria Falls. See you in a couple weeks. x