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07/26/2011

Robben Island Revisited: Nursery House

CIEE Cape Town endeavours to expose the students in its exchange program to as much of South Africa as possible. One of the ways that it does this is through the organisation of community action plans, more affectionately referred to as CAPs. These CAPs are initiated by the various houses in the program and can be educational, social or cultural. More often than not, they are a combination of all three. One of the most popular CAPs is the trip to Robben Island, the Apartheid museum where the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Robert Sobukwe were imprisoned during the liberation struggle.

Last semester when the students in my house went to the island, it was a virgin experience for all of us, myself included. We all journeyed there not knowing what we were going to experience or see. For the most part, we were not left disappointed; it was a humbling experience that left many of us thinking about the horrors that were practiced in South Africa during the Apartheid era. Returning there for the second time with a new group of students, I was not sure what it is that I would feel. For the students, it would all be new. Would it be the same for me?

After a choppy ride on the ferry to the island, the same feeling of time travelling to the past washed over me. Setting foot on the island gives you an eerie feeling - you walk as a free man or woman in the same places that people were sent to serve life sentences. You trace the same footsteps of South Africa's famous heroes. From the kitchen to the prison cells, the walls of Robben Island remind you that this was a hard place - a place where only the strong survived. "It feels as though all the heaters in the world could not warm this place up," a student in my house said.

 Robben Island

The entrance to Robben Island

It is nigh impossible to visit the island and not leave being humbled. The ex-prisoners that give the guided tours of the prison tell such moving stories of their time on the island: the way that they lived, how they lived as a family to ensure that their spirits were not broken. From an RA perspective, the lessons that Robben Island teaches are sometimes useful in a house: teamwork, understanding, service. The lessons are innumerable. 

Of the numerous sights to see in Cape Town, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch, Cape Point and the Cape wine lands, Robben Island remains at the top of the list, not only because of the history that was made there, but because of the future that is promised as well. For the exchange students in the CIEE Cape Town program, Robben Island presents just one facet of South Africa's past and a testimony to a future free of the past's mistakes.

"It's really interesting the way the past is kept alive here. Robben Island is so heart wrenching yet painfully educational", another student stated. Robben Island is one of those journeys that remain hauntingly close once you've been there, one of those not easily forgotten. The second time around was just as educational as the second. 

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Remy Ngamije is a student at the University of Cape Town.

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