The moment we set foot on the island, I felt a lump in my throat. The emotions attached to the island were so tangible, even after so many years. I learned that before Robben Island was used as a prison, around 1930 it was used as an exile for lepers. People with this illness were forced to leave all family and friends behind and were forced to stay on the island till they died. Husband and wife couples were separated at arrival, because lepers were not allowed to reproduce. I could feel the sadness, loneliness and the enormous burden of injustice still hang over the island. As the bus drove us around, explaining the different buildings, I was silently crying in the back of the bus. I could not stop it; the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loneliness were too strong. I was actually a bit afraid to go into the actual prison; what energy and emotions would I encounter there?
But to my surprise inside the prison it felt different. A quiet, calm, strong power resided there. Patience and perseverance were stronger than the loneliness. Our guide also emphasized that positive side: a lot had been achieved, ex-prisoners and ex-guards were now living next to each other, they had forgiven each other.
He explained daily life in prison and took us to various rooms. In one space the size of a classroom 60 men would be locked up, for years, with only a thin mat and 4 blankets. In the early days the windows did not have glass, can you imagine the cold in the winter as the wind blew through the building?
One of us wanted to know what the happiest and most difficult times were during captivity. Our guide surprised us all with his honest and surprising replies. “The happiest times where when we were playing soccer!” he smiled. On Saturdays the prisoners were allowed to play sports. “This was the only time when we could make our own rules and not have to follow the guards rules. I felt free while playing soccer” says our guide with a serene look on his face. Asked for the most difficult times, he quietly said “the family visits” and explained: “you were only allowed to see your family once every 3-6 months, for 30 mins only. Kids under 18 were not allowed to visit (even though some of the prisoners were as young at 15!). The visit was behind glass, so you could not touch your loved ones. You had to speak either English or Afrikaans, so your native language was not allowed. You could only discuss family business, no politics, not circumstances in jail. And even though you felt miserable seeing your kids grow up without knowing you, having friends and family pass away and not being able to be there, talk to them, touch them, you had to be strong. No matter how bad you felt, you had to look strong, for your family would tell everybody outside how you were doing. If you showed one sign of weakness that would discourage the freedom movement still going on on the outside.”