Sunday, October 18, 2009

Power, Privilege, Forgiveness, and Redemption

Over a year ago while I was back home in Providence, RI I attended service at Cathedral of Life Christian Assembly (COLCA), head pastor Rev. Dr. Jeffery A. Williams.  While attending service there Pastor Jeff did a series of sermons on “Forgiveness”.  When I first heard those sermons I internalized the word and applied it to my life at the time and some family issues that had been going on.  On Sunday October 4, 2009 once again I could clearly hear Pastor Jeff’s message in my head playing over and over as if it were a recording.  The gist of the message was; if we choose not to forgive someone that has done us wrong we are tied to them forever and in essence unable to let go of the guilt, hurt, or whatever other negative feelings there may be.  Forgiveness not only sets free the person that trespassed against you but it will set you free as well. I never thought I would see forgiveness play itself out in a real life example over a year later and half a world away.

On Sunday, October 4, 2009 my second day in South Africa I set out to participate on one of the Semester at Sea Field Practicum opportunities (a Field Practicum is typically led by one of the faculty and can be directly linked to a class that a particular faculty is teaching aboard the ship while we are at sea), this one would have us visit Robben Island (former prison and leper colony),  for an “in-depth exploration of the island guided by South African peace activist (and former SAS professor) Terry Crawford-Browne”.  The group of 30 took the 7:30 am staff ferry to Robben Island, as we were boarding Terry informed us that this ferry that is now used to transport the workers of the island and the children that attend school on the island was one of the transport vessels used to shuttle the prisoners to Robben Island.  As we boarded the “staff ferry”,  Terry informed us that when the prisoners were loaded on board they would be shackled to each other and put below, the 45 minute ferry ride was uneventful other then the day was overcast  with a wind blowing, which made the seas choppy.

We arrived to Robben Island and as we were getting off the ferry it occurred to me that one of the people on this ferry was going to be our tour guide through the prison, a former prisoner, here they were on a ferry that may have once brought them to this island to detain them and now they come willingly as a means to earn an income and to tell their story and in part the history of their country along with some of the atrocities that occurred on its way to freedom from Apartheid.  As we were about to get off the ferry Terry pointed out that the ferry docked at the pier was the very one that brought Nelson Mandela over to Robben Island.  Nelson Mandela is Robben Island’s most famous prisoner though the island itself has a long history; “amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, later  The Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town's first 'imams', was exiled to the island in the mid 1740s and died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island” (Wikipedia 2009).

We were first taken to the beach front home of the penguin colony on Robben Island, though currently the penguins are struggling to thrive in part due to the over 30,000 rabbits that are inhabitants of the same small island competing for  habitat.  You might think well Penguins and rabbits can coexist they don’t eat the same thing, well they may not eat the same things but they look to nest in the same privacy and so far the rabbits are winning.

After seeing both penguin and Rabbit in feet’s distance from each other we went on to the visitors center where we informed that visitors were often turned away or not allowed to see their loved ones even though they may have traveled thousands of miles for days on end, or when they were allowed to visit with their loved one, at times were they themselves detained from leaving the island for hours on end; since they were not allowed to write things down, this method was used to deter the visitor to transport direct news or information to people on the outside. 
We continued on our walk past the Moturu Kramat mosque on the island and then walked over to the Leper cemetery, our walk continued on to the Robert Sobukwe House, where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement for his crimes, uprising and getting others to do the same against the apartheid regime.  Sobukwe was not allowed to speak to anyone, the guards that were responsible for guarding him were not allowed to speak to him, it is said that this affected his mental stability later in life.  It was a simple looking concrete holding with windows, were it not for the fence and large lights in the immediate area surrounding it, one would think it was a very humble residence.  

Our walk then took us to the limestone quarry where the prisoners of Robben Island worked, nicknamed the University due to the fact that many prisoners received instruction from fellow prisoners that were more educated than they.  We stood next to a pile of rocks about 3 feet high while Terry told us of how Nelson Mandela himself was one of the workers at the quarry, then Terry turned to the pile of rocks and said “upon a return, a prisoner’s reunion, Mandela placed a rock here and his action was followed by each of the prisoners that were here”.  The pile of rocks was their way of commemorating their return to a place that once was their prison.  

From their Terry took us to the place where we would eat our lunch and hear him tell us of what it is that he does as a peace activist, The Church of The Good Sheppard.  Terry refurbished the church and is its current pastor.  He has great plans for this simple yet beautiful building as a means to serve the community on Robben Island and to continue to tell the story of all of its past inhabitants. We then continued on by bus for a tour of the residential area of the island; about 100 people currently live on this island.  There is an elementary school which caters to about 40 students with 2 teachers for instructing.  We rode past a Taiwanese shipping boat wrecked on the coast line, when the wreckage originally occurred the prison warden thought it was an attempt to free Nelson Mandela and detained the ship’s crew until matters were cleared up.  The wreckage sits in its original location though it is not the only ship that wrecked on Robben Island, due to its location in the bay many ships and smaller boats have wrecked on the island.  From there our tour continued on to the prison, when we arrived we got off the bus and were met at the prison doors by a former prisoner who took us down the halls and into the courtyards of the place which once held him here.  He showed us Nelson Mandela’s cell and took us the the courtyard where many important messages and even a manuscript and its copy were kept in hiding in Mandela’s garden.  

One of our students asked him what he had been arrested for, and he listed an unending list of charges from terrorism, to possession of bomb making materials.  All I could think about while he was talking was “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.
I did not go into specific detail about the prison or even Mandela’s cell because it seems so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.  It was a cell, he was denied his freedom as were all of the prisoners, they were made to sleep on little more than a 6X2’ carpet and prisoners of Mandela’s status were denied interaction with most other prisoners.  Some were beaten and mistreated, while others were denied access to be educated.  All in the name of Apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government in South Africa between 1948 and early 1994.  To think its only been 15 years that South Africa has been an independent country able to elect Nelson Mandela and other former prisoners president of their new independent country.  As our tour ended we walked past a sign of prisoners on a ferry boat with a placard in front of them which read “Freedom” and then we walked past the tall fence outside of the prison area.  

Nelson Mandela served 18 years of a 64 year prison sentence, for speaking and acting out against Apartheid, while many others like Steven Biko gave their lives for the same cause.  And it happened in my lifetime, I remember when the song "I dont want to play Sun City" came out and hearing of Nelson Mandela being wrongfully imprisoned and then when he was freed, I was in college, and when he was elected president too.   It seemed so long ago, yet not long enough. 

As the day came to a close I felt emotionally drained and kept thinking back to Pastor Jeff’s words about forgiveness, and understood how the former prisoners of Robben Island now come every day to this place, that once imprisoned them, to work and tell their story, and how they have come to forgive those that imprisoned them, and yes by our guide's own admission he has forgiven those that imprisoned him.  They are living in a freedom we can only hope to live.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A great introduction to South Africa

While on this voyage I have come to realize that the small amount of time;  4 days in Spain, 5 days in Morocco, 4 days in Ghana, 6 days in Cape Town, is never enough to really explore a country.  This time in each country merely gives us time to sample some of each country’s food, a little of their culture, and experience some of the great things the country has to offer.  Nowhere was this more evident than in South Africa.
As usual PL, ED, and I were up on the 7th deck in the faculty staff lounge to watch the sunrise over our latest port.  Dawn came early at 530 I could see its brilliant color peeking through my cabin window even before we went up to the 7th deck.  When we arrived we were met by an unusual amount of other staff and faculty who are usually not there.  Then by 6am the students were out on the 7th and 8th decks.  PL and I were a little annoyed, usually at sunrise on an arrival date there were only a handful of people there.  Now we were vying for space.  We watched the South African mountain range bathed in bright hues of orange and red and then as the sun started to peak from its resting place behind the mountain there was an audible gasp.  

We were amazed and for the next few minutes captivated in silence as the sun ascended into its rightful place in the sky.   Blinding and brighter than I had ever seen it, on this voyage it seems I am more aware of the sun ascending and descending from the heavens, I’m usually most reflective at these times and today was no different.  As the ship continued on its path into Cape Town we noticed to our left a quiet distant island, Robben Island; once a prison which held many anti Apartheid fighters including Nelson Mandela and then on the right the amazing site that is Table Mountain as the sun lightened up the sky the brand new 68,000 seat World Cup Soccer Stadium came into full view.  We were all so captivated by the beauty that The Cape Town harbour was revealing to us as the morning grew brighter.  We screeched in delight as we realized there were harbor seals swimming and frolicking alongside the ship, it was as if they were coming out to welcome us to the Cape Town Harbour.

As usual the Pilot boarded the ship and assisted the Captain in navigating into the port, the Captain had previously explained this port was a little tricky since the entry way was very narrow and where we were scheduled to birth (park) would require us to make a sharp turn.  We were so unconcerned with this somewhat technical process so much so that we went to breakfast and get prepared for our disembarking.
My first day in South Africa was slow paced.  I had a few hours to kill before I was to lead a trip to walk amongst the baboons.  So I met my shipboard brothers, PL, ED, and GH in Tymitz square to disembark, when we first arrived someone pointed out that PL, GH, and I were all wearing green tops, looking like we had planned it.  It was just a funny coincidence.  Well we all hit the mall which was literally 100 steps from our ships birth.  We went and exchanged our US dollars to Rand, a nice exchange of 7.4 Rand for each US Dollar.  Then we walked about the beautiful Harbour area with its nice mall, and great little shops along the way.  Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the ship to prepare to for my trip to the Baboon sanctuary.

Due to urban Sprawl in the Cape Town area, baboons are being relegated to small slivers of natural forest between suburban neighborhoods.  As you can imagine this is not only a problem for the baboons, but the surrounding neighborhoods as well.  When we arrived to one of the neighborhoods where a non-profit group was keeping track of the baboons, we were immediately greeted by a foot chase.  One of the guardians of the baboon was chasing the Alpha Male trying to prevent him from escaping the protected area, with little success.  We saw al Tommy ran through an opening with ease, quickly crossed the street and jumped to the top of a 6 foot fence with the greatest of ease.  Our guide informed us that this in fact is one of the problems.  Tommy being the Alpha male is larger than the rest of the baboons in his troop partly because he runs into the neighborhood and steals human food.

We entered the baboon sanctuary and were led by one of two guides through thick, high grass and led about 100 yards from the street to where two handlers were sitting watching the troop of about 30 baboons.  One of the guides led half of the troop past a few of the baboons directly into the thick of a tree.  Before I could even prepare myself, I and 6 of the students were standing within 5 to 10 feet of these beautiful baboons, there were about 25 of them and about 5 youngsters.  They were all over, in the trees above us and at eye level.  The youngsters frolicked and played almost at our feet.  Our guide constantly reminding us to be very mindful of our proximity to the youngsters, a cry from them could send the entire troop into a frenzied assault on any one of us.   We were introduced to the former Alpha male, kind of the grandfather of the troop, George.  The entire time George was in this one spot just observing his surroundings.  The guide informed us that George had lost his canine teeth and could no longer fight to protect his status in the troop and was now just an elder in the troop, still respected but no longer the Alpha male.  Just then Tommy returned from his run of the neighborhood and we were further instructed to watch him at all times, as he was clearly watching us and if he didn’t like something we were doing we could be in danger.  We were there amongst the baboons for about an hour though it did not seem as long.  As we were walking throughout the troop taking pictures our guide pointed out a mother baboon with the youngest of the troop, a small baby that had been born about a week ago, they were just adorable.  As we were fawning over  the baby we heard a ruckus about 20 feet from us, the guide said, “quick , quick, this way” and started to escort us past George and away from the troop, no sooner had we passed George we heard screaming and clearly saw fighting.  Two female baboons were going at it and it was for real.  One female had her teeth out and had the other by the head and was gnashing into her back biting and jabbing. The guide informed us he had been watching this one female constantly trying to grab one of the baby baboons and finally the mother of said baby tried to put her in her place.  As the guide was explaining what happened we saw Tommy rush over to the mêlée and intercede, teeth full out.  He was breaking up the fight.  It was all so fascinating yet scary, our guide informing us that we surely did not want to be in the midst of a full out fight.  He led us out and just like that our experience with walking amongst the baboons was over.  It was amazing, while we were in the troop they seemed to calm and docile and just like that our adrenaline was pumping.  It was a wonderful experience. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Crossing the Equator

The Morning of Monday September 28, 2009 started unlike any other morning in my life.  I was awaken by loud yet distant sounding clamoring as I rose and woke I then discovered what the racket was.  It was Neptune Day!  Neptune Day on Semester at Sea is the day when we (on ship) cross the equator.  We were about to go from slimy pollywogs to shellbacks.  I immediately jumped out of bed and threw on an old t-shirt and old shorts and made my way to 7th deck aft where we would begin our Neptune ceremony. 
By no means do I expect you to think that we were about to undergo any traditional “crossing the line” ritual, an initiation rite that many Navy service people have undergone.  It was tame in comparison to movies/videos, and accounts I have read.   But nonetheless we started by having “fish guts” (a yogurt and water mixture of red or green) poured over our head, we then jumped in our pool on the 7th deck to rinse off and then promptly got out of the water kiss a “clean” (gutted out) fish.  We then continued on into polywogdom and received our official title as a “pollywog”.  We would then pay homage to King Neptune and Queen Minerva:  we presented ourselves in front of King Neptune (the Captain of the vessel) and Queen Minerva (Associate Dean of Students) for inspection.

It was at that point that some of the students and staff did the ritualistic shaving of their head.   The first person to go was a female student, Sarah.  This beautiful young woman had long flowing blonde hair sat in the first chair as we stood there cheering and applauding watching  the “barber” butcher her hair off and then take a pair of clippers and shave her head.  In case you were wondering  yours truly did not get her head  shaved, my vanity would not allow it.  However,  I enjoyed watching as students and staff took turns in the barber chairs and had theirs done. 
This concluded the Neptune Ceremony and though we did not cross the equator until 2308 (11:08pm) at 01 degree longitude and 0 degrees latitude we were shellbacks and enjoyed our “crossing”, another great day on the MV Explorer.