Today is Nelson Mandela’s birthday, which makes me recall a July 18 two years ago when Mandela celebrated his 95th and last birthday. I had spent 48 hours flying to Cape Town, South Africa, and had just made my way to my lodging in the Tamberskloof neighborhood. All aflutter, my hosts insisted that today was going to be the only day to get to Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned for so many years, because the seas were getting rougher by the minute. Although I was exhausted, I dropped my bags, washed my face, and hoofed it down to the harbor where I bought one of the last tickets to the island for the day.
As I stood, barely awake, in line to board the boat, a woman with a microphone approached me. “Hello! Where are you from? Can you tell us how you feel about visiting Robben Island on Nelson Mandela’s birthday?” I searched my foggy brain for some deep thoughts, but succeeded only in producing something bland like “Uh, I’m very happy to go today.” She beamed! “Wonderful! Tell us more! We are collecting many people’s thoughts today.” Still struggling for a response befitting her enthusiasm, I finished with “Well, I am so excited to see this today that I just flew for two full days from the U.S. and I’ve come here almost straight from the plane!” Ahh, that was it – she appeared ecstatic with this wonderful testimony, and I was pleased to see her walk away smiling.
Off we sailed through the choppy waters of Table Bay, arriving on the inhospitable shores of Robben Island.
The visit itself was sobering; most tours are given by people who were imprisoned there, and our guide was no exception. He gave us a first-hand account of life in the prison, and the common rooms and the individual cells came alive with his reminiscences. Mandela’s cell itself was small and spare, and imagining him suffering away 18 of his 95 years of life (and of his 27 total prison years) in there felt particularly sad today, not only his birthday but a month into what was his final illness.
A few days later, I reunited with my son, who had been working in the township of Khayelitsha over the summer. Suddenly, he said “Oh, by the way, I heard on the radio a few days ago that some woman from Chicago went straight to Robben Island upon her arrival so that she could see it on Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Was that you?” I was famous! Exhausted and brain dead, but so eloquent (ha!) in my comments that I made the news that day, and how small a world is it that my own son would have on that radio station, at that time, on that day, right as I arrived halfway across the world?!