‘What am I willing to sacrifice for future generations?’
Sometimes questions drop like heavy dub beats, pulsing through the chest. Portia Mosia, a new friend from South Africa and part of our traveling team, clarified one for me last night.
I got my introduction to Robben Island while reading through Nelson Mandela’s biography during a visit to my brother’s home in Cape Town at the beginning of March. Two major chapters are dedicated to archiving the 18 years he spent on this small piece of earth, 11 kilometres off the coast in Table Bay.
The stories of his stay speak to the core of human activity and relationships. Prisoners pooling food rations to share. Warders oppressing prisoners, depriving basic needs like water, food and human contact. Vigorous debate ranging from politics and philosophy to whether or not the tiger was indigenous to Africa. The eventual friendships built between long-standing adversaries.
All of this prepared me for the visit, but information doesn’t shake like experience. And it certainly doesn’t move like a human being.
After hearing a short history of the island, we were invited into the penitentiary by Dr. Sparks, an inmate from 1983 to 1990. He was shackled at 17 and spent the next seven years at Robben under charges of sabotage.
It was Dr. Sparks who reached me. At a young age, he joined a movement, ready to serve in prison or even die to see it reach it’s ultimate goal. He joined the many others who went before him and beside him, prepared to sacrifice for future generations.
And perhaps it’s a good enough question to pose: What are you willing to sacrifice for future generations? These men and women went without food and water. Some were separated from their families for excruciating amounts of time. The longest tenured political prisoner stayed 28 years on Robben.
Still, I think the real magnitude of this story isn’t simply the sacrifice – it’s what emerged from the sacrifice. Every Robben Island sign says: ‘Triumph of the Human Spirit.’ And as dark as the place can be, I walked away incredibly lifted by the humanity that developed within the walls of the prison. The seeds of reconciliation were sown as Mandela, Sparks and others saw the need for forgiveness and committing themselves to abandoning impulses for vengeance in order to create something new.
Maybe that’s the greatest sacrifice these men and women made. Not just giving the years in prison, but letting go of the human desire for revenge.
I don’t like to compare lives. We each walk our own paths and have our own circumstances and life experiences. But I’m thankful when others take decisions and actions that push important questions onto my plate.
Is there any revenge that I am still planning to take? How deep are my convictions for what I feel is most important in life? What am I willing to sacrifice for future generations?
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.