By Martin & Ursula van Nierop

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Nelson Mandela.

We had the opportunity to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.  The island has a long history, with evidence of habitation thousands of years ago. Since the 1400’s when it was ‘discovered’ by Portuguese sailors, it has been used for a variety of purposes. These include serving as a refreshment station for passing ships, mental asylum, leper colony, army base and as a prison.

Most recently (1961 to 1996) it was used by the apartheid government as a prison for convicts and political prisoners. It is now a national museum and World Heritage Site.

During the tour of the prison, the hardships of the prisoners are highlighted. Extreme hunger, cold, heat and harsh treatment by warders was the order of the day. Some facts are striking. The maximum security prison (which was built by the prisoners themselves) was initially built without glass in the windows (only bars). Prisoners had to sleep on the cement floors with only a couple of thin blankets for warmth. Prisoners were either squashed together in dormitories, or imprisoned alone in shoe-box cells. Even the dog kennels were bigger than the cells.

How was it possible to justify treatment of people in this way? What ideology allows us to treat others so inhumanely?  Is it because of fear? Fear that grows when we separate ourselves into groups and see ourselves as different from others?

Visitors to Robben Island are also told that the prisoners did many things to keep despair at bay. They developed a culture of songs, of teaching each other and of discussing political strategy. Many prisoners (who were eventually allowed to study) became literate or graduated with university degrees. In spite of massive obstacles, there was a sense of hope.

A visit to Robben Island is an unforgettable experience.  Some of the lessons that we took away, are the same as the message of Pope Francis to the world today.

Pope Francis reminds us that “Christians must build bridges of dialogue, not walls of resentment.” Have we stopped seeing others as our brothers and sisters?  Are we building walls and prisons instead of bridges, and beginning to foster hatred and fear within our hearts?

“Situations can change; people can change. Be the first to seek to bring good. Do not grow accustomed to evil, but defeat it with good,” says Pope Francis. Are we fighting the evil that persists in our world today, even with small acts of kindness? Am I using my time and talents to build a radically transformed world?

No matter how dark our current circumstances may be, we can be positive. By working together, we can overcome the obstacles in our way. We are encouraged by Pope Francis, “Have the courage to swim against the tide. Have the courage to be happy.”