Robben Island is the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. It can only be reached by boat five miles out to sea. The barren island, covered in scrub brush and attacked by crushing waves from the Atlantic Ocean, echoes with emptiness through the silent cells, peeling paint, and lifeless vegetation. I was prepared to feel sadness and grief when faced with the site of the quarry where Mandela dug rocks and the sisal map where he slept each night.
So how did the joy happen? Their names are Kagali and Atli. They live with their families in North Pretoria and attend a school called Assumption Convent Primary School. They were on an 8-day school trip to Cape Town. After the tour of the prison was over, we all boarded the boat to return to the city. Paul and I were surrounded on the top deck by 40 or so young people. It started out that two boys were sitting next to me, but two beautiful little girls waved their hands and motioned for the boys to switch places. So, I had the privilege of sitting next them for the hour-long ride.
At first they were shy. I complimented them on their beautiful, long braided hair. They giggled.
“Are you from the US?” they asked. I nodded.
“How old do you have to be to drive a car in America?”
“Teenagers can get a license when they are sixteen, but they have to practice a lot before then.” They both sighed and shook their heads.
“We have to wait until we are eighteen. There is a saying, “If you die before you are eighteen, you have never lived.” They looked at me with earnest faces. Next to me I felt Paul shudder with silent laughter.
The boat rocked back and forth in the surf, dropping down into the bottom of the swells and rising to the crest again. We all crashed into each other. Paul leaned towards them.
“What did you think about Robben Island?” The girls dropped their eyes at his directness. The Ohio State hat was perched low on his forehead.
“It was educational, “Kaglia said.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Atli added.
Paul pressed a bit, “How did it make you feel?”
They looked at one another. I could see them making up their minds whether or not to share their thoughts with us.
“Actually, when we found out that the president we have now was there too, we were very surprised. Not a lot of South Africans like him.”
I was stunned by their honesty. “Do you learn a lot about apartheid in school?”
“Oh yes,” Kaglia enthused. “We also learn about world history and the social sciences.”
I decided to share my own truth. “When so many teenagers in South Africa were getting hurt in the 1980s, Paul and I were teenagers at the same time. I feel badly that I didn’t pay more attention to how terrible apartheid was. I was going to dances and playing sports. I should have been thinking about the teenagers in the townships.”
They looked me in silence. I could tell they weren’t sure what to say.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.
“I want to be a gynecologist,” Atli piped up in a rush.
“And I want to be a pediatrician,” Kaglia grinned.
“So you are going to help them be born,” I said pointing to Atli, “and you are going to take care of them while they are children?” Kaglia smiled and crinkled her eyes.
“Yes, because we are best friends. We want to be friends for always.” The girls bumped their shoulders together.
All I could do was smile. I felt such love for these two little ones who dreamed without fear, loved without consequences, and shared their hopes with a stranger.
“What do you do in America?”
I hesitated. My full-time job working at a state education agency would be too hard to explain.I described my freelance writing position instead.
“I write articles for an online newspaper about special but unknown people in my town. I tell their stories.” I tried to make my explanation simple.
“So, you are an American journalist,” they looked at me wide-eyed.
“Yes, I am.” It felt strange to hear the words out loud.
“When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?” Kaglia asked.
“From the time I was a little girl.” It was true.
“So you are just like us. We are young and know what we want to do too.”
“Kaglia and Atlia, you are going to be amazing when you grow up,”I said.
The girs shook our hands formally as the boat was docking and we stood up to disembark.
“Girls, can I write an article about you?”
“Yes, yes, yes! They busily wrote their email addresses in my notebook.
Joy, joy, joy.