President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Leslie Robinson, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Marian Robinson, tour the Lime Quarry on Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, June 30, 2013. Ahmed Kathrada, a former prisoner in Robben Island Prison, leads their tour.
Today, our family visited Robben Island for an experience we will never forget. Robben Island is located off the coast of South Africa, and from the 1960s through the 1990s, this Island housed a maximum security prison. Many of the prisoners there – including the guide for our visit, a man named Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada – were activists who worked to bring down Apartheid, the South African government’s policies that discriminated against people of color. Under Apartheid, people of different races were separated in nearly every part of South African society. They were forced to attend separate schools, live in separate neighborhoods, even swim at separate beaches – and in nearly every case, the neighborhoods, schools and other facilities for black people were much worse than the ones for white people.
Among those imprisoned at Robben Island for fighting Apartheid were three men who went on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and the current president, Jacob Zuma.
So today, as we toured the island, I couldn’t help but think about how this place must have shaped these leaders. Put yourself in their shoes – all they were doing was fighting to ensure that people in South Africa would be treated equally, no matter what the color of their skin. And for that, they wound up confined on this remote island, far removed from the world they so desperately hoped to change.
During our visit, we toured the rock quarry where they spent their days doing backbreaking labor, crushing and lifting heavy rocks in the blinding sun. We also saw the tiny cells – including Mr. Kathrada’s cell – where they spent their nights. It was amazing to see Mandela’s cell, a tiny room – about 6 feet wide – where he spent 18 of the 27 years he was in prison. He slept on a thin mat on the floor, and when he stretched out to sleep at night, his toes touched one wall, while his head grazed the other. The walls were two feet thick with no decorations, and he was given a bucket to use as a toilet.
In his first few years on the island, Mandela wasn’t allowed to read the newspaper, listen to the radio, or even have a clock to keep the time. Meals consisted of small rations of porridge – and every other day, he received a tiny piece of meat, but it was mainly gristle. When his mother and son passed away, he couldn’t attend their funerals. And at one point, a prison guard left a news clipping in Mandela’s cell – an article about the government’s mistreatment of his wife – just to taunt him.
Yet despite these conditions, Mandela and his fellow prisoners never lost hope. As Mandela once said, “Prison – far from breaking our spirits – made us more determined to continue with this battle until victory was won.” They did their best to get an education while in prison – they read as many books as they could, and some prisoners even got university degrees through correspondence courses. They vigorously debated philosophy, politics, and the direction of the anti-Apartheid movement. They stood up to mistreatment by the prison guards. And they found ways to communicate in secret, such as stuffing notes inside tennis balls that they would pass along during recreation periods.
So when these prisoners were finally released, their spirits were far from broken. Mandela went on to lead the movement to end Apartheid and set up a new democratic government. He won a Nobel Peace Prize and became South Africa’s first black President. And for me, one of the most amazing parts of his story is this: when he was inaugurated as President, his invited three of his prison guards from Robben Island to join in his inaugural celebration.
So instead of becoming cynical or despondent, or allowing himself to be consumed by bitterness and hatred, Mandela found it in his heart to forgive. And even during all those years imprisoned on Robben Island, he never stopped believing that his country could move forward together as one nation in that same spirit of forgiveness.
While very few of us will ever encounter the kind of discrimination and brutality that Nelson Mandela endured, all of us can learn important lessons from his struggle. We can learn about the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter what the cost. We can learn about how, with self-discipline and courage, we can overcome the most unthinkable hardships. And we can learn about the power of forgiveness to turn enemies into friends and help us move forward from a troubled past to a more hopeful future. So I hope that you will read more about President Mandela’s extraordinary life and seek to live up to his example in your own life.
When we stepped off the plane in Tanzania today, we received a welcome that warmed our hearts and made us feel right at home. We were greeted by the President of Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete and his wife, Tanzania's First Lady, Mrs. Salma Kikwete. We then took part in an official arrival ceremony which included a military honor guard, the playing of the Tanzanian and American national anthems, and a magnificent dance and drumming performance with hundreds of dancers. And people lined the streets waving American and Tanzanian flags as we drove away.
Arrival ceremonies like this one are a vital part of diplomacy – they’re how countries and their leaders welcome each other and show their respect for each other. Here in the U.S., we have our own arrival ceremony for visiting leaders where we play their country’s national anthem as well as our own; we give them either a 21 or 19 gun salute (where members of our military fire guns into the air either 21 or 19 times as a show of respect); and both my husband and the foreign leader give brief speeches.
Later that evening, we host a special dinner where we honor our guests and do our best to make them feel at home here in the U.S. For example, we knew that President Calderon of Mexico was born in a region where the monarch butterflies migrate each spring. So when we held our Mexico State dinner, we had a butterfly theme for our decorations.
I just watched the most extraordinary group of young people sing, dance and perform gravity-defying acrobatic feats – and they did it all with rhythm, style and grace!
These kids are part of the Baba wa Watoto (which is Swahili for “father of children”) Center, an amazing community organization that gives kids the opportunities they need to succeed in school and in life. Many of you might participate in programs like this – such as Girl Scouts or 4H or the Boys and Girls Club – in your own communities, so you know what a difference they can make. Like these programs, Babawatoto teaches kids about the power of hard work, discipline and leadership, skills they can apply to every part of their lives. And seeing the talent, energy and passion these kids brought to that stage today, I’m confident that they’ll be successful wherever their journeys take them.
Today, through the wonders of technology, we brought together students here in South Africa with students across the U.S. who joined us through a Google+ Hangout for a lively town hall about the importance of education. Singer and songwriter John Legend – who’s passionate about improving education – joined us from Los Angeles. And singer and actress, Victoria Justice – who works with an organization called Girl Up that empowers girls around the world – beamed in from Houston.
I kicked off this event by talking about how, in both the U.S. and South Africa, young people have always played such a vital role in shaping our history. I then gave two examples – the Soweto Uprising here in South Africa, and the plight of the Little Rock Nine here in the U.S. – to illustrate that point. In both cases, young people risked their lives to get a better education for themselves and for kids all across our two countries. I also talked about President Mandela and how, if he could endure being confined to a tiny prison cell for nearly three decades, but still hold tight to his vision for his country’s future, then surely, we can all work hard to make the most of the opportunities he fought for.
After I spoke, I turned things over to our moderator, South African MTV Base VJ Sizwe Dholomo, who opened up the floor to the students – and let me tell you, they blew me away! We heard from students in South Africa including:
A young man named Aubrey who said that while he comes from a humble background, it’s not your background that determines where you’ll go in life, “It’s your dreams that will take you to a better future.”
A young woman named Kamo who’s volunteering at, and raising money for, a shelter for girls who’ve been sexually exploited. She is being raised by a single mother and expressed her gratitude for all the sacrifices her mother has made so that she can get a good education.
A young man named Tebogo who, inspired by President Mandela’s life of service, is determined to serve his country as a teacher – as he put it, “Teachers are there first and foremost to inspire us.”
A young woman named Mirriam who dreams of becoming an Emergency Room doctor and is part of an organization called Cloud Dog which identifies problems in her community and works to solve them.
We also heard from kids in the U.S., including kids at the YMCA in New York City who travel around the world as part of a Global Teen Program; girls in Houston who are part of Girl Up; and kids in Kansas City and Los Angeles as well.
Today, we arrived in South Africa, and I couldn’t be more excited, because two years ago, I visited this country for the first time with my mother and daughters, and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
On that visit, I met with young women leaders from across the continent who were serving their countries and their communities – educating young people, providing job training for women, working to combat poverty and violence and disease – often in the face of impossible odds. I also had the chance to spend time with young people from here in South Africa: I danced with children at a daycare center, visited the University of Cape Town with local high school students, and took part in a children’s soccer clinic at one of the stadiums used in the 2010 World Cup.
I also had the chance to meet President Nelson Mandela at his home in Johannesburg, an experience that I will never forget. Mandela – or “Madiba” as he’s referred to in South Africa – is truly a giant in world history. As a young man, he led a movement against Apartheid – the South African government’s policies that discriminated against people of color, forcing them to live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate schools and prohibiting them from even voting in national elections. For his defiance, Mandela was jailed for 27 years, and his struggle became a source of inspiration for people all around the world.
First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at his home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. Mrs. Obama viewed items from President Mandela's archives earlier during a tour of the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
After he was finally released from prison in 1990, Mandela worked to dismantle the Apartheid state and replace it with a full democracy – and in 1994, four years after he was released from prison, he became the South Africa’s first black President. Today, Mandela is 94 years old. As I mentioned in my first post, he’s currently in the hospital, and he is very much in my thoughts and prayers right now. He has been such a source of hope for so many people for so long, and when I reflect on Mandela’s life and legacy, I think about his courage and determination – enduring nearly three decades in jail without ever giving up on his dream of a more just and equal South Africa. It’s amazing to think about everything he’s seen during his lifetime: the horrors of Apartheid, the quiet desolation of a jail cell, but also the realization of a vibrant South African democracy. I’m so glad that he lived to see the fruits of his struggle and sacrifice – and I’m so glad that he never gave up on his dream of a better country and a better world for future generations. As President Mandela once said, “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built.”
That’s exactly how I feel as well. And that’s why, during my time in South Africa, I’m going to once again reach out to as many young people as I can – and I’m going to try to connect these young people with young people back home in America as well. Because I know that if young people like you all can share your stories and learn from each other’s experiences, then we’ll all be able to keep moving forward, and together, we’ll be able to build upon Nelson Mandela’s legacy for years to come.
After our visit to the Martin Luther King School, we boarded a ferry to Goree Island, a small island off Senegal’s coast. For roughly three hundred years until the mid-1840s, countless men, women and children from Africa were kidnapped from their homes and communities and brought to this island to be sold as slaves.
On our tour of the island, we saw the dark, cramped cells where dozens of people were packed together for months on end, with heavy chains around their necks and arms. We saw the courtyard where they were forced to stand naked while buyers examined them, negotiated a price, and bought them as if they were nothing but property. And we saw what is known as “The Door of No Return,” a small stone doorway through which these men, women and children passed on their way to massive wooden ships that carried them across the ocean to a life of slavery in the United States and elsewhere – a brutal journey known as the “Middle Passage”.
After having a lovely tea with Mrs. Sall, the First Lady of Senegal, we headed to the Martin Luther King (MLK) school, an all-girls middle school in Dakar, which is Senegal’s capital city. I had a chance to speak to about 150 members of the ninth grade class and their teachers. The girls put on a wonderful dance performance and delivered presentations they had prepared – in excellent English (they normally speak French). One of them even performed Etta James' "At Last," and she absolutely blew me away – let me tell you, that young woman could sing.
The more time I spent with these extraordinary young women – girls living halfway across the world from where I was born in raised – the more I saw how similar their stories are to my own. Like my own parents, many of these girls’ parents never had the chance to get the kind of education they hoped for. And like the family I grew up in, many of their families don’t have much money.
But no matter what challenges these girls are facing in their lives, they come to school every day eager to learn, and they spend hours each night studying and doing their homework. They also work hard to develop themselves as leaders, running their own student government and meeting with distinguished women leaders, including a number of CEOs and high-ranking government officials. And their hard work is paying off – students from MLK perform very well on their exams, and girls who graduate from this school go on to become accomplished businesswomen, scientists, artists, athletes and more.
First Lady Michelle Obama receives a gift from former Manchester United soccer players Peter Schmeichel, left, and Dennis Law before a "Let's Move! London" event at Winfield House in London, England, July 27, 2012.
First Lady Michelle Obama hugs former Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin during a “Let’s Move! London” event at Winfield House in London, England, July 27, 2012. Olympic short track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, orange looks on.
First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Venus Williams while her sister Serena Williams looks on at left after Serena won a tennis preliminary match against Jelena Jankovic, at Wimbledon during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, July 28, 2012.