Maverick Life


Room travel: go where you like when you like – Nelson Mandela did, in his mind

Image of a window onto Lisbon, Portugal (Emily Schoeme for Pixabay)

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in a two-metre by two-metre cell on Robben Island. He kept sane by studying, exercising, playing marathon chess games, conjuring memories of loved ones and the places of his heart. He also never stopped plotting the revolution.

‘The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity’

Ellen Par

In 1790, a French aristocrat, Xavier de Maistre, was sentenced to six weeks (or 42 days) house arrest in Turin for participating in a duel. A lover of reading and art, De Maistre had always sought to defy the bounds of gravity and earthly confinement.

As a young man he had fashioned a pair of wings made of paper and wire, hoping to “fly” to the United States. Two years later, he briefly became airborne in a hot air balloon which almost immediately crashed back to Earth. And then he found himself confined to his room as punishment for the duel.

De Maistre was born in 1763 in Chambery at the foot of the French Alps and, after his sentencing to house arrest, donned a pair of blue and pink pyjamas and turned his confinement into a great adventure, an imaginary voyage which was published in 1871 as A Journey Around My Room.

“My room is situated on the 45th degree of latitude,” he recorded, adding, “It stretches from east to west; it forms a long rectangle, 36 paces in perimeter if you hug the wall,” he said, describing his world.

And so during his period of “lockdown”, De Maistre set off to explore, at leisure, “a vast territory” from the expedition of the Argonauts to the Asssembly of Notables, from “the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos”.

“Millions of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, others who had not been able to travel and still more who had not even thought of travelling will now be able to follow my example. The most insolent beings won’t have any more reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort,” wrote De Maistre.

He particularly recommended “room travel” for “the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies and high cliffs”.

“And so he sets off charting a course from his desk towards a painting hung in the corner and from there he continues obliquely towards the door, but is waylaid by his armchair, which he sits in for a while, poking the fire, daydreaming. Then he bestirs himself again, presses north towards his bed, the place where ‘for half of our life we forget the sorrows of the other half’,” historian Frances Stonor Saunders remarked about De Maistre in a 2016 article in the London Review of Books.

Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world’s most famous political prisoner, found himself isolated twice on Robben Island. The first occasion was for about a month in 1963 after he had been sentenced to five years for “illegally” leaving South Africa.

Later he was to spend 18 of his 27 years on that windswept and forbidding Island just far enough from the embrace of Table Bay Harbour in Cape Town to render it the equivalent of the moon.

In 1963 Mandela was taken back to Pretoria where he later became part of the Rivonia Trial accused. In June 1964, he, along with others, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela remained on Robben Island until March 1982, when he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison in Tokai, Cape Town.

Mandela’s biographer, Anthony Sampson, writes, “Mandela’s life sentence was a more serious test of his resilience than his two previous years in jail. He was now cut off from the world in his prime, at the age of forty-six, with no end in sight.”

Sampson notes that unlike Gandhi or Lenin, Mandela was no ascetic and “his letters would constantly hark back to the delights of Soweto or the Transkei, to the food, the landscape, the women, the music.

“Now all the bright scenery and characters would contract into the single bare stage of his cell and the communal courtyard.”

At first, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were woken at 5am to clean their cells, and wash and shave in cold, brackish water from an iron bucket.

Breakfast, mealie meal porridge and a drink made of maize brewed in hot water, took place in the courtyard. Then came the hammering of stones in the bone-chilling cold of winter and the glaring heat of summer. Then came the quarry which robbed him later in life of his eyesight.

After the 8pm lockdown a warder, writes Sampson, would patrol the corridor “to ensure they were not reading or writing; though they could sometimes whisper to each other, and prisoners who were studying were soon allowed to read till later”.

Mandela himself recalled that in the early years of his imprisonment “isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation.”

Mandela found solitary confinement “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”

But open The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, published in 2018 and edited by Sahm Venter, on any page and you will find Mandela’s journey beyond the confines of his cell, the courtyard and the island itself.

On page 344, in a letter written to relative Nobulile Thulare in 1977, Mandela writes that “the real aim of this letter is to let you know you are still as dear to the same Zami and me as the unforgettable day when you accompanied us across the courtyard at Mbizana almost 20 years ago now”.

He speaks of how he misses Nobulile’s “humorous stories, hear you make your many vows and then break them repeatedly. Do you still remember telling us that you will never eat potatoes again?”

Mandela used his prolific letter-writing to family and friends to reflect, to mine the landscape of his memory and to travel there, at will. On the Island itself he used the time to study Afrikaans, like a good general seeking to understand his enemy.

Fellow political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada in 2013 told BBC World Correspondent, Mike Wooldridge, that Mandela “had fought a war of attrition in everything while incarcerated”.

Kathrada recalled how Mandela had once played a game of chess against a medical student who had just arrived on Robben Island after being sentenced to five years.

“They played for many hours in one day and they had to ask the warders to lock the chess board up in the cell next door. They continued the next day and each move was so slow this was a war of attrition. After a few hours the young chap said ‘Look, you win. Just take your victory.’ He wins.”

The enforced distance from loved ones cut deepest for Mandela when he was refused permission to attend the funerals of his beloved mother Nonqaphi Nosekeni in 1968 and his son, Thembekile, who died in a road accident in 1969.

So, in these times of lockdown and personal distancing and watching the clock tick towards the supposed deadline on 16 April – remember that, in the early years, Mandela and other prisoners were denied watches or clocks.

Time became timeless. Time became infinity.

Mandela drew his own calendar on the wall of his cell and later was allowed to order a desk calendar – which he used to make notes. These all now form part of the Nelson Mandela archive.

The ability to use one’s imagination has, in the 21st Century, been seriously curtailed by the passive reception of ready-made experiences that are not one’s own.

Life experiences become limited to the confines of a screen and often this provides about as much intellectual nutrition as junk food, an “endless belch of exhaust coming from the smartphone in your pocket”, as historian Frances Stonor Saunders put it.

A generation raised on television and online entertainment is going to (or might) find it difficult to “mine” a personal internal landscape or find the intellectual velcro or traction to imagine a world outside of what others present on a screen.

During a recent electricity blackout, this writer’s teenagers burst forth from their rooms at the severing of their WiFi lifeline to the world. Briefly at a loss, we settled down in the dark, closed our eyes and walked the streets of Lisbon, the first city either of them had physically travelled to outside of South Africa.

There we strolled the streets, passing book stores and restaurants, sampling delicious local culinary offerings while we played cards in a city park, and walked later on Roman roads near Faro. By the time the lights came back on we were not ready to return to real life. Our virtual tour had only just begun.

While real physical travel or what was once known as “globetrotting” might not be everyone’s favourite pastime, mental travel is available to us all, in our stories, in our songs and in our memories of places we once knew, no matter how circumscribed.

In 1925 visionary author and philosopher Aldous Huxley published Along the Road – Notes & Essays of a Tourist, a collection of thoughts on travel and tourism in particular.

In the first chapter titled “Why not Stay Home” Huxley writes:

“Some people travel on business, some in search of health. But it is neither the sickly nor the men of affairs who fill the Grand Hotels and the pockets of their proprietors.

“It is those who travel ‘for pleasure’, as the phrase goes. What Epicurus, who never travelled except when he was banished, sought in his own garden, our tourists seek abroad,” said Huxley.

And do they find happiness, he asked?

“For tourists are, in the main, a very gloomy looking tribe. I have seen much brighter faces at a funeral than in the Piazza of St Mark’s. Only when they can band together and pretend for a brief, precarious hour, that they are at home, do the majority of tourists look really happy. One wonders why they come abroad?”

Swiss-born British philosopher Alain de Botton, in his 20o2 ramblings, The Art of Travel, recounts the story of Duc de Esseintes, a misanthropic character from a novel by J K Huysman titled A Rebours.

One day, De Esseintes, an avowed recluse, decides to travel to London while reading Dickens. He hurriedly packs his bags in preparation for the trip but “as the moment to board his train approached, Des Esseintes was abruptly overcome with lassitude.

“He thought how wearying it would be actually to go to London, how he would have to run to stations, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in queues, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described – and thus soil his dreams.”

De Botton writes of Esseintes’ state of mind, “What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect to find over there except fresh disappointments?”

In this time of lockdown, if you can, travel inside and see what you can find. If the landscape is a tad barren, turn to the person closest to you, be they in a book or across the fence, or another part of the same house, and ask them to tell you their stories, their memories, their travels of the mind.

Otherwise, reach for Mandela’s own biography, Long Walk to Freedom, and find there a liberation in defiance of physical confines.

And while you are at it, think about and plot the potential for a Brave New World, if and when this time of Covid-19 comes to an end and some of us are still left standing.

It might be among the ruins of late 20th and 21st Century capitalism and how we understand it will determine what we shape for the future. Bon Voyage. ML


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