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Penguins and Prisons

From Every Penguin in the World

Susan and I grew increasingly aware that our own relationship was marked by our love of penguins.  This was a discovery that gradually emerged into our awareness as we went about our volunteer duties with biologists on Robben Island, South Africa.  Every day, Susan and I counted penguins going to sea or returning at night.  We weighed and measured baby penguins.  We collected trash from the beaches.  We counted molting penguins, apparently the best way to get reliable numbers on penguin populations.  We counted waddling birds on the island.

African penguins nest in the shadow of Robben Island’s infamous prison.  In the predawn hours, as we were on our way to our worksites for the day, we would see penguins commuting to the sea, moving past the prison in single file. It is impossible not to think of Nelson Mandela as we watched the penguins stream past the prison.

The prison dominates the island, a reminder of the fight against racism.  It is now a museum and World Heritage site.  Mandela often worked on the beaches of Robben Island, collecting seaweed to be sold to Japan.  He wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, that “prisoners often laughed at the colony of penguins,” so comical as they marched to the sea.  They reminded him of “a brigade of clumsy, flat-footed soldiers” as they parade past the prisoners. The penguins gave the prisoners relief from the drudgery of prison life, offering comedy and consolation.

Like Mandela, we too found consolation in the penguins.  Susan put it this way:  “Penguins fill your heart. I could spend days watching them and being in their presence.”

Penguins and prisons:  In both epic and intimate ways, penguins are woven into the fabric of our lives.  In the great sweep of a nation and its heroes, and in the private dedication of a couple trying to make a difference, penguins console and inspire us.  These penguins call us to a deeper resolve and commitment to do what we can on their behalf.  If we cannot save penguins – cannot save what everybody loves—what can we save? 

- - From my new book Every Penguin in the World, coming out April 14.

Available for pre-order now on Amazon

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