Semester At Sea With Dennis Brutus by Kiley J. Bryant

[The end of the year, the death of every year, is of course connected with its opposite, the rebirth of the year.  The holiday season we celebrate in the northern hemisphere is of course of pagan origin, an origin that depended on recognizing seasonal change.  It’s usually associated with taking stock of accomplishments, gains . . . and losses of the past year.  We all have our individual and personal losses we’ve experienced, and we share them with others to establish a community in order to bear them better.  Some of these losses transcend the personal, the individual.  Maria Dimitriadi, the Greek singer about whom I knew nothing until February last year when she died, called the Red Heart of Greece;  Mercedes Sosa, the Argentine musical voice of Latin America; in the last few days, Dennis Brutus, poet of South Africa.  All these were artists of the world as much as of the particular nation from which they arose and whose spirit they evoked.  And just as the year dies away, but the cycle does not stop; so the season of these artists continues.  Kiley Bryant writes the following remembrance of Dennis Brutus, a wonderful evocation of why even in his passing we can celebrate him and the generation of the spring to follow.  The photo of Dennis Brutus was taken by Kiley on that semester at sea — editor]

Four years ago, I set out on one of my life’s most precious journeys to date,  Semester At Sea. I was amongst 700 college students from across the country, mixed in with a few students from abroad, to take part in a 100 day study abroad program that would take us around the world via the MV Explorer, the world’s largest traveling classroom aka a cruise ship!  The trip started in the Bahamas January 19, 2006 and ended in San Diego, California April 28, 2006, in between there were 10 ports of call on our agenda. Aside from the travel opportunity the program offered, the educational experience at large is what the opportunity presented most. After boarding the ship in Brazil, we were headed to South Africa, which took fourteen long, no land in sight days. Our first day back in class, which we had every day between ports, we were introduced by the Global Studies professor to Dennis Brutus, who was serving as the inter-port lecturer, who would historically be presenting to us an overview of South Africa. I don’t really know where to start, but once he opened his mouth and began speaking, he had captivated my attention. His history, his stories, his passion for life, learning, love, forgiveness and most of all his determination to educate; it was mind blowing, yet he did it all naturally, seeming as if it required no effort.  Dennis Brutus is and will be probably one of the most influential men I have and will ever meet in my life. Once we reached South Africa I was fortunate enough to travel with Dennis to Robben Island, an Island off of Cape Town where he was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela which now serves as a Heritage Site and Museum. Although the trip assigned us a tour guide, Modise Phekonyane, who as well was a prisoner on the Island, Dennis managed to take over the role of a tour guide. In doing so, he exposed us to his experience on the island through story-telling and even through pictures that were on display in which he was able to point himself out in. He took us into a bathroom where he was beaten by prison guards, showed us the barracks where they slept, and even took us to the Limestone Quarry where the prisoners worked hours on end. I quickly learned that his wit, his personality, his sense of humor, was all a part of the real ‘Dennis Brutus Experience.’ In telling us about the brutal experience he endured, he managed to squeeze in that while working in the Quarry while guards weren’t looking he’d sneak into holes and take cat naps. The experience overall I believe had so much more of a strong impact having Dennis there with us step by step as we learned the history of the island as well as his and Modise’s experiences.  After having a few one on one conversations with Dennis he asked where I was from, in telling him Evanston, Illinois, it opened up the door for many more conversations to come; I wasn’t aware that he was even familiar with Evanston, or even that he once lived there, I soon learned he was a professor at Northwestern University for nearly a decade and a half. Looking back at my overall study abroad experience, meeting, listening and talking with Dennis served as one of the most impactful learning experiences of my life. The man was filled with knowledge, his heart was filled with love, his ears were open for whatever, and his story was meant to be told. I was so saddened by his loss, his impact on my educational experience is one I will forever be grateful for.


6 Responses to “Semester At Sea With Dennis Brutus by Kiley J. Bryant”

  1. jeff spitz Says:

    what an amazing tribute to Dennis Brutus. your description is heartwarming. are you a student now? have you heard of the robben island singers?
    since not many people will be able to go to robben island from chicago we have been bringing the island to chicago, especially the south and west side high schools. check out our site and let us know if it sings to you. we are interested in bringing this to NU and other colleges in april, may. any interest?
    are you in touch with others from you study abroad exerience?
    we organize sponsors to bring robben island singers to cities across the country. look forward to hearing from you…jeff

  2. Linda Stevenson Says:

    What an insightful, beautiful tribute to this lovely man. Thank
    you, Kiley.

  3. Kiley J. Bryant Says:

    Jeff & Linda
    Let me first start off by saying ‘Thank You’ to you both. I feel honored to have been given this opportunity by Lew.

    Secondly, Jeff, I have never heard of the Robben Island singers but I am excited to check you guys out, especially with you being right here in Chicago. I have been out of school for two years now, but I think there is great opportunity for you all with performing at Northwestern University, even more so due to Dennis Brutus’ connections with the University. I will be in touch with you.

    • jeff spitz Says:

      Kiley, thanks for your interest. we would love to collaborate with you on a tribute to Dennis Brutus with The Robben Island Singers. Our guys are younger but they respect him greatly and will honor his legacy in ways that will move people beyond words. look forward to talking with you more. have you seen the video clips on our site?

      • Kiley J. Bryant Says:

        YES!! How BEAUTIFUL!! I too look forward to contributing to whatever I can. Do you have any further contact information I can use to get in touch with you?

  4. jeff spitz Says:

    yes, just call at 773-771-7697. all our contact info is also at –looking forward to hearing from you soon….jeff

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