Lucy Berry poem on ‘Leper Graves: Robben Island’

Robben Island graveyardA new mid-month poem from United Reformed Church poet-minister, the Revd Lucy Berry. This month, Lucy reflects on the leper graves at Robben Island, South Africa. She says: ‘I write this from Cape Town after just having visited Robben Island. I hadn’t realised that every kind of leper was incarcerated there; anyone with whom those in charge, (often we British), could not cope or did not approve: those with Hansen’s Disease, those labelled ‘mentally defective’, those unimpressed by imposed Christianity, those unwilling to be governed by an invading force, those who believed in racial equality. I left the island feeling the disgrace of Empire – and fearing the trumped-up reasons we give for demonising other humans.


The first place that they take you is the plot
of leper graves; mounds marked with old headstones.
Then, more graves, graves, graves, unmarked and forgot;
thousands more graves of unknown leper bones
which reach, (no-one knows quite how very far),
beneath deep overgrowth of island brush.

And other lepers, not quite as we are,
uglified, daft, or who could not be hushed,
had dead or living graves here; leper graves.
We buried Nelson here for eighteen years
and thousands more whom, we felt, misbehaved:
chiefs who to Empire never could kowtow,
Muslims whom Empire never forced from faith.
No place for Christ to jump out of the tomb.

What were our Bibles doing in those times?
Lying by bed-sides, ready in our pews,
left on the arms of sagging fireside chairs
and on our lecterns and our altar cloths,
waiting to open at the very verse
which justified us;
while, in the same damned moment,
shouting that we lied.

©Lucy Berry
Photo: Marx, S. 2010. Leper Graveyard