I held a candle towards the sky and looked around me at the faces I had come to know over the past year. It occurred to me how different my life was, how different I was. How one brief and seemingly insignificant encounter had changed me forever. I stood that night on the streets with a community in mourning, where a tragic incident had occurred a few days prior. Amidst the anguished prayers and outrage, our small flames flickered with uncertainty against the dark night.
“Our children are dying! Literally dying … for their fathers to love them!” A community leader shouted into a microphone. A chorus of approval rang out as people raised their fists in anger.
“Praise Jesus!” A man commanded loudly. “Praise Jesus!”
A woman stepped up onto the raised mound. “Please, I ask of you,” she begged. “Don’t go after the gangsters. Don’t take their lives. Let them go to jail. Let them suffer. Let them think about what they have done. To kill them would be too quick. They must live with what they have done. They must suffer. Don’t kill them.”
“That’s the grandmother,” said Ingrid, as she slipped back into the crowd.
I cried that night as I watched tears expose the layers of pain on people’s faces. I saw young men holding up cardboard placards with the words “No More Bloodshed”, and I stood next to children with wide eyes who had seen too much.
I cried because I saw no hope.
Ingrid stood next to me like a statue. She had watched the silhouettes of the four men as they drove past her home that night, just moments before the gunshots were fired. She told me how she had run – how everyone had run – but it was too late. This had hit her hard and in all the time I had been witness to the plight of the community, nothing had triggered this degree of anger before.
“We are not afraid!” erupted a woman holding a child on her hip. “We want our streets back from the drug lords!”
Shouts of grief and rage reverberated through the crowd as they stamped the ground in unity. A small dog darted across the pavement, its tail between its legs.
“Ek was ’n dwelmhandelaar!” someone blurted.
We all turned and saw a man wearing a black trench coat, his arms stretched out in front of him.
“I was a drug dealer!” he repeated, clearing his throat, “and vir die kinders ek wil sê … to the children … jou lewe is meer werd as ’n nuwe paar Nikes! Your life is worth more than a packet of sweets, a packet of cigarettes! En ek wil sê … to the gangsters …” As his words blared out, he glared at some people in the crowd. “Moenie ons kinders jou drug mules maak nie!”
While some people quietly nodded their heads, others yelled, “Leave our children alone!”
A group of people began to chant, “We are not afraid! We are not afraid!”
Beside them stood a young girl, quietly chewing the corner of her memorial program.
“I am a 28-gang member for Jesus!” A fiery woman sang out in a shrill voice. The crowd chuckled at the absurdity of her statement. “Every day I blow this horn,” she continued, enjoying the limelight. She then pressed her lips fiercely into a ram’s horn and blew. A loud hollow vibration echoed briefly. “I love you! I love you! I love you!” she trumpeted.
“That woman’s a bit mad,” Ingrid whispered to me.
I liked the ‘mad’ woman.
A man hastily ushered her off the mound and raised his hand, indicating for everyone to be quiet.
“Please everyone, be still, be still … we are here tonight together on the streets of Ocean View as a tribute, to stand together and show our support for the family who lost a young life. To say goodbye.”
She was caught in the crossfire, Ingrid had said. Just sitting on her father’s lap.
“Everyone please be still. Now, let us sing the Lord’s Prayer.” He nodded towards an elderly woman in the crowd.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Amidst the noise and cries the woman’s lone words rang out, slowly lifting the voices of those around her as they joined her in song.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
I looked over towards the young mother, broken in sorrow, clutching her womb as she had done when her baby grew to life inside of her.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
As the voices rose in the ambient candlelight, a wave of soft toys and flowers started to weave its way through the crowd. From across the road and down the grass embankment the offerings continued to make their gentle passage, each one touching a person on their path, as they moved from hand to hand to hand, floating and ascending on their journey towards the memorial site.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
Through a small gap in the crowd, I could see a small boy standing, his eyes closed shut and palms firmly pressed together.
For thine is the kingdom
and the power and the glory,
Eventually the gifts she would never receive reached their final resting place, where the picture of a baby girl lay on a blue canvas sheet. Next to her framed photograph were the words: “Zahnia. ‘Too beautiful for Earth.’”
She was only six months old.
for ever and ever.
I looked over at Ingrid crying silently next to me.
“Yes, let’s go.”
We made our way down the crowded street, our conversation and footsteps falling in with everyone around us. Although we all felt the pain and loss of a child whose life was so tragically taken, we could not deny the feeling of oneness. Then from out of nowhere, a single loud CRACK exploded into the night.
We all stopped, suspended in its deafening wake.
“Was that a gunshot?” someone asked under their breath.
My heart pounded.
“No –” someone else called out, “I think … it was just a kid, throwing a brick onto a tin roof.”
We continued to our houses and cars, nervously looking over our shoulders.
We were afraid.