I am 5 years old. He is my older brother, he smiles at me so sweetly. He is naughty and plays all sorts of crazy games with us. We know his shoulder is not sweet but we suck on it anyway, he laughs because he knows we will do whatever he says.
I am told I have to move away, to my new home. My real mother is no longer in her teens and has married. I will now have a dad but only sisters this time. I find out the brother is my cousin and my other mother, my grandmother.
It is school holidays. I visit often even though it is so far away. Many years later I will realise this place has my only happy memories as a child; my childhood heart forever cherishing how it felt to be part of that family and even though it was a time and place where the apartheid riots and violence was so rife and on a high, the only thing I remember is that sweet smile and the love and safety I felt in that rain wet shack.
I am older. The next holiday visit is spent at a new home address; our uncle has bought my granny a house. My older brother is always there but not so much of his naughty games. He is now responsible for looking after all of us during the day while my granny is at work. He cleans and cooks. Bread is expensive so he has to make rooster bread for us so we can have something to eat. He teaches me how to do it, he admires my curious mind. Our days are filled with games but only in the yard because we are told the streets are not safe. On cold and rainy days my older brother lets us play inside the house.
He talks with a smile and always makes us laugh. He is known as respectful and having a gentle heart. He is so good at cricket and well known around the townships, he plays with his friends in front of our yard every day and sometimes I am told he plays in big grassy fields in town. I am told for the town games they wear real cricket kit like our national team on television but the white man keeps it so I never see it. I remember the white man mentoring him in this sport. I remember a false birth certificate being made because he was getting too old for his U18 team. He is also a model now. He is beautiful and agents love his smile. He is smart and does well in school. We are proud of him but that is not enough to take him to university.
He is older. He is a man now. He is getting too old for cricket and the modelling doesn’t seem to be going as well as expected. He struggles to find any job. He sees his single mom and siblings struggling, the nights without supper and the lunch breaks his younger brother has to go without food.
He joins a gang. We never know because not even a cent has ever been stolen by him in our home. He hides his secret well as he lives his double life. He is still my brother. He still holds my hand tight when I cross the road. He still smiles. He is still responsible for all chores and does them all without complaining.
But now he is also a criminal and he is arrested for the first time. The whole gang takes the blame. They are framing him. He must be covering for one of his friends. He will be home soon. We are rightfully in denial. We are not ready for how our lives are about to change, how this is going to be part of our story. This life changer doesn’t knock and ask for permission but we find it tattooing itself on our skin, marking us as the bruised of this person called our brother. We find out everything we thought we knew, we really didn’t know. The pain not only finding ways to destroy us but ultimately finding ways to define us.
Our denial is short-lived because there are things called confessions and evidence. Prayers are different, now laments are made for a son and a brother in prison. We cry often in these prayers. We pray for protection for him in that ugly place that keeps people who do ugly things. We become a family that loves the brother because we do not know the gangster; we refuse to accept that the two are both found in one person. He is out and back in again, another crime.
His crimes are never openly spoken about around us the children. I ask questions but they cause frustration and I am sometimes ignored. The prayers do not stop. I do not see him until he comes to visit me in the home I share with my real mother. I am briefed on how I am to pretend and treat him the same. He smiles as I walk in back from school. I have missed him but I am also afraid of him. He seeks my approval, he still makes our private jokes and I laugh but not wholeheartedly because I feel I cannot trust him.
My sisters meet him for the first time, they adore him. They were expecting to meet a monster with a scarred face and a scary voice, who they would have nightmares about and who openly did bad things to everyone at night. But I know he only reserves that side for when he is not home.
He is here for his circumcision. He is in the bush for a month; He is back and we celebrate that he is now a man. They all hope he will change and be a better man who can put his criminal ways behind him. The old men of my family seem to have prepared their best words hoping to have an impact on this brother of mine but I soon learn words cannot change a man, at least not this one.
More crimes. More prayers. This becomes our life, loving this gangster. My aunt calls me and tells me of the police that always come for him, the time she was tear gassed for asking what he was being arrested for this time, the many times they were manhandled and the sleepless nights always expecting someone to come for him when he was home. The deadly fights between the gangs and the fear for her life when threats were made against her for the gangster she had raised. It must have been something she put in his mealie meal porridge as a baby.
It is October and my final year in University. I am told he is in town, visiting a few friends and wants to see me. I am anxious and would rather not see him. Many gangsters have been killed here, once a student was mugged on his way from the library. The thief later hunted down and stoned to death and body burned beyond recognition. I share my own story with my roommates about our family gangster and how I fear one day he will share the same fate. I am writing my last exam and my worst fear is about to come true.
The moment he is killed, I am inside an exam room and I feel him die but I do not know this at the time. I go home and tell my granny about it but I cannot explain or fully understand what was happening to me that day so we dismiss it as fear for my last paper. Later that evening I am woken in my sleep by my mother’s sorrowful cries. Another death in the family, I think to myself. I think of all the old sick people it could be. I listen trying to make out who it is.
My sister comes to wake me. My brother has died. I now understand what was happening to me in that exam room. We almost lose my gran that night. We cry and mourn his death. I’m ashamed for mourning a gangster. I only tell two of my closest friends of our loss.
He lived by the sword and now that is how he has died, my grandmother reminds me one morning as she is trying to console me. The pain we are feeling is the same pain he has caused so many people. It feels like our pain is all that pain put together. I cry often. It doesn’t feel like the grief will ever pass.
It is his funeral. He is smiling in his coffin. He is still beautiful behind the open wounds on his face. We see him for the last time. I try to be strong but fail dismally. There is no one to declare today is a day to celebrate his life and the songs of the service are sombre. I am asked to speak on his final day. I do but cannot say much because it is too soon to put grief into words. Only his mother is allowed to see his grave, I don’t understand but I am too young to be questioning it.
It is three years since I last heard his voice. It is a day when grief is still fresh in our hearts as we remember the life he occupied that is no longer his. When he is made a profile picture on his brothers WhatsApp. When I write a Facebook status about missing him terribly. When we only remember the good because we never knew the ugly. When I feel we are not justified to even miss him. When I know the pain he has caused others should eliminate all the love we feel for him. When I fear this will look like I am romanticizing criminals and their crimes. When I ask myself if we have a right to grieve him. When I know I can’t wish him back because he came in a package of brother and gangster.