Thank You, Mr. Rogers
Copyright 2022 by Ezra Azra
Photo by Bradi C on Flickr.
the first twenty-nine years of my life, I lived, trapped by poverty,
in a near-to-slum ghetto in the suburb of Clairwood, Durban, Natal,
was ashamed to be living there. Eventually, we were evicted by the
landlord because we could not afford to pay the increased rent. We
moved in with other members of our family in the same ghetto. Some
years later, by a 'perfect storm' of incredible luck, skullduggery,
and illicit maneuvers-negotiations, I qualified to be financially
assisted by an Underground illegal consortium to emigrate. I hastily
and haphazardly emigrated, in 1967, for good; in both senses of the
word, I hoped.
was hard in the other country, but I coped comfortably, (through too
many cultural blunders in ignorance) because, as difficult as it was
to acclimatize, no circumstances were as difficult and as hopeless as
were in the ghetto.
the ghetto was slowly and permanently cauterizing out of me certain
wholesome human qualities and dimensions, it was simultaneously
fashioning others in me, into diamond-hard permanencies.
my reluctantly adopted other country, I was aware of the progress I
was making, gradually and measurably. I kept my resolution to never
speak about my shameful ghetto days, in the hope those memories would
fade away into nothingness, sooner or later. They did not. They have
not, to this day.
come to accept that they never will. The brain, for some mindless
reason, retains, forever, memories of long, long passed pains of
embarrassments, shame, regret, times of low esteem; each and all of
which I have so many.
1979, I heard, on a radio, for the first time and by sheer luck, a
song that set in motion a new perspective in me. It was sheer luck
because radio and television were, and still are, a very small part
of my living. In the ghetto, most families were like us: no
the first twenty-nine years of my life, I had never been near enough
to touch a radio, a television set or a phone. The microwave oven had
not yet been invented.
song in 1979, was "The Gambler", sung by Kenny Rogers. Had
I not been seated in a cafeteria, eating a snack, I might never have
stayed long enough to hear the whole song. While the entire song
struck me as an apt metaphor for anybody's life in general, two lines
struck me as the immediate practical wisdom in my daily ghetto life:
"Know when to walk away; And know when to run."
long before I heard Mister Rogers singing these rules, I, and
everybody else in the ghetto, lived only for as long as we obeyed
these rules everyday when we left our homes to go even for the
shortest trips: the corner store, the bus stop, to help someone in
trouble down the road.
frequent sight in the ghetto was a dead body by the roadside;
probably a victim who failed to follow at least one of these two
primary rules. I saw in those two lines in The Gambler, an invitation
to view my life in the ghetto as not shameful; but as a normal random
possibility in living outside a ghetto.
other words, just another unhappy challenge life scatters around
haphazardly, indiscriminately. Certainly not a plight of which to be
researched the life of Mister Rogers. He had a difficult childhood,
but nothing nearly as blighting as the ghetto into which I had been
born. All the same, he faced difficulties in his non-ghetto living,
to which these lyric rules applied most aptly. I am thankful to him
for the song that triggered an option for me to embark on a process
to lighten the burden of ghetto-shame in me.
was a gradual process. I bought my first music player, and my first
music disk. The process has taken years and years. Eventually, here I
am. The nightmares I still have occasionally, will always be a part
of my life. Four members of my family were killed in street fights on
20 Cherry Road, Clairwood, when I was a teenager. The nightmares
aside, I have succeeded, for the most part, in not letting my
ghetto-shame impede my progress. And so, here I share with you some
of my memories of those evil times.
when I was eight years old to my late teens, I was a member of a gang
in the ghetto. Everyone, child, man, woman, belonged to a gang. It
was fatal stupidity to not be part of a gang.
number of members in our gang continually changed. I remember six who
were around the longest. Maynard Jasmin, our leader; the only one who
never hit me. To all the others I was open game because I was the
youngest and the smallest. Eddie Jasmin, Maynard's younger brother.
He hit me more than any other hit me. Perhaps he thought he had to
hit me extra to make up for Maynard's never hitting me. Harry
Crossly. Norman Brauns. Redvers Rigney. Mickey Jackson.
girl tried to join. All of us ridiculed and threatened her. She ran
off. Many, many years later I heard about her. Turns out she went on
to have the last laugh on all of us, after all.
of us wore shoes. All of us attended the same School located between
and at the ends of the dead-end roads of Shale Road and Dunn Road:
Clairwood Primary School.
gang must have been the most cowardly of all. We always ran away from
what we guessed was about to be a confrontation with another gang.
See, Mister Rogers, I knew when to run, long before I heard your
stole anything that was not fastened down. Even stuff we knew at the
time was of no use to us. At unplanned times, gangs met to barter or
buy or sell stolen stuff they did not care to keep themselves.
gang specialized in stealing food. And only at night. Friday and
Saturday nights were our regular times because there was no school
the next day. Sometimes the stealing went so uneventfully that, many
years in the future looking back, I think those foods could have been
purposely left for us to steal.
times the food we stole were fruit from trees in backyards. We were
careful to stay clear of homes that had dogs. There was a home that,
unknown to us, kept their dog indoors at night. Some of us were way
up in their mango tree when someone came out of their backdoor with
their dog. There was no indication they came outside with their dog
in order to catch us. Since their backyard did not have a fence, all
of the gang on the ground, and not too far up the tree, fled without
being discovered. I was the only unlucky one to be so far high in the
tree, I did not try to escape.
I kept myself quietly among the branches and foliage. I waited there
a long time, listening for the absence of sounds of the dog on the
ground. This was subtropical Africa. Noisy nocturnal insects and
other animals were everywhere. When I eventually dared to slowly
creep down, as hesitantly all the way down as a chameleon, none of
the gang was around. I went home, my pockets stuffed with green
I was the smallest, I was always sent ahead. I would throw the fruit
down from the trees for the others. Fairness was not one of the
criteria by which Maynard led the gang. He did not care how each one
of us came by the loot, as long as everyone gave him half of their
the gang had to make a hasty exit, those unfortunate enough to be
left behind to fend for themselves, ended up with nothing because by
the time we caught up to the rest, they had eaten all their share of
the loot. There was nothing left to fairly share. New members were
the ones who suffered most by this custom. We rarely gathered
afterwards to eat our spoils. Most of the time we ate on the run.
discerned this unfairness very soon after I joined when I was eight.
My remedy was secretly to eat my share while I was in the tree and to
throw some farther than where the gang was waiting on the ground. I
would return alone the next day in daylight to search for my share.
My subterfuge worked perfectly for my entire tenure with the
Clairwood gang on food escapades. I dared not try the subterfuge on
other criminal ventures such as robbing abandoned buildings, and
cunning worked every time we raided our School's movie night food
some Friday evenings, our School showed movies in the School's
Assembly Hall. There was a small charge. The public was invited. At
interval, among the items sold were cakes baked that very Friday in
the School's kitchen. Those cakes were stacked in layers in the
gang raided the kitchen, early in the evening before the Assembly
Hall was opened for business. We would pretend to be the movie-night
special yard cleaners. We went about the School premises collecting
garbage and putting it in paper bags for everyone who might be
noticing, to see. It never failed. We never got caught.
had to be careful to not steal all the cakes and other pastries. We
would steal a number for each member of the gang, a small enough
number to not be missed. Maynard, our leader, calculated the number.
I was the only one small enough to be hoisted through a kitchen
window. I handed the stolen cakes to a member outside at the window,
who was standing on another member's shoulders.
nobody could see in the dark kitchen, was that I was eating my share
of the loot, right there, under their snotty unfair noses.
those were the only times Maynard, our leader, made sure I got my
share, when we gathered on a distant dark school verandah corner to
enjoy our spoils. Nobody ever found out that on those truly good
Fridays for me, I got two allotted shares of the loot.
my credit, I always offered some of my second share to some of the
other members, in the hope it would help buy their undying
non-violent friendship. They took my gifts, but the random gratuitous
violence against me did not stop.
worst raid for me was when we raided the School's kitchen on a night
that was not a School Friday movie night. The gang was on our way
somewhere to which we had to cross the School grounds.
of the classrooms were lit up. There were adults milling about, all
well-dressed. It seemed as if they were on a tea break. There were
servant-like adults carrying tea-things to the classrooms from the
kitchen. We waited. We dashed into the kitchen and grabbed whatever
we saw, and ran off into the dark. We found a spot far away enough to
stop at, and eat. Of course, I had long eaten my loot before we
arrived at the spot. I had nothing to share with Maynard. He was not
had grabbed a pound of frozen butter from the fridge. I ate it all on
the run, within minutes. It was a good thing the next day was
Saturday. I had the runs for days.
best times I had being unfair to my gang was in the matter of Hindu
was (perhaps, still is) an offering to a named living Spirit,
invisible Being, in order to cure an illness. A small bowl of items
of food and fruit, and money coins were (are) offered to the Spirit,
and placed at the side of a road at a crossroad. It was (is) believed
that the Spirit would (will) remove the illness from the sufferer,
and inflict it on the first person who passed the pooja.
for poojas was our gang's first mission, most of the time. Maynard
got to keep half the coin total. The rest of the coins were divided
among the rest of the gang. A usual coin-take total was four-to-six a
night. Most nights, there weren't enough coins for the rest of us to
share equally, after Maynard took his cut. Most of the time there
were not enough coins for me to get anything. That did not bother me
because I knew a few pooja spots which I did not tell Maynard about.
raided them myself, in the daytime. I kept all the coin loot for
Crossly brought a flashlight with him one night. We knew it as a
torch. It had a shiny metal cover. Maynard made Harry put the torch
in a black sock because at night the shine would give away our
presence. Harry did not bring the torch along to provide light. The
batteries inside were already dead when he brought it along the first
time. Harry brought that torch along to be a weapon against the rest
of us, except Maynard. He carried it in a pocket of his trousers.
Cinema was at the corner where three roads merged: Jacob's Road, Pine
Road, and Backus Road. In Clairwood, the cinema was known as Krishna
Bioscope. Throughout South Africa, the word bioscope was the name
for movie theatres None of our gang members ever attended a bioscope
because we could not afford the price of the cheapest ticket:
evening film began at seven o'clock, six evenings a week. The
halftime interval would be at eight-fifteen.
our leader, had found out that homemade sweets were sold during the
halftime interval. Those sweets were made in poor people's homes
along Pine Road. Beginning at about six o'clock in the evening, the
sweets were carried in baskets, from the homes to the bioscope. The
carriers were old women.
said he had known of this opportunity months and months ago, but he
had to wait for Winter, because, in all the other seasons, it was
still daylight at six o'clock in the evening.
attacked the old ladies for their baskets of Krishna Bioscope
goodies. All those women were South African India-Indians. They
screamed at us in Indian languages. I recognized some of the Tamil
and Malayalam words, because my Grampa spoke both Tamil and
Malayalam, and other Indian languages. He worked as a language
interpreter at the Law Court House in downtown Durban, about five
miles away from our home on 20 Cherry Road in Clairwood.
quickly let go the baskets of those women who fought back. We were
criminals, but yet children, and so we instantly retreated if a
grown-up threatened us. The other woman, in fear, immediately let us
yank their baskets out of their hands.
our loot, we followed Maynard running down Pine Road. We scarfed on
the run, as was our criminal wont.
turned right at the first road, Sir Kurma Reddy Road. It did not have
a tarred surface. The excessive height of the wild vegetation on the
gravel surface indicated this section of the road was seldomly used
by vehicular traffic; always a welcome fact for pedestrian common
crooks like us. Very, very few private citizens in Clairwood owned
ran until we crossed Cherry Road. There were no street lights on Pine
and Sir Kurma Reddy and Cherry Roads. As we crossed Cherry Road in
the dark, all of us were slowing down, thinking we were home free.
Then we saw them!
pursuers! On bicycles! Of course, in the dark we did not see details.
We saw the beams of light from flashlights, and we heard the
bicycles. Our criminal instincts shouted at us that whoever they
were, they were after us. We ran. We threw down the baskets; all
still had lots of homemade sweets in them. By then, we had eaten our
ran along Sir Kurma Reddy Road up to Richborough Road. We ran across.
Turning right on Richborough would have taken us to Jacob's Road, a
road with a tarred surface that was exceedingly friendly to
bicycle-riding. Turning left would have taken us passed Clairwood's
swamp, notorious for its poisonous flying and crawling insects.
heard our bicycle pursuers, pushing their bicycles with much
difficulties because of the countless holes and gutters in the
surface of Sir Kurma Reddy Road, a common state of affairs in all
side roads in Clairwood. A cyclist riding on a side road in
Clairwood was a rare sight, because of the road-holes treacherously
hidden by overgrown wild vegetation. Persons pushing their bicycles
along, was a common sight.
were thankful. Had the road been a mite more passable, those
bicycle-pursuers would have been upon us before we reached the next
road beyond Richborough Road.
do not remember the name of that road that ran parallel to the brick
wall of Clairwood's only cemetery.
turning right would have taken us to Jacob's Road. Maynard led us
left. There were no sidewalks; we were running alongside a graveyard
brick wall. I was uneasy; I knew the rest of the gang were, too.
away from persons chasing us to harm us, was never frightening
because we expected to escape. We were experts at escaping homicidal
pursuers. But if graveyard ghosts gave chase, we did not know how to
our confidence was drawn from Maynard, our leader, always running
ahead of us. We needed his example especially now that we were
running alongside a graveyard wall. In pitch darkness; with our
would-be murderers behind us who, had they ditched their bicycles and
came after us with their torches, would have caught us.
Maynard disappeared. We stopped. Utterly consternated. In complete
fear. The sounds of bicycles far along around the corner,
approaching, meant nothing to us, gripped in terror of the dead. In
the next few seconds I would have turned back and taken my chances
with those living cyclist murderers, rather than face whatever it was
that had swallowed up Maynard.
heard Maynard call from the other side of the cemetery wall in a
forced loud whisper: "Come on, guys! Jump the wall!"
that night I had not paid attention to the height of that wall. When
joy exploded in me on hearing Maynard's whisper, I had the ability to
scale a wall of any height. All the others, too.
was our blind trust in our leader that we instantly obeyed him in
defiance of our fear of the countless sleeping corpses whose peace we
were about to disturb.
ordered us to squeeze against the brick wall and to be deathly still
and quiet. We obeyed. We heard a good deal of bicycle commotion
happening on the other side of the wall. And whispering from the
cyclists who, clearly, were concerned, too, about disturbing the
retrospect, I've always thought and still think that within minutes,
if those noises were our bicycle pursuers, they would have thought to
check the other side of the brick wall, if it had not started to
thunder and rain.
seconds, the night sky split open. The rain came down, as 'they' say,
'in buckets.' In thunderously noisy buckets. Had there been lightning
in that cemetery that night, some of us criminals
have instantly succumbed to fright, and joined the dead, squeezed
tightly against that brick wall.
storm seemed to last for hours. The rain fell so hard, it seemed to
pierce painfully right through my body. Afterwards, feeling our way
in the dark, we walked along the wall to find a gate. We followed
Maynard's instinct about which direction would take us to the gate.
Our clothes were too water-logged for us to be able to lift ourselves
over the wall.
wasn't much of a gate. After all, this was a cemetery. There was no
need to protect anything; just a need to demarcate territory. We
easily walked out between the few rusty iron bars.
signs of our bicycle pursuers. Maynard was taking no chances. He
stopped the gang. He sent us off home at intervals, one at a time. He
suggested we keep to the pitch-dark side roads. If we saw bicycle
riders, we were on our own.
of our night time raids occurred in the next suburb of Merebank
because no yard in poverty Clairwood had either fruit trees, or any
objects scattered about worth stealing.
walked miles to get to Merebank. It was in Merebank that we engaged
in a kind of raid for the first time in our history. We robbed a
train goods coach of some of its load of sugar cane stalks.
was at a railway junction in an open field. Once a week, I think a
Thursday, a goods train of a few compartments parked overnight at a
junction. Other goods trains and passenger trains passed by
throughout the night. One of the compartments of the stationary train
was loaded with sugar cane on the way to the Huletts sugar refinery.
situation was perfect for thieves, rogues, vagabonds, misfits, and
criminals. We were all of those. It was dark; there were no guards;
the nearest homes were on the other sides of wild fields on both
sides of the tracks.
climbed up the sides of the compartment, and broke off as many sugar
cane stalks as we wished. We carried them back to Clairwood where we
sat and ate them. We did this only twice in my memory because it was
grueling; the long walks there and back; carrying stalks all the way
back to Clairwood. We didn't try eating them in Merebank because we
did not know our way around Merebank in the dark.
claimed his share of stalks when we stopped to eat in Clairwood. He
knew none of us could eat on the run. A sugar cane stalk had to be
ripped with our teeth of its inedible bark, in order for its inner
fiber to be chewed-and-sucked of its sweet juice. Both hands,
unencumbered, were needed for the operation.
railway line ran along the farther end of Merebank, which meant we
had to walk a longer distance in the night. That is why we raided
that rail truck only twice.
one night in Merebank we were on our way back to Clairwood. As was
our custom, we were on a side road that was mostly grass, weeds and
gravel. We turned a corner and found ourselves a few steps from a
quiet group of people grouped around a car. It was Maynard who
instantly whispered, "Police car! Throw away everything!"
was the kind of quick thinking that qualified Maynard to be a
leader. It took a special instinctive ability to discern in a
pitch-black night that a car was police. In those days, police cars
were not fitted with flashing lights. Then, too, in Clairwood, police
cars were a sight as rare as mushrooms in a wilderness, after a
any of us had time enough to interpret Maynard's whisper in the dark,
two flashlight beams were on us. On everyone except me, that is,
because, as usual, I was the last one walking alone more than a few
steps at the end of the gang. My extremely well-honed criminal
instinct instantly kicked in.
moment those beams of light fell on Maynard and some of the others, I
threw myself to the ground, and frantically backward-clawed my way
farther into the dark. I twisted myself to crawl away into the night.
It was Merebank. I crossed fields blindly, and pointed myself in the
direction of what I guessed to be Clairwood.
before had I been so lucky, and never since have I ever been. I
reached home in Clairwood. I did not see any of the gang the whole of
the following week at school. Nobody showed up at our gang places
that Friday. That Saturday, Maynard came to my home in the daytime.
We sat in the shade of a mango tree, and spoke softly. Other children
walked, played about.
gang was about to be ignored by the Merebank police. But when they
discovered Harry's torch in a black sock, the police became
suspicious. They held the gang in jail for days in Merebank. They
eventually let everyone out, except Harry.
suspicious to the Merebank police
that nobody in the gang knew the
of everyone in the gang. Maynard
took roll call. There never was a
acceptance as a member; no
fee; no membership card,
tattoo, number. The only two
for membership each night
total obedience to Maynard, and sharing
of half your loot with Maynard.
took a few weeks for the gang to get together again. Some new members
joined. Harry Crossly never returned. Maynard never asked me about
that night, but I sensed he had more regard for me for my having
eluded the police so perfectly. The fact that he made a special
effort to come speak to me at my home, silently spoke volumes of
Merebank police confiscated Harry's torch-in-a-black-sock. Some weeks
later we found out that Harry had started a gang in Jacobs, a suburb
adjacent to Clairwood, opposite to Merebank. Every member in Harry's
gang carried a torch-in-a-black-sock.
was another suburb of Durban, but at the opposite side of Clairwood
to Merebank. Fynnland was about twice the distance from Clairwood
than Merebank was, and so we raided Fynnland once only.
never found out how Maynard came to know about the opportunity in
Fynnland. We walked at night along railway tracks from Clairwood to
Fynnland. The way was so cramped that the raid might not have
happened had a train come along while we were walking on the tracks.
Fynnland destination was a railway compartment parked on a railway
siding in Fynnland. The siding was the route to a Government naval
base on Salisbury Island in Durban Bay opposite the bay shores at
Fynnland. The Government had built a railway causeway to carry
supplies to the naval base.
the two doorways into the compartment were unlocked. The amounts of
canned foods for the Navy's sailors were incredible. We were sad that
there was too much food for us to be able to steal all of it, and
that because Fynnland was so far away from Clairwood, we dare not
linger in that compartment for long to eat some of the food while we
were there. While everybody else carried off as many canned goods as
they could, I grabbed one large cardboard box of dried fruit. At home
I would not have difficulty hiding the box in our yard away from the
family. For canned goods, I would have needed the can opener my Mom
kept and used regularly in the kitchen.
been over fifty years. Even if Clairwood is still a ghetto, I go for
months and months nowadays without a nightmare. I am not as ashamed
of having lived there for the first twenty-nine years of my life.
you for the song, Mister Rogers, 1938-2020.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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