Athi Sitishini, 16, had a normal up bringing with some sprouts of naughtiness from time to time. One of these occasions ended-up giving him an important life lesson that changed his life.

Athi, originally from Langa, was the first-born to a stable family, “both my parents work and life was fair overall. When I was three years old we moved to live in Delft. With time my family grew and I got three sisters and my cousin also joined us when I was in Grade 1 because his mom (my aunt) had passed away.”

At the age of seven, Athi made a new friend, “Toto was five years older than me and we lived in the same street. He was kind of the leader in the area, I thought he was fun and I was thrilled with all the dangerous things we did together.”

Athi, Toto and three other boys became a group of friends, “we were five and I was the youngest by far. We always spent Friday evenings and weekends together. We would have “hard missions” as we used to call them and we would end our days swimming in a dump in the middle of construction sites.”

When Athi was 10, Toto persuaded him about a new adventure, “Toto told me that he had found a place in Delft where people were keeping a lot of birds (pigeons) in cages. He told me that we should go to the place and steal some of the birds.”

“I had never stolen in my life but I was fascinated by birds. To think that I would finally have a pet was an exciting idea, I had always wanted to care for an animal, so I agreed to join him.”

Toto recommended that they wait until it was dark then they would walk to the house to start their mission, “I told Toto that we could not go too late because I needed to be back home before 20.00 pm. If I was late my father would punish me. We agreed that I was going to be the one to get the birds and he would watch if someone was coming and alert me by calling out the word ‘salt.’ We had heard that this was the way grown ups did it.”

“The cage was blocked with two big stones and a zinc door, I removed everything carefully and slowly I took out five pigeons. We held them on their legs and we ran back home. I remember my heart beating strongly and the feeling of excitement when we arrived home. At home we had a small empty shack in the backyard so we kept the birds there until the following day.”

That night Athi could hardly sleep, he was ecstatic about his new birds, “Toto arrived the following morning and he told me, we should bring the birds to his house. I remember bouncing all the way to his house, when we arrived our other three friends were waiting.”

It took sometime before Athi realized what his friends’ plans were, “Toto had invited everyone to a braai. I was shocked they wanted to kill all the birds, I tried to negotiate to keep some of them alive but Toto insisted we should eat them all because there were many more birds where those had come from.”

“Toto killed the birds, I remember feeling sad initially but soon I joined the group party, after all I did not want to look like an outsider. They were so happy for the braai and we all enjoyed the taste of the birds.”

Toto was clear that they should go and steal more birds in the evening, so as a group they decided to inspect the birds’ house during the afternoon. “The poor people were still calling the birds, we left the cage open the previous night and all the birds flew away but because they were trained pigeons, they kept coming back home.”

“Toto was so confident that I felt the same too, we followed the same plan that night and we got five more birds.”

During the next braai the following day, Toto’s mom addressed the group, “she told us that she knew what we were doing. She also said that if they caught us they would not do anything to me because I was to small but they would beat her son badly. Her words gave me even more courage, the fear of ‘what if’ disappeared, I trusted in her words and I knew I would be OK no matter what.”

“We decided to go again that evening but this time I almost took the lead. I told Toto that I wanted to get the white pigeons because before I had targeted the grey ones. I was wondering if they tasted better because the white ones were more beautiful. He also suggested I take some eggs, so the plan was set.”

“When I got to the cage I was relaxed and took my time getting the white pigeons, when I finally had them and turned back to give them to Toto, he was no where to be found. For a few seconds I thought he was joking but soon I realized something was wrong. I dropped the birds and I started running as fast as I could but shortly I heard people running after me.”

Two Afrikaans speaking guys chased Athi, “I ran so fast but they caught me even faster. They kicked my feet and I fell down with my face in the sand. They continued kicking me and punching me non-stop, they were so angry. At that time I couldn’t speak a word of English or Afrikaans, so I kept screaming Toto, Toto, hoping that my friend would come and help me. I think they thought Toto was the word for help in my own language.”

“When they stopped beating me up, I ran all the way home crying. I remember Toto being in the corner of my street waiting for me, when he saw me he started laughing. I was very angry but I still accepted his advice, he told me to jump into a neighbors’ house and wash myself on their tap in order that my family did not find out. I did it and my family never found out what happened.”

The following day Toto tried to convince Athi that they were on the right track, “he told me that we had learned a lesson, we should not go back to the same place again and again because we would get caught easily. We need to find different houses with birds and strategically target them.”

“I remember being all bruised and in pain listening to his new plan. At that moment I made a decision that Toto was not a friend and that I was going to stop spending time with him.

This year, Athi is in Grade 11, and he is working hard to get to University, his former friend Toto dropped-out of school a few years ago.

Athi concludes by saying, “Today, I deeply believe in the saying, ‘show me who your friends are and I will show you where you will end up.’ I know that if I had continued hanging around with Toto, our petty crimes would have soon become bigger crimes. When you surround yourself with negativity you turn negative. So choose your friends carefully.”

Athi is a Leaders’ Quest participant, an intervention offered by Salesian Life Choices.

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