The sudden and violent death of a family member in front of her house taught Cleo a life lesson.
Cleo Daniels (16) was born in Cape Town. She lived in Grassy Park with both her parents and two elder siblings – one sister and one brother (12 and 6 years older, respectively) – until she was 2 years old before the family moved to Parkwood, where they still live today.
“Our family has always been together. I can’t say my mommy and daddy seem happy, they argue about everything, even about divorce. My mom works at Pick n Pay as a packer and my dad works at the navy. He works in Simons Town and each day he takes the train and taxi – there and back.”
The family has not gone hungry, though growing up, Cleo describes her family life as always being emotionally charged.
“We always had food, but my parents often argued about money. It’s just that my dad gives little money. He gambles and drinks a lot. So, they argue and obviously fight. He used to abuse my mom physically and verbally. When I was small, my brother and I used to run in the room and I would cry because I could do nothing about it. It used to make me feel very sad.”
The arrival of her younger brother was a blessing in her life.
“I was 6 years old and I did not have friends because I spent my days at home. My playmate was a cat, so when my mom told me that she was going to have a baby I got so excited. At that time, I did not know how babies were made, so every time my mom returned home from a clinic appointment I would run to look inside her bag. I was convinced that one day my baby brother would be in there.
“When Ezra was born he did not disappoint, I couldn’t get enough of him. We were very close, he was my best friend. As he grew up, he was a lot of fun – always making jokes. We would play together a lot. Every Saturday morning we would play this game, running through the rooms, jumping into the beds with the dog chasing us. Every Saturday and Sunday night we would have our movie night with our ma (grandmother).
“We loved each other and we had fun together. In the mall, I always needed to run after him because he couldn’t stand still. I used to tell him, ‘When you grow up I will buy you a bike’.”
At primary school, Cleo was a quiet girl, which made her a target.
“I was shy and quiet, a typical, nice girl who was too afraid to stand up for herself. I was always kept inside, so I was not used to interacting with lots of people. I used to get bullied at school. There was this one girl who used to hit me. She would smack me and I would do nothing about it or she would punch me and I would say to my parents that I ran into the pole when my parents asked what had happened. She was in my class and she used to be my friend, I am not sure why she did it. I was just that soft girl who everyone bullies. There was this one boy who used to hit me on the road for no reason. He would punch me or smack me or kick me out of the blue. He would come out of his home and hit for no reason. Only my baby brother knew something was wrong and used to comfort me.
“In high school, I learned how to defend myself. I was not going to take any nonsense from anyone anymore. I got into a few fights. Once I fought with this girl and the experience made me gain confidence. Even if I lost some fights, I would stand up for myself. After a few times, the bullies left me alone.”
Violence was familiar to Cleo since the Parkwood neighbourhood was a scene of regular and violent gang fights.
“There’s a lot of shooting and gang fights, Parkwood is a dangerous place. I would be standing outside and a whole gang would run past to shoot other members of the gang. I would run inside but I’m not so scared anymore of the shootings, it has become normal now. I always heard people in the neighbourhood talking about how someone got shot in the head or something like that.”
Cleo’s parents insisted she stay indoors most of the time, to avoid her getting caught in the crossfire. They were always vigilant about their children’s safety until one tragic Sunday.
“It was on the 3rd of September and I was 13 years old. It was a normal Sunday afternoon. I think it was around 4 or 5 o’clock. The neighbours were outside and music was playing. We didn’t actually worry about anything. My sister was working and I was watching TV inside. My mother was watching in her room and I was watching in the living room. My dad had come home drunk earlier and he was asleep.
“My brothers were outside the house on the road, Ezra was seven years old and he was playing soccer with his friends and my older brother was watching.
“We didn’t actually hear the gunshot but my older brother came running inside shouting, ‘Ezra got shot and he is laying outside’. At that moment it felt like a dream. It didn’t feel real at all. We ran outside, where everyone was gathering in the road and I saw him lying there in a pool of blood – how could he have bled that fast? I didn’t go close enough to see if his eyes were open but my mommy said his eyes were open and she kept his hand in hers, while he was taking his last breath. I couldn’t go close. I was crying and someone was hugging me. They were scared I was going to faint, I was shouting that he can’t leave and that I need him. My dad was by his side. My mom was holding his hand. She said his eyes opened and he wasn’t focusing on anything. He blinked twice and then he didn’t open his eyes again. He couldn’t speak because he was shot through his neck. This one lady tried to put a cloth by his neck to stop the bleeding but he had bled too much already.
“I didn’t even see who it was, I was pulled inside the house to drink sugar water before I went into shock. My brother was inside the room on his knees crying and praying. I also prayed to God to save him, I said, ‘I will listen to you, I will do anything, I will go to church, please just let him live’.”
Outside, where Ezra lay in a pool of blood, his parents did not leave his side.
“My daddy was crying and my mom didn’t want to leave his body. The ambulance came after a few minutes. They were quick but they couldn’t save him. They covered him with a white cover and they took pictures because it was a crime scene.”
Cleo can’t recall how much time it took for the mortuary van to arrive to remove Ezra’s body from the street, but her mother eventually sat on a chair next to her son’s body until the van did arrive.
“I didn’t see his body being covered or his body being taken away. It was my mom and dad who were there. My sister came home from work when she heard that he had been shot and she came in crying.”
The next few days and weeks are a blur for Cleo.
“The next few days or weeks were hard. I didn’t express myself or let anyone comfort me. I just feel uncomfortable when people say they feel sorry and give me a hug because their hugs are not going to bring him back. I just felt that way. I don’t know why, but I was so angry. I never went for counselling at all, my family went. I just thought I didn’t need it – that I could handle it myself. The worst part was the night that Ezra died when I had to sleep. Because usually he would sleep next to me and I would wrap my arm around him and that night I used a pillow and I cried into the pillow. I heard my parents crying also.
“It was a lot, everyone was talking about Ezra and people would come to visit to say sorry. My mom wouldn’t talk, she would just cry all day. I wouldn’t cry in front of anyone. I would hold my tears in. I felt uncomfortable expressing it. I didn’t want anyone to see me cry. I didn’t go to school for the whole week but my grades were good for that term. I coped because my friends were there for me. They made me laugh and it gave me the chance to forget what happened. For that time, my parents stopped fighting. They would be there to comfort each other. After Ezra’s death, my mom felt like she didn’t want to live anymore. My sister said she must be strong and she can’t be selfish to take her own life because we need her still. At the time things were so dark that I actually thought Ezra was in a better place.”
The bullet that hit Ezra was intended for a gang member who was on the road at the same that time Ezra was playing soccer. It was a drive-by shooting.
A court case followed the shooting, with those accused of shooting Ezra, in the dock. Cleo’s parents attended the court proceedings but Cleo attended court proceedings just once. The perpetrators are all currently in prison.
Despite the pain of her loss, Cleo has come to terms with her little brother’s death.
“At first, I went to church so that I could get to go to heaven to see Ezra one day, but after going more and more it actually assisted me to find peace. It helped me to cope with the pain. As time went by, it didn’t hurt me that much anymore. I am still sad that I will never be able to buy him a bike or see us growing up together, but I know he is good in heaven and that makes me smile.
“I forgave the people who shot Ezra, I didn’t want to hate them for that. I do blame them for killing my baby brother, but I don’t have hate in my heart for them. We are all sinners, so we must forgive one another.
“In the past, I usually wouldn’t care about gang violence, because it didn’t happen to me. When Ezra got shot, I experienced what other people felt when they lost someone they loved. It hits you hard. When they shoot, there are so many innocent people around. Nowadays, when I hear shooting I always pray that all the innocent people are protected. I so wish gang fights could stop.”
The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world has thrown Cleo a curveball like so many others.
“It’s really tough sometimes because you have to stay in the house all day and you always have this fear, like, ‘what if your family members get it?’ I don’t have a fear for me, but my family members go to work and they go places. My mom and my dad are already old and my dad already had problems with his heart and lungs and stuff, so that’s hard for them. I’m always worried about them, but I do find comfort in my prayers. I trust things will be okay.”
While the lockdown regulations have been challenging, Cleo decided to be proactive and joined a community effort to hand out sandwiches to those who need it the most.
“What motivated me to help is that every day I sit in the house and I have nothing to do and here are people who don’t have food. I thought I could help because they are only like three people giving out the bread. We all use masks and keep our distance. It’s really nice to help others and to see their joy when you are giving them food. You can see the relief that at least they have something to eat tonight and food for their children. It warms my heart when they say thank you and smile. You can see they are suffering because they don’t work and bread really helps them. Their smiles motivate me to continue volunteering.”
Cleo is a Leaders’ Quest participant.