We Are What We’ve Seen. We Are Not What We Have Not Seen: From No Father to Know Father – Part 3

The Father Theme has come up yet again. I guess it’s no real surprise living in a country where most fathers are nowhere to be found, and those who stick around are not always the best role models; those facts mixed with the genetically ingrained desire (most especially in young boys) to be like our fathers, please and impress them, receive their praise, and to live lives which are equally as great or better than the lives our fathers have lived. I guess it is a theme that is sure to come up regularly. My recent reminder has come through a young man I will call Mohammad.

Mohammad was one of the first kids I met on the streets of Cape Town when I came here in 1999. He was only nine-years-old at the time and was in a constant state of intoxication, under the influence of one drug or the other, but usually huffing paint thinners as his drug of choice. Mohammad was always so goofed – drooling, slurring his speech, and singing crazy remixes of gospel songs – for the first few months I knew him I actually thought he was retarded. I say that in all seriousness, though we joke about it now. It was only one day, a few months into living here, I saw him sober for the first time; on a Sunday, a day he says the hardware stores are closed making it impossible to buy his thinners. He walked up to me, completely clear-headed and in his right mind. He greeted me with no drool, his words not slurred in the least bit. I was shocked. Knowing Mohammad was not as messed up as he became when under the influence of thinners made it even more difficult to see him in that state from then on out.

Over the years I have seen Mohammad live on and off the streets, in and out of prison, in this organization and that, and with this do-gooder and that. And though he mostly only revealed his best qualities to me, over the years I saw him often allow his worst qualities to trump the better ones in his day-to-day hustle, leading to many bad decisions, followed by many negative consequences. I couldn’t help but realize Mohammad was merely a product of his environment. His parents wanted little to do with him from an early age, and his biggest role model was his grandfather, a renowned gangster and drug dealer who ruled one of the areas of the Cape Flats. Mohammad began using drugs from the age of seven, around the same age saw his own brother shoot his own cousin in a gang related dispute, and learned to shoot people himself around that same tender age.

It was around that time he began running to the streets of downtown Cape Town. Mohammad was the epitome of a grown man in a ten-year-old’s body; seeing, experiencing and doing things way beyond his years. Though it was easy for me and others to forget sometimes, Mohammad was still just a kid. My heart broke for him time and time again. But he has recently made decisions to change his life; something that looks similar to paddling up stream with no paddle, in a canoe with a bunch of holes in it, with the undesirable bag of behaviors and past hurts weighing heavy like an anchor, constantly tugging on him and holding him back. But the reason he made the resolution to change was not so much for him, but for his new born (at the time) son, birthed by his girlfriend of many years.

Mohammad’s son was born right before his last, fairly long, visit to jail. It was within those prison walls he decided he had to be a father to his son, and instead of etching a gang tattoo on his body he tattooed his son’s name, as a forever reminder and inspiration of the life he wanted to live and the person he wanted to be. Since his release in December 2008 he has tried, as hard as he knows how to, to be a respectable man, a supportive partner, and a good father. This year of trial and error has led to great victories and massive failures, but, at least, early this month as his son turned two, a week before Mohammad turned twenty, he had stable employment and had still not seen the inside of a prison cell again.

A few weeks back I received a call from a lady who runs an NGO Mohammad and his girlfriend are involved with. The lady was worried that Mohammad was “spiraling out of control”, after a drunken “performance” at a benefit event, where he embarrassed himself and the project in front of the board of directors and other guests. She asked me to speak with him, and though I spoke to him on the phone I did not get a chance to see him, or sit and chat face-to-face. About three weeks ago the lady called again to say on that Tuesday night Mohammad had gone out and gotten drunk, and when he returned home he got into a fight with his girlfriend; a fight which led to violence. The lady was forced to kick him out of the project and his girlfriend said she did not want to see him again, also making threats that he would not get to see his child again. He came to stay with me on that Wednesday night.

When he first arrived at my house he was broken, remorseful, angry and confused; at him self, others and pretty much the hand life had dealt him. I spoke to him about, or rather listened mostly to, his situation and as he spoke I was struck with the realization that trying to be a good father and a loving partner, for someone who has not seen or experienced a father in his own life nor a healthy relationship, can be about as difficult, if not seemingly impossible, as me trying to pick up a novel written in brail and begin reading away; I would run my fingers over the tiny little bumps, becoming frustrated I was not picking up any information from them. It would not take long before I gave up that undertaking. Though I could see Mohammad felt greatly overwhelmed by everything, I also saw a resolve in him to make things “right” and be the person, father and partner he dreams of being.

The lady from the organization and Mohammad decided he needed a month of what they called his “rehabilitation”, and they decided it was best for him to serve his time at my house. This was all right with me. If he made serious changes the lady would allow him back into the organization. Over the last few weeks Mohammad has stayed with me I have seen how dedicated he is to change; some days it seems he is the tiny David up against the enormous, ugly Goliath, whilst other days he seems like the victorious, passionate William Wallace as he takes on this battle. But over these few weeks, and through many conversations, I noticed that Mohammad is not fighting a battle, but rather a collective of battles, both past and present, with his unhealed battle wounds from the past severely affecting his ability to gain victory in the raging war at large. But each and every day, with each and every positive choice he makes, and with each and every positive word spoken over him washing over him like refreshing waters, Mohammad is strengthened and his resolve becomes greater.

Mohammad and his girlfriend have made amends and he visits them every afternoon after work, before he takes the train commute to my house. Things are good and getting better, but still not perfect, and they never will be. As positive as Mohammad feels now, the realization of the amount of work it takes to be the person he wants to be is again and again sobering for him. But that very sobriety is what he needs to work out all the things he has seen, experienced and done. His environment has shaped him and his undesirable behavior is merely a reflection of the men and fathers, or lack there of, he grew up around. He simply became what he saw, but now wishes to be something totally different. So now he has to continue to fight, figuring out how to be something he has never seen, with only the example of what he does not want to be to guide him on his journey. I pat him on the back for the strides he has taken so far!

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3 Responses to We Are What We’ve Seen. We Are Not What We Have Not Seen: From No Father to Know Father – Part 3

  1. Marie Thompson says:

    Wow! He is so blessed to have you for his friend. You do a good job of understanding and describing his dilemma. Wonder if he would believe that there are so many people all over the world that share his problem? At least, let him know that there are people that admire his courage and tenacity!

  2. Tattoos are like stories – they’re symbolic of the important moments in your life. Sitting down, talking about where you got each tattoo and what it symbolizes, is really beautiful.

  3. Krista says:

    “He simply became what he saw, but now wishes to be something totally different.”

    I think this sentence is almost a perfect explanation of your conversations on skin color with your neighbor. I think Carl is a product of his environment and based on what he seeing, he’s definitely making a values assumption based on skin color. Unfortunate….but then I wonder what other role models does he have that reinforce that black men are strong, civil, educated, law abiding, civically responsible men. If he’s exposed to that on a consistent basis and exposed to life outside of where he lives….he may not consider black skin to be ugly….but he has to be shown that.

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