Using Pain for Change
Living through the death of a young child is not easy. When that child has been violently ripped away from you, the trauma becomes torturous – unimaginable to those looking in.
Cindy Woodward, 20, born and raised in Ocean View, a community in Cape Town, is the eldest of her two siblings, one brother (15) and a younger sister (7). She has lived most of her life with her grandmother but remains close to her mother.
“I grew up without my dad in my life, I was raised by my mom until the age of five when my grandparents took me in. At that time my mom was not working and it was hard for her to provide for me and my brother. So, my grandparents stepped in to help. I'm still living with my grandmother today.”
Cindy says growing up she experienced challenges, money was scarce at home and her neighbourhood was crippled with violence. Since birth, loss was a norm in her life, from key people absent in her life (e.g. father) to acquaints who lost their lives through violence (e.g. friends). (Since birth, Cindy experienced the loss of several key people in her life through violence, including her father and friends)
“As a teenager, I went through a phase where nothing that anyone said to me mattered much. I would hang out with older friends and would party with them often as I couldn’t find happiness within myself. It was a dark time in my life that allowed me to escape reality for short moments.”
Cindy explains that through her rebellious years, the relationship with her grandmother grew closer. “My grandmother would always call me out for my behaviour, but deep down I knew that when she scolded me, she did it because she loved me. I never told her, but she was my only anchor during that time”.
When Cindy was 17, she met Bradley Robyn, the two fell in love and within two years Cindy was pregnant.
“Knowing I was pregnant at 19 made me nervous because it wasn’t planned. I was scared of not being able to provide for the baby and how my family would take the news. However, I also felt excitement and strength because I was full of love for my baby. She was part of me, and despite my fears of motherhood, deep down I knew that I would be there for her.”
“I had finished school and I was working in a retail shop. I knew my salary was not much but I would make it work.”
Cindy was in labour for 14 hours and says that adjusting to motherhood had its challenges, but she was supported by her boyfriend and her family.
“I will never forget her birth; it was not easy. Becoming a mother was fulfilling yet challenging at times. My little girl had beautiful doughy, loving eyes. The first time I looked at her, love just filled me and the pain of labour went away. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to provide a good life for her. Ocean View is a rough area and I knew, in that moment, that I wanted us to move out so that she could have a good childhood.”
For Cindy, providing for Zahnia became her priority and even though her boyfriend told her that she could stay at home and that he would provide for their little family, she decided to go back to work.
After Zahnia’s birth, Cindy says that her family also became closer. “She brought so much joy to everyone that was around her. She became the reason for family get togethers. Even neighbours would greet and play with her. She was a happy baby and people were drawn to her.”
A closeness between family and community was further solidified following, the events of a humid December afternoon.
“I was in a taxi on my way home from work, excited to see Brad and Zahnia. We had this little tradition that on the days when Brad was not working, he would drive to the bus stop with Zahnia, where they would welcome me and we would go home together.”
“What happened next was all very confusing, we heard shots coming from where Brad and Zahnia were waiting for me. I remember the other people in the taxi didn’t want to go close to the shootings, but I insisted because my baby was there – I just wanted to make sure she was safe. I jumped out of the taxi, and saw my boyfriend pass me in a car. I was confused, so I called out to him. He never heard me. Whilst I stood there one of his friends came over to me and said that Zahnia was shot. Everything gave in, everything dropped to the ground.”
“In the hospital Zahnia fought for her life for four hours. I told her it’s okay, mommy doesn’t want you to suffer but she flat-lined.”
“I later found out my baby had been sitting happily on her father’s lap, waiting for me to return from work. While they were waiting a group of gangsters drove past in a car and opened fire on a rival gangster who was standing close to Brad and Zahnia. Brad tried to shield our baby, but a stray bullet grazed his arm and ripped through Zahnia’s skull. She was laying lifeless ….. still nestled in her father’s arms …… but soaked in red - from the blood pouring from her head.”
“I kept asking ‘why Zahnia?’ why was my happy baby taken away from me? I was shattered and so angry, I wanted those who hurt her to be hurt. I wanted revenge.”
Cindy says that she has found some solitude knowing that Zahnia seemed peaceful in her final moments. “Brad says that while he was holding her, she had a soft smile on her face. “My baby with her fat cheeks, was calm, even with the madness going on around her.”
Since Zahnia's death, Cindy says that the routine of her life has not changed: “Every day I take a taxi down the same road where Zahnia was shot and killed, it’s a daily reminder –it pushes me to want justice for Zahnia.”
Justice in Cindy’s eyes has taken many forms over time.
“In the beginning I wanted revenge, now I want justice and to prevent this from happening to any other child. I don’t sit on my hands, the people in the community have told me to be careful because those who shot Zahnia are dangerous , but I will not be kept quiet through fear. I want the President and the police to take this seriously - to use the law to protect us. I will use my voice so that action is taken.”
Since the shooting, police have arrested one man in connection with the incident. True to her word of not being still, when the accused appeared in court and applied for bail, Cindy ensured that he stayed behind bars.
“I started a petition saying that he is a threat to the community and that he must remain in jail. We collected 600 signatures from the community.”
Cindy says that while the routine of her life has stayed the same, she is not the same person.
“I’m not sure if I would have always been this proactive. But Zahnia’s death has made me take a stand. My daughter will never come back, but I can do things that will hopefully prevent this from happening to other families. I have joined a group called ‘’Mothers For Action’’ - together we support and advise each other. Together we are strong while we honour the lives of the children we have lost. We advocate for change and safer spaces for all children.”
Cindy concludes by saying, “our unsafe communities make us become detached from each other and our violent realities. We are forced to re-connect only through deep trauma. I now know this is not what our reality should be. We deserve to live in safe communities and this can only happen when we all connect (before trauma) and take action.”