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Ode to June 16th: The Blood Cries Out

I was still in my mother's womb when those smoking guns went off. I was three gestational months old when school uniforms fell like ragdolls on the cold, dusty streets of Soweto. While I was still being knit together in the safety of my mother's womb, the blood of those precious children was poured out onto the South African soil which shook with the terror of young hearts and young feet running for their lives.

Living in Soweto, I could always feel June 16th was near long before it approached on the calendar. For two weeks before, the atmosphere changes. It becomes thick with the broken dreams and broken promises of which the memory of June 16th testifies. The air becomes pregnant with unspoken grief, unspoken losses, unspoken and unwept tears, mourning the losses themselves and the utter vanity they appear to have been. The air is thick with grief. Grief as heavy as the 'hippos' that patrolled the streets. It sits like the great big boot of the Apartheid police standing on our chests. It is so thick that the soil itself feels to be grieving the monumental loss of it's playmates of yester-year.

So much unspoken, but yet understood, somewhere deep beyond the forefront of conscious thought. There it sits. The blood that was spilled. Etches its mark in the walls of our souls as we go about our days.

There it sits.

Crying out.

You know they say cells have memory. Medical experts say that memories of traumatic events are stored in the cells of our bodies and the emotions of those traumas are stored in our organs. Deep in our subconsciense, the trauma still plays like a muted video on repeat across the wallpaper of our lives, and suddenly becomes loud when the anniversary approaches. Our bodies remember even when our minds don't.

I used to manage a Residential Treatment Center for Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) children. We had twelve girls in my unit. Each of them had their own file telling the horrific details of the abuse and trauma they'd suffered. Whenever one of them began acting out violently or became emotionally volatile for multiple days, we always knew. We always knew something was on the near horizon; an anniversary. I would check their file and, sure enough, an anniversary of trauma was fast approaching. Maybe the day they were abandoned. Maybe the day they watched their parent killed. Maybe the day they were brutally raped.

The girls never consciously remembered the date. But their bodies did. Waves of rage and despair would wash over them for many days and, like clockwork, they'd wake up the morning after and be back to themselves again. Their cells remembered the trauma; their organs felt the emotion. Their minds didn't realize the what or the why.

So here, in the belly of Soweto, the community remembers... even when it doesn't know it's remembering.

And the blood cries out from the ground.

If only the blood spilled on that grief-stricken soil had born plants bearing the fruit of their struggle. If only that blood soaked soil had been able to grow the trees of equality, the branches of freedom, and the leaves of liberation.

It has not.

And so the blood still cries out from the ground.

The mustard seeds of faithful activism in the optimistic children of '76 hoped their march would be the water that bore such trees.

It did not.

We want to memorialize and romanticize Hector Peterson, whose poor broken body has become the face of '76, while ignoring the millions of Hector Peterson's growing up right now in Soweto, Umlazi, Alexandra, Khayalitsha.

It is much easier to memorialize a dead child than to empower a living one. It is much easier to romanticize the martyrs of the past than to pay our own dues and fight for the equality of those who are alive today.

The only difference between Hector Peterson and any other little boy you'll find today on the streets of Soweto is that he died. He was murdered in cold blood. Why does it take his spilled blood for anyone to notice. Why? Because it's easier to memorialize a dead child than to empower a living one.

And their blood cries out. And the ground grieves. The land mourns and the soil remembers.

Just like the cells of our bodies, the very land remembers and grieves. The streets of South Africa and the soil of Soweto remember the day it received that blood. The blood of young, hopeful school children, hoping to water those seeds of faithful activism and yet not knowing that the only water poured out that day would be their own blood. Not knowing that even their precious blood would still not grow the trees of equality for which they marched and died. Not knowing that the soul of the future of this nation would be spilled carelessly, wrecklessly, heartlessly all over the pavement on that fateful day.

And their blood cries out from the ground.

They gave their education, their safety, their futures, their health, their children, their mothers and fathers, their sanity, their blood... they gave their very lives. And we just keep taking. We take their memory, their legacy, their hard-sought-after hopes of a better future, and we use it for our own benefit. We use it to pacify our own call to pick up the staff they laid down in their deaths or disappearance or insanity. We use it as an excuse to show we care, to show we're doing something. We use it to grow our business, gain a hearing, feign solidarity with the mission for which they were prepared to die.

Even from the grave they keep giving, and we keep taking.

And their blood still cries out from the ground.

* Written after spending the day with two survivors, one of whom was the lone survivor among her group of playmates that day.


The armoured vehicles - nicknamed "hippos" - that patrolled Soweto (and all townships) during Apartheid. Most kids growing up in Soweto did not know that police 'cars' even existed. This is the only type of police vehicle they knew.

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