Solving gangs one life at a time

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

Before we send the army in to ‘solve’ the crime problem in Cape Town’s troubled townships or appease politicians and nervous shop owners with a police crackdown, we need to remember that we’re targeting a city’s adolescents, who have reason to wreak revenge on an uncaring system. And what they’re acting out are ancient rituals of growing up. There is another way.

By Don Pinnock

Something has been lost, and in losing it we’ve misplaced the tools to understand young people at risk, in trouble with the law and in prison. Let me explain by telling you a story.

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks, he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing around a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him, and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

There are three things about this story. Firstly, you know it’s a story. It has a form, a shape you instinctively understand. Something is going to happen, it has a reason and will have a conclusion.

Secondly, if I were telling you this story, you’d be listening to me, the storyteller. In doing that you’d be affirming me, you listening and me being listened to. The better my story, the more attentively you’d listen, the more affirmation I’d receive.

Thirdly, there’s an underlying message in the story, what I call the meme. Meme is a word created by the biologist Richard Dawkins and is a unit of cultural information. In the way that genes are handed on through propagation, memes can move from one mind to another as tunes, catch-phrases, stories, beliefs, ways of making things or viewing the world. Many ways.

The meme of my story is about the power of affirmation in the recognition of words of a young man. It’s about what we need in order to grow up.

I was in the Transkei because I was trying to substantiate what, for me, was an extraordinary discovery. I’d spent a number of years studying inner-city gang rituals and, along the way, had become fascinated by the meaning of ritual.

Why do we believe in and act out often bizarre rituals? What value do they have?

My research led me to the rituals of traditional Africans, of Native Americans, Inuits, Aborigines, Maoris and other first nation people. And what I found was that many of their ancient rituals around adolescence were being ‘reinvented’ by youths in gangs. By that I mean that the mimetic backstories were identical. They appeared to be instinctive.

Clearly, without history, adult assistance or cultural support, young people in gangs are creating rituals. And out of these ritual – out of doing things in a ritualised way – come stories through which they are becoming adult. But without a formal, respected cultural structure, without the circle of men, the wise women, the adult initiators or anybody to listen and approve, their actions are wild, anti-social and are causing havoc.

It is by these actions that we judge and punish them, because we are failing to understand the memetic of their actions. This suggests that our most effective point of intervention in adolescent deviance is not necessarily punishment, imprisonment, education, conventional life skills or counselling, but at the level of ritual.

I find this very exciting. Ritual in its traditional form is a mimetic story, a story that embodies cultural understandings learnt over thousands of generations. It’s a sheet-anchor against the storm of unprincipled, unsupported adolescence. It’s also something that those who implement the Child Justice Act should realise.

The ordering power of such stories was made clear to me a few months ago when I was travelling among the cluster of tiny islands in northern Madagascar. My daughter and I went by dhow and kayak, camping on tropical beaches and visiting Sakalawa villages.

The belief system among the Sakalawa is animist and based on the notion of fady, or sacredness. Certain trees, rocks and creatures are fady. We often saw trees fenced off and rocks bound with bright ribbons. Lemurs are sacred, which has done wonders for their preservation – there are places where, if you pause, they’ll jump onto your shoulder. Chameleons may not be injured.

There are days – generally Thursdays – which are fady, and no work must be done. It’s fady to hand anyone an egg – it must first be placed on the ground so its life is not detached from the earth.

You may not use a spade with a loose handle, because the earth will then not know the digger.

These people are poor by western standards. They fish from dugout canoes, grow cassava, sweet potatoes and lemon grass, live in houses made of palm fronds and keep a few zebu cattle.

They may have problems but there is no crime. I asked a woman if there were any incidences of child molestation and she looked at me aghast and asked: ‘Do people hurt children?’

They are the happiest people I’ve ever met – their villages ring with laughter – because they all live in terms of – and have a place in – the ritual stories of their culture.

There is much we can learn about the containment of our anarchic adolescent behaviour from more traditional cultures. They prompt us to ask: what is the ritual story in terms of which we live? Who listens to the stories of our children? Where are the wise women and men to whom they need to turn? Who are their heroes? And why are there 160 000 people in our prisons, most of them under 25, who are costing us R10 billion to warehouse?

Let me conclude by suggesting where these ideas lead to in working with young people at risk.

We need to know that adolescent behaviour is deeply ritualised, whether adolescents are embedded in existing rituals or are inventing their own.

We must be aware of the need adolescents have for having a story to tell, for telling it and being acknowledged for doing so. For this reason we must help young people to have lives that generate stories worthy of telling. These are what make their life meaningful.

When we fail to do this (and we are failing), they will create their own stories out of rituals and actions that tear down adult society around them.

We need to realise that all life stories have a mimetic understory. We must listen attentively to what is really being said and meant in all the bragging and posturing, and be sure to know the implications of the stories and rituals we impose.

Our interventions, our programmes, our laws to protect, need to take the first three points into account. We must realise that ritual is not merely the parent of good programming, but the grandparent also. Without it, especially (but not only) working with adolescents, diversion programmes are spiritually empty and will probably fail.

When we put adolescents in prison, we strip away their identity, their self-esteem, and we embed them in rituals of brutality and shame. What probably began as a quest for respect and peer recognition, however aberrant, ends in years of spirit sapping meaningless. And Aids.

A final story. In a television programme about an Educo wilderness experience led by the highly experienced adolescent worker Coleridge Daniels, a group of at-risk young men from damaged backgrounds were asked what they most wished for.

Some wanted to be doctors, or be rich or get a driver’s licence, I forget the details. One of them had been very remote during the whole programme, not saying much. Defensive.

When it came to his turn he thought for a while then said what he wanted was a birthday cake. Everyone looked at him, amazed. Why, they asked, do you want a birthday cake?

He replied: ‘Because I never had one.’

How Coleridge managed it out there in the wilderness I cannot imagine. But the next day the group presented a cake to the young man with a single candle on top.

His story had been heard and acknowledged.

Right there, in front of the camera, his carapace, his protective shell, fell away and he stepped into a new life. Possibly for the first time, he knew what it felt like to be loved.

Dr Don Pinnock is a criminologist and specialist on youth gangs. He was part of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Child and Youth Care and a founder member of Usiko, a rites-of-passage programme for high-risk youths, and Umzi Wethu, a training programme for Aids orphans.

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