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Nightmare at the Spur
Lost Child-every parents nightmare
It was at first just another pleasant outing with the kids before the nightmare began. I stood looking into the play area in absolute horror. My legs went weak and my heart cold. My mind screamed “No, it cannot be happening!” My five year old daughter Jenny was crying, the two young girls who took care of the children was staring at me in a mixture of shock and disbelief. What could have happened to my youngest girl, Sally? My emotions crashed around in my brain. Surely this was a safe place for my children? Where could she have disappeared to? What was I going to tell my wife? The questions kept rushing at me like a train out of control.
Every Saturday I took our daughters, Jenny and Sally to the local Spur where I watched the featured Super 15 rugby match and enjoyed the “Breakfast Special” and a couple of cups of coffee. During this time Joan slept in and then did some work around the house or simply relaxed, enjoying a break from the two lively little girls.
The play area was a safe, enclosed place where the girls played on the slides, climbing wall, rocking horse and other equipment. They were beginning to get to know, if only on a casual basis, the other children who were also regular Saturday Spur visitors. Young Koliswa and her helper Mary kept a careful eye on the group of children playing there and I occasionally popped in to see that everything was okay. Nothing bad could possibly happen there! How wrong that proved to be!
The search had been chaotic. The manager and staff had suspended serving and everyone seemed to be dashing in different directions when it became obvious that the two and a half year old Sally had simply disappeared. The other customers were questioned but had seen nothing. No one had noticed her leaving the play enclosure. In any case the children moved freely in and out to go to the toilet or to where their parents were sitting in the large dining area and so no one paid any attention to them as they came and went. Koliswa and Mary, who were responsible for order and safety in the play area, had been busy as usual watching that no one did anything dangerous. The notice stating that the play area was for use of Spur customers only and that the management took no responsibility for any injuries…. etc. was the standard one. The warning in the climbing and slide area, that no children should use it without parental supervision, was loosely enforced. There were no entrances to the play area other than through the eating area and there everyone had been either working or enjoying a relaxed breakfast.
The manager had called the police and several of the staff had been dispersed up and down the road outside to look for a little blond girl with a ponytail and a red dress. Some families were sitting around in shock and suddenly took close control of their children, their breakfasts uneaten. I had phoned my wife Joan immediately and got the response I had expected. “You must be joking? No you are not! How could you let it happen? I am on my way. Have you called the police?” I could not even begin to think how distressed and angry she would be, even though similar feelings were rushing through my own body.
The feeling of helplessness grew by the minute and as we eventually returned to our home they were way beyond description. Sick to the stomach and feeling lightheaded, despair, anger and confusion all boiled in our minds and hearts and affected our thinking. Jenny clung to Joan and Joan clung to Jenny, as if they would never let go. Joan occasionally stared at me with a look mixed between hate and amazement that cried out without a word, “How could you be so irresponsible? It is your fault!” I could not deny the same feelings that attacked my being. What do you say when a child simply disappears on your watch? What possible excuses could you give to justify your own confusion, carelessness and disappointment?
The police had questioned everyone including the five-year old Jenny, who surely must have noticed where her little sister had gone, but at present no one was any the wiser. My feeling was that the local police were way out of their comfort zone. I was assured that someone, who was an expert in this area, would be sent to our home in Walmer as soon as possible. Nothing quite like this had, to their knowledge, ever happened in the Port Elizabeth area. Usually when a child disappeared is was the result of custody disputes. The terrible possibility of abduction for “muti” was in the minds of many, but no one expressed these thoughts out loud. In nearby tribal areas, animals and people were sometimes used by traditional healers for medicinal purposes, but somehow this did not seem to fit the picture. In fact nothing seemed to fit the picture.
Joan and I were just a young couple living in a relatively quiet suburb in the port city of Port Elizabeth, enjoying our lives and our children. We were not rich and so the idea of a kidnapping for ransom seemed far away, until we received the phone call on Jenny’s cell phone.
“We have your daughter and if you want her back alive you need to pay us R200 000 by Wednesday. Don’t mention this call to the police or you can say goodbye to Sally. She wants her yellow blanket with the fairy pictures. Get the money in used notes ready by Wednesday and we will call you with details”.
The Police had tapped our home phone in case of a ransom call and the message on the cell phone was recorded thanks to a link they had set up in our home. The voice was European with a foreign accent. Jenny collapsed into the sitting room chair and started crying again, something that she had done almost continuously since Sunday morning. It was now Monday at 10h00 and we had spent the worst 24 hours imaginable.
The Monday morning newspaper had reported Sally’s disappearance and the police locally and nationally were on full alert. An expert, Inspector Graham, had flown down from Johannesburg on the early morning flight to advise the local C.I.D. and every possible lead was being followed up. It was however the second phone call that really challenged our thinking.
“I read about your little girl and I can help you find her,” the male African accent proclaimed. “ You will need to meet with us so that we can help you to get in touch with the spirits of the ancestors who will be able to guide you on how to get her back. Bring R4000 to my house in Kwazikela - number 25, Zingzi Manza Street, by this afternoon.
We turned to Inspector Graham with wide eyes and questions in our minds. “What in the world is going on here?” I expressed our thinking. He did not answer immediately but simply shook his head. After what seemed like an age he said; “There are several possibilities in this scenario and I will have to think about them”. After some time he outlined what he believed, while at the same time admitting that this was the first time in his experience that something like this had happened. Obviously the fact that someone knew Joan’s phone number on her cell pointed to someone who knew us. Our home number was easily available in the local phone book. We seemed to go around in circles as we tried desperately to make some sense of it all.
“Possibly this African male is simply an opportunist who thinks he can make a quick buck out of the situation or else he could be part of the whole scene.” He seemed to state the obvious. “I don’t believe in the spirit world and the ability of Sangomas to communicate with it, but some people estimate that at least 60% of the black population of South Africa does”, he continued. “This however presents a new slant to the investigation and possible solution to the case. The question is how do we follow up this lead if it is a lead at all?” The grey headed Inspector was deep in thought as he pondered his own questions.
Something clicked in my brain and heart that told me we need to believe in this unknown man to help us. It went beyond everything I, as a Western Christian, believed. Perhaps it was a combination of tiredness and desperation that lead to this new found faith. “What if he really can help us?” I surprised even myself as I spoke the words. Joan and Graham looked at me in joint amazement, but as I stared back I saw in their eyes a change taking place- “what if he could?”
The journey into the back streets of Kwazikela was one that not many white South Africans had made and my grey Toyota Cressida with a white driver seemed very much out place. In the streets youngsters played a game of cricket with a log as the wickets, a tennis ball, and a plank as the bat. The wickets were moved aside to allow me to pass as I searched for number 25.
John Nkozi met me at the rusty gate to his yard. I had insisted on coming alone on this quest and so when the tall black man looked up the road he saw only the children playing cricket. “I am glad you came” he said, “let us go inside.” After we introduced ourselves I said with feelings of doubt on full alert, marching at double pace, “I believe you can help me.” “The spirits of our ancestors are powerful indeed and we need to listen to them,” he replied. “My mother has been in contact with them. This ability is a gift she inherited from her mother and has proved to be very useful for many. She believes she can help you. We read in the newspaper what had happened.”
We entered a small room situated in the back yard of number 25 Zingzi Manza Street. On the floor sat a woman who looked at least 100 years old. In front of her on the floor, were an Impala Skin and a small heap of bones and stones. The only light was a couple of candles along the wall of the room, “I greet you my son,”’ she welcomed me and waved me to sit down facing her. She lifted her wrinkled right hand to dismiss John and he duly left us alone.
“You have brought the money?” she looked at me intently with a piercing gaze. I nodded and placed an envelope on the edge of the animal skin. She leant forward and moved it to her left. I had wanted to ask her about the money but before I could say anything she said; “That is to appease the ancestors. There is so much poverty in this area and it will be put to good use.”
“Close your eyes my son and think about your little girl,” she commanded. I smelt incense burning and heard the woman chant what sounded like a prayer in a language that I could not understand. I wished that I had learnt the Xhosa language while growing up, but like most white South Africans I could only speak and understand English and Afrikaans. Unfortunately I knew only a few basic words in Xhosa. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes she broke the silence during which time I felt as if I was floating. “You may open your eyes.” She spoke in good English. Picking up the objects in front of her in her wizened hands, she again chanted a few sentences and then emptied them onto the Impala skin in front of her. Staring at them for several minutes in the semi-darkness she seemed to be talking to herself. Then she looked up at me and said in a low voice, “The spirits have spoken and I have good news for you; your little one is safe and you can find her on the Summerstrand Beach if you go there now.”
Could this be true? Surely not! “You can go now” she repeated, “and God Bless you and your family.” The old woman dismissed me and again waved her hand towards the door. It took me about 20 minutes to drive from number 25, Zingzi Manza Street to the beach front along the Port Elizabeth Esplanade. On the way my heart beat loudly in my chest.
I knew that this information from the Sangoma could of course not be true and so I had wasted R4000 on a wild goose chase, but somehow I held on to a glimmer of hope. At the same time I realized that in fact this was crazy. As I parked in the parking area and got out of my car I saw a few people walking along the beach while others were in the water in the designated swimming area. A family with small children was building a sand castle that looked like a dinosaur. No sign of my little Sally. Why had I wasted my time in this way? Did I really believe in this nonsense?
Suddenly my heart leapt with hope and joy as I saw a little girl in a red dress running along the sand that almost looked as if she could be Sally. “Daddy,” I heard her cry and she flew into my arms as I felt a joy and relief that was unbelievable, tears running down my and her cheeks.
“I found her!” I called out over the phone to Joan. The happiest words I have ever uttered! “We are on our way home!” The journey into Walmer and the reunion with Sally and Joan and Jenny was filled with a mixture of tears and laughter. Inspector Graham could not believe his eyes and couldn’t wait to hear what had happened.
He and the local C.I.D. investigated the story of John and his mother who kept with their account that they had received a message from the spirit world. They also tried to understand the story that little Sally gave them of how she got lost, where she had been, and who had looked after her. Unfortunately coming from someone so young it was all rather vague. “We played on the carpet in a small house and I could hear the waves,” gave them little to go by. “We rode in a van like Uncle Charlie’s, but not the same,” added little to the picture. “The lady found me at the play place and we walked out to the van”. The question “why did you go with her?” Simply brought a shrug of the shoulders and some more tears.
As a two and a half year old she had trouble remembering exactly what had happened to her and she had trouble giving a clear account of the events of the past day and a half. She had been very frightened when she could not find her Mom or Dad or sister and had cried a lot, but no one had hurt her or treated her badly. She slept on a mattress on the floor. The people who had looked after her had been a white man and woman, and exactly how she had got lost at the Steers remained a mystery. They had taken her to the beach in their van and left her there just before she found her dad. Times were impossible for her to relate to, but she knew there had been a night time.
The police suspected that it was a team working together, but in spite of an intensive search for a connection between John Nkozi, his mother and the white couple, they could find no evidence that the white people even existing, except from the description by Sally. To kidnap a child for R4000 was too ridiculous to believe, even in South Africa, and why had the demand for R200 000 been made and then apparently abandoned. Did the white couple get cold feet and abandon their attempt? It remains a mystery to this day and so we really have no idea what had really been going on.
The R4000 that I had paid to the Sangoma was in my mind a great investment and somehow I do not believe that they were part of a kidnapping team. How then did they know where to find Sally? Did they know the mysterious couple or did the spirits actually communicate with John’s mother? This goes against my belief as a rational person, but then do we really know everything about our world and especially the powers that exist in the spiritual side of our beings? About 60% of the African people in South Africa would have had no problem in explaining at least some of the mystery that started at Steers and ended on the beach front. For the rest of us it will remain one of those unexplained events.