James and Henrike at Hillbrow Boxing Club

Remembering Henrike

Warning: This post contains graphic language.

Three days ago there was a terrorist attack in Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), in a resort town called Grand Bassam not far from the capital city of Abidjan. About 16 people were killed, plus the six gunmen who were reportedly affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

My friend Henrike Grohs was one of the people killed.

henrike and jamesHenrike boxing with James Ike, one of our coaches at the Hillbrow Boxing Club, in March 2013.

I hadn’t spoken with Henrike in several months, which I regret. Henrike moved from Johannesburg to Abidjan in January 2014, and during that time I only saw her sporadically when she passed through town for meetings. She was here a few weeks ago and stopped in for a training session at the Hillbrow Boxing Club, which she often did when she was in Joburg. But I was away in Turkey so I missed her.

Henrike was from Germany but moved from Berlin to Joburg in 2009 for a position with the Goethe-Institut Südafrika, where she was in charge of culture and development. She later moved to Abidjan to become the director of the Goethe-Institut there.

It’s hard not to sound cliché at a time like this. But the first sentence that comes to mind when I think of Henrike is: She loved life. Henrike loved art. She loved music. She loved people. She loved laughing. I can hear her deep, throaty laugh inside my head right now. Henrike loved boxing. She discovered the Hillbrow Boxing Club long before I did, and was one of the most beloved members there.

George Khosi and Henrike GrohsHenrike with Coach George Khosi at a boxing tournament in Hillbrow, December 2012.

Henrike was a creative trailblazer. She connected with Joburg’s most promising artists and musicians, organizing exhibitions and performances with them. Many of Henrike’s events took place deep in the Joburg CBD — places like Joubert Park and the Drill Hall — where most Joburgers were afraid to go. Henrike changed that. She sought out talented, creative, young African artists who needed a platform and gave them the platforms they needed. Henrike worked hard and she made a difference in the most passionate, most brilliant of ways. She loved her work. She loved Africa. She loved life.

Henrike and BCUCHenrike (left) and Lungi (right), with BCUC, our favorite Joburg band. Henrike loved BCUC and hired them to perform at her Joburg going-away party in December 2013. I have many memories of dancing like a maniac with Henrike at BCUC performances.

I wish I could explain this better, but Henrike was exceptional. She subtly, humbly made Joburg, and Abidjan, and the entire world a better place. Now that she’s gone I realize that I’m a better person for having known Henrike, and I’m certain that there are many other people who will think the same thing as they read this.

I remember having breakfast with Henrike and our friend Ruth a couple of months after Henrike had moved to Abidjan, when she was back in Joburg for a conference. She missed Joburg but was so excited about her new life in Côte d’Ivoire. She spoke about Ivorian culture, about the beautiful beaches and the interesting people and the vibrant night life. She encouraged me to organize a blogger trip to Abidjan — South African Airways had just introduced a new direct flight — and we talked about all the fun things we could do there. I was super excited about the idea but even though Henrike followed up with me later, I never got around to it. Damn, damn, damn.

Henrike, Ruth and Heather at Joburg PrideHenrike (left) with Ruth and me at Joburg Pride 2012. I think Henrike was trying to pretend like she didn’t know us. We had a great time that day.

I’ve read a few confusing news stories and a third-hand account from someone who was with Henrike on that hotel beach on the day of the attack. The details are unclear, but I do know one thing: Henrike’s killing — her murder — was cruel and brutal and gruesome. She didn’t have the luxury of a quick, painless death. Her attackers shot her a few times, left her, then came back and shot her again. She didn’t die immediately; she was conscious and she was in pain and she probably knew she was dying. Now she’s gone.

No living being on this earth deserves to die this way. But especially not Henrike. Not Henrike. No one deserved this less than Henrike.

Henrike’s death was bullshit, and I feel so angry and distraught and sad. I hate those assholes who killed her. I don’t understand the war they’re fighting against who-knows-what, killing beautiful, exceptional people like Henrike and so many others, all over the world.

Henrike’s father passed away several months ago after a long illness. If nothing else, I’m glad Henrike’s father wasn’t on this earth to experience the pain of his daughter’s senseless death.

I wish there was a petition I could sign, a government I could protest against, a donation I could make to try to stop this madness, to make myself feel better about losing Henrike — to make myself believe that her death wasn’t a waste. But I don’t think there is any such thing.

Before Henrike moved to Abidjan she sold me her little car, a tiny Hyundai that Ray calls “the biscuit tin” because his legs are too long to fit behind the steering wheel. When I picked up the car from Henrike, it had three magnetic stickers on the side that read “Change Lane Egoli”. (Egoli is a Zulu term for Johannesburg. It means “place of gold”.) The stickers were leftover from a Goethe-Institut project called “Taxi Poetry”, in which local poets put poems on the sides of Joburg minibus taxis.

Henrike and Heather's car at Golden Gate National ParkA picture of Henrike’s little Hyundai in the Golden Gate National Park, shortly after I bought it from her in December 2013.

The stickers are still there today, minus the “Lane” sticker, which fell off or got stolen last year. Car guards and parking attendants always notice the stickers, read them aloud and smile. “Change Egoli!” they always exclaim. “What does that mean?”

I never had a good answer, but now I do. “It’s a tribute to my friend,” I’ll tell them.

I’m going to call my car Henrike from now on, and I plan to drive it forever.

There will be a memorial service for Henrike this Friday, 18 March, at 2:00 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg (119 Jan Smuts Avenue). 

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  • Reply Timmee March 16, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    Beautiful tribute, Heather. I’m very sad for your loss. We are here with you.

    • Reply 2summers March 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks Timmee.

  • Reply violetonlineisonline March 16, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Oh Heather, I am so so sorry. A beautiful tribute.

    • Reply 2summers March 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      Thank you. It really sucks.

  • Reply Gail March 16, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Beautiful Heather and once again so sorry for your loss.

    • Reply 2summers March 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks Gail, much appreciated.

  • Reply catherine March 16, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    such senseless violence, I had just finished reading about your friend in a french newspaper…one wonders when it will end, all those innocent lives taken away….feeling distraught and disgusted and mad.

  • Reply autumnashbough March 16, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    A heartfelt and honest tribute. And I’m with you, such a stupid waste, leaving us to make sense out of the senseless. It makes me want to rage, or just to throw up my hands and scream, “There’s no hope for humanity!”

    Gonna go hug my dog and cat. Hope MC gives you lots of purrs and head buntings.

    • Reply 2summers March 16, 2016 at 10:14 pm

      Thanks Autumn. It is hard to have hope for humanity at times like this. Luckily the MC is right here at the foot of the bed.

  • Reply Sine March 16, 2016 at 10:52 pm

    Oh. My. God. I am so shaken by this. I didn’t know Henrike, a fellow German, but after reading this, I feel that I did, at least a little bit. Thank you for sharing this tribute, even though it makes me incredibly sad. Yes, it is senseless, and feels even more so when we know the people who senselessly get killed this way.

    • Reply 2summers March 16, 2016 at 10:55 pm

      Thanks Sine. It’s times like this that I’m really glad I have a blog. Henrike was such a wonderful person and her death makes me feel so helpless, but at least I can get some of my feelings out here and talk about her to others who didn’t have the privilege of knowing her when she was alive.

  • Reply Mr Bunny Chow March 16, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    That’s a beautiful obituary to your friend, the world is truly a sad place and more so because of senseless acts of violence like this.

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Yep, this is true. There’s really no bright side to see in a situation like this.

  • Reply Brenda March 17, 2016 at 1:06 am

    Thank you for these words and for painting a portrait of someone I wish I had known. We hear so much about people who seem only to live for themselves and what they can acquire, that it strikes deep to hear about someone who loves people and Africa and is willing to work towards a better world. In my small way, I grieve with you.

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:23 pm

      Thanks very much, Brenda. I appreciate the comment.

  • Reply mvschulze March 17, 2016 at 2:26 am

    I will tell of this terrible loss to people I know, and share as so many, many good people do, the anguish that such unspeakable deeds leave us with. How can any human justify such a selfish, god forsaken act as taking the lives of innocents. Heartfelt condolences for your loss … of your special friend and humanitarian. Marty

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks very much, Marty, for this and all of your comments. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

  • Reply Carter Carpin March 17, 2016 at 4:10 am

    A beautiful tribute to your lovely friend. So sorry for this senseless tragedy Heather. I am sorry for Henrike, for you, her friends, her family and for her community. It will never make sense and all you can do is live with her in your heart. May her spirit, passion and her laugh forever inspire you and others who knew her brilliant light.

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks so much, Carter. Please give my love to the family 🙂

  • Reply Colleen Conradie (@ColleenConradie) March 17, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Such a beautiful tribute. I feel for you and for your loss at this time. Big hugs from Cape Town x

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:26 pm

      Thank you, Colleen. I appreciate the comment.

  • Reply UnderAnAfricanSun March 17, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    So sorry Heather. This is such a lovely tribute to your friend, thanks for telling us about her. May her memory live on in your heart.

    • Reply 2summers March 17, 2016 at 6:26 pm

      Thanks Kelly ?

  • Reply Louis Cloete March 18, 2016 at 4:48 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. This is none of my business but I think you can honor her memory by going to Ivory Coast and writing that block article, because I feel the only way we change the world is by diversifying it. Maybe your blog post will get more people to go visit this country that your friend cared about so much.

    I’m sending you a big hug.



    • Reply 2summers March 19, 2016 at 1:04 pm

      Thanks Louis. You’re probably right. I’ll have to wait and see if an opportunity arises. Now that I think about it, I would like to go to the Ivory Coast some day and pay tribute to the amazing work that Henrike did there.

  • Reply Ayesha Kajee March 18, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Heather, thanks for this moving and vivid portrait, and for our chat yesterday. Henrike was an acquaintance and colleague to me, but all that I’ve learned about her this past week makes me wish I’d known her better. And makes me mourn her loss to the greater African family.

    • Reply 2summers March 19, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks so much, Ayesha. It was nice chatting with you earlier this week. I’m looking forward to reading the obituary tomorrow.

  • Reply Jaina March 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Thoughtful and moving tribute to a person who sounds truly astounding. So sorry for your loss, Heather.

    • Reply 2summers March 19, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks Jaina 🙂

  • Reply africanoyster March 19, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Oh my goodness, I am so sorry for your loss. Henrike sounds like a truly inspiring person and this was a beautiful tribute to her life. I hope all of us who feel deeply touched by this post, will find a little bit of Henrike within ourselves to carry on carry the torch she has lit. Love, Natalie

    • Reply 2summers March 19, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      Thanks very much, Natalie. I do really hope that this post makes a difference because it’s really the only difference that I’m able to make.

  • Reply Debbie April 3, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    This was such a beautiful tribute and I have tears in my eyes reading it. I met Henrike in Benin nearly two years ago while teaching a workshop in photograph conservation that the Goethe Institute had generously supported. Henrike attend as well and shared with our wonderful participants – who came from collections across Africa – her wisdom on successful fundraising empowering all with confidence in their work and its value. She was remarkable. Your car and it message will be treasured and she will live on in our hearts and minds. Best, Debbie Norris, University of Delaware

    • Reply 2summers April 3, 2016 at 7:15 pm

      Hi Debbie, thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad that you found the blog post. Henrike was indeed a remarkable person and I still can’t believe she’s gone.

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