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.
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.
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 (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 (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.
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).