Still prepared to fight, we played …
How Ayanda Gwaza turned his life around against the many forces pulling him away.
Even when he was a young boy, soccer was Ayanda’s world. “I had the privilege of playing for Ajax in Grade 7,” he says, “But when I was in High School and Ajax did not want me, I was so disappointed and said, ‘this soccer thing is not for me.’” Slowly drifting away from his family, towards his new friends and a lifestyle that was far from his dreams, Ayanda climbed the ranks of the gang in which he found community.
Growing up in Khayelitsha without a father did not present Ayanda with many opportunities to choose a different path as he hit his teenage years. Even though he worked hard at school initially, he started mixing with friends who drank a lot of alcohol, were on drugs, and robbed people to fund it.
“I started to fight – what started with throwing stones, turned into stabbing with pangas, and killing one another,” he remembers how his life spun closer to the gangs which he was circling around in curiosity and desire for connection. As he became more involved in drugs, crime and the notorious gang in his community, Ayanda saw that he was slipping away from the life he dreamed of when he was younger, and his family and community no longer trusted him as they did before. “We got stabbed, we got killed, we lost some of our friends.” The police would come to stop the fighting, but as soon as they left, it would start up again. “Our parents tried too,” says Ayanda, ‘but it did not help. Even our moms were waiting for the call to say, this dead body laying here, is your son.”
When Ayanda was 17 years old, he was arrested. He remembered the people in his life who loved him, who had warned him along the way – “You can do better than that; if you continue there will be consequences.” All of this was going through Ayanda’s mind as he contemplated his life during a year in prison. “I left there thinking that I would never return to that life again, but soon your friends hear you are home, and come and visit – and I found myself drinking and smoking drugs again.” It was during that time that Ayanda began asking questions about his father – his yearning for a father grew, as did his anger at never knowing him.
One day, Ayanda and his group were hanging around in the park. “We grew up playing soccer there, but now it was a place for fighting,” he says. These days they carried their pangas and were alert and ready for their next victim, or their ‘enemies’ who would appear at the park at any time for a fight.
“Then this guy comes, carrying a bag of balls and bibs and cones.” They did not know him and argued amongst themselves as to whether to attack him or not. “They were looking to me to see what I said,” Ayanda explains. But the man was walking with such purpose and courage towards them. “He must have known he cannot just come here; we had a bad reputation and people in the community knew not to come, but here he was just walking towards us with the soccer kit, dropping the balls in front of us.”
“Don’t you guys want to play soccer?” he asked as he walked towards the field. He did not look back to see if they were following.
Ayanda and his guys were carrying knives and pangas, and still arguing about whether they should let this guy carry on. But as the unknown coach dropped soccer balls on the ground, the young men started playing – with their weapons in their hands.
“Still prepared to fight, we started to play …” says Ayanda.
“This guy started to talk with us as we played, he gave us words of hope, positive words – I don’t know how to describe it, but it really touched me, and I realised I had lost all hope and so much had been stolen from me,” says Ayanda. Something began sparking in his life as they wrapped up that soccer match and the unknown coach asked if they could meet again the next day. “In that moment, something was happening in my life, there are people, like this guy – who can come to us. Nobody came to us. Everyone was scared of us. But here he was,” says Ayanda, “That is where I started to say, ‘Yes sir, you can come’ – I wanted it.”
And the next day, he was back. And the next, and the next.
“He came for training – with us hopeless group. He shared his story of not having a father and it touched all of us. Some of us started to cry. He gave us hope. We started to open up.” Ayanda shares how much it meant that they could relate to his story and how comforted they were that he kept coming back to this dangerous ‘killing field’ which was becoming a soccer field once again.
The group started meeting at Ayanda’s home. Coach Dumi, as he became known to them, told them about God, the hope he had found, and shared with them from the Bible. “He told us that whatever happened in our lives, God can restore, God created us, God loves us, God is with us.” Coach Dumi felt like the father figure Ayanda sought. “He became like a father to me,” says Ayanda, “And I knew I needed this. When I read the Bible and listened to Coach Dumi, I felt something was happening inside me, something changing. I started feeling hope.”
Things did not change overnight for Ayanda. It was a long road with Coach Dumi and others walking alongside him and his friends. “Some days we would volunteer and serve, and the next, do crime.” Coach Dumi told Ayanda that while he had been a leader on the ‘other side’, God wanted to use him on this side, and that he needed to lead others towards a new life now. “When we came to City Mission, we were so surprised by the hugs and love,” laughs Ayanda, “We were not expecting that, as we were used to being hated, but now we had hope. And I thought, maybe God is doing this.” Ayanda decided to no longer straddle both worlds, and his life has never looked the same. “I was not perfect, sometimes I fell and then he came to pick me up, but in 2015 I gave myself to Jesus fully.” It has not been easy for him, or some of his friends who were with him that day. Some went back to the life they had lived. Some died, some are in prison, but some are walking this new path with him.
The leadership Ayanda showed before, is now leadership that shines in Khayelitsha and beyond, where he serves as a soccer coach through the Royal Priesthood Academy in Khayelitsha, and Ambassadors Football, where he is working part-time.
“I love making a difference in the community, and guiding the young men, giving them hope too. Just as Coach Dumi walked down the path to us in the park, I want to walk down the path to other young people.”