When I initially contacted Jene to ask her if she would be willing to share her story with me, I knew it would be a story of ‘acceptance.’ I knew that her story involved ‘surrendering to what is before she could go forward.’ I knew that she had done this because of how far she has come since that life changing day. But I had thought it would be a different story to what it is. I imagined myself in her shoes and what it must have been like to lose the life she knew. I imagined that the drastic change of life and how it’s far-reaching implications would have been difficult to accept – that there would have been a long internal struggle of acceptance before she could start moving forward with her new ‘normal.’ But I was wrong. This is the phenomenal story of Jene Frost, of a young woman who saw no choice but to accept her new circumstances, adapt and move on.
Sunday, 28th April 1996
It was a special occasion. ‘Oupa’ and his sister had come to visit the family. It didn’t happen often because he lived in Pretoria – a full day’s drive from the lush green forestry estate in KwaZulu-Natal. On this special occasion there was only one obvious way to celebrate: To braai.
To Braai is a South African food and social culture of cooking meat on a fire, usually in the company of good friends and family, doused with a few cold beers and spiced up with some braai banter. While the occasion is usually casual, cooking the actual meat is a very serious business and a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The meat you cook is your preference, but whatever meat it is you choose, there must be passion! There must be a lot of love and care and the goal must be ‘perfection.’
For Rob Frost, father of Jene and chief braai master, there was absolutely no question about what to braai, it had to be his famous Mozambican Piri Piri chicken.
The thing about preparing and cooking a good Mozambican Piri Piri chicken on the fire is that it takes time. There is simply no way to rush the chicken, lunch will almost always be served late.
First, one must marinade the chicken in all its spices, lemon and garlic overnight so that the entire bird is infused with flavour. Once the chicken has been marinated, it’s time to start the fire. The fire must be just right, not too hot and not too cold. At no point can the chicken be left unattended. The cook must be there from beginning to end, basting the chicken over and over again and applying the marinade until there is nothing left. Then finally, you crisp it up and your result is the most succulent, tender piri piri chicken that is bursting with flavour inside and out and the best you will ever taste. This is a chicken that you will have to wait for.
But Jene was not one to wait around. At the age of fifteen, Jene could think of far more exciting ways to pass time than to sit around a fire watching a chicken cook. Besides, her friend Donna from the next door farm was here too with her father and his partner Ann. The two girls had had about as much adult talk as their teenager selves could handle and the piri piri marinade packet was still half fill! Lunch would not be ready for at least another hour. They needed some fun, some speed and some adventure to pass the time. “Let’s go to the dam Donna,” said Jene, and Donna agreed. Rob overheard the conversation between the two girls and reminded them of the rule. “Girls, No helmet, no ride.”
‘Zane,’ Jene’s older brother, had a motorbike and had just got a brand new helmet. He was quite happy to share his bike and helmets with his younger sister and her friend, they were good like that. Since Jene had already done a few laps around the garden earlier on, it was Donna’s turn to drive. Though she had not ridden this bike before, riding motorbikes was nothing new for these two farm girls and ‘today’ was just another one of those typical farm days.
15 minutes later, the girls were already at the dam. ‘Now what,’ said Jene? They knew the piri piri chicken still had a while to go and there was no reason for them to rush back. This was the beauty of being a teenager living on a farm at that time. There were no tablets or screen gadgets, no cell phones and no hours and hours of Netflix. It was just good old farm fun and a freedom that most teenagers can only dream of experiencing. As with all other days, it was not so much about where to go, but rather the doing of it. It was not so much about the dam, but rather the feeling of independence and freedom that ‘going to’ the dam gave them. But now that they were at the dam, they needed to go somewhere else and though it was not about the ‘where,’ the ‘where’ still needed to have some sort of significance or purpose. A new gravel road was being built on the other side of the dam. Jene and her brother had investigated it the day before and had had a small accident when they hit a patch of loose gravel and the wheel had ‘washed out.’ But Donna had not been there, and exploring ‘a new road’ ticked the box of where to go next for them both to continue feeling the pure joy and exhilaration of going somewhere on a motorbike, on their own.
The last memory that Jene has of being on the motorbike was her shouting above the noise of the engine, ‘watch out for the loose gravel on the corner.’ Seconds later, they were both unconscious. Neither girl remembers what happened. The only certainty is that on that day many things happened for them to get to where they were, to a place that they took a turn down a new road.
Jene woke up flat on her stomach with her head to the side and with the motorbike on her legs. She noticed that Donna was next to her, unconscious or simply not moving and that there were trees all around them. It was confusing; it felt like she was having a bad dream and was drifting in and out of sleep.
In the meanwhile, the piri piri chicken was crisped up and ready to eat. By then everyone had been seduced by the aromas of roasting meat for a few hours and were hungry but the girls were not back yet. It was unusual. Especially since ‘Mozambican piri piri chicken’ was a family favourite. There was no chance that Jene would have missed out on her portion of ‘crispy chicken wing,’ not for anyone!
For the most part, disappearing on the farm for a few hours was nothing unusual for Jene. She was an outdoor kid and was happiest fishing with her dad at the dam or being on the bike or doing something on the move. Her weeks and her weekends were always action-packed. During the week, Jene’s love of sport filled up her days. She’d start her day with a 10 kilometre run and she’d finish on the hockey field. At the age of fifteen sport, action and adventure had become her identity. Whatever day of the week it was, it was the joy of movement that made Jene feel most alive.
The chicken was cold by now and with every passing minute and the gnawing feeling that something was not right, prompted the men to head out and to start looking for the girls. One hour passed, two hours passed and there was still no sign of them. In this time, the farming community had been alerted on the radio that Jene and Donna were missing and within a few minutes, the community was activated and a search party was in full force. The possibilities were endless, like trying to find a needle in a hay stack. Which road had they taken? Had they gone to visit another friend? Had they run out of fuel? Had they broken down? Had they ventured onto the tar road and had an accident? Had they been hijacked? Had they been taken? Were they safe? Were they alive?
Jene opened her eyes once again and the pine trees in the distance came back into focus. She could smell them and she could hear a trickle of water. She wondered how she was still having the same bad dream. Then she became aware of how her head and body ached and that she couldn’t move. She noticed how Donna was still there too, motionless. In between dipping in and out of consciousness, Jene started to realise that this was no dream and that they were in trouble. She did what any child would do when they are hurt and she cried for her mother before losing consciousness once again. Jene disappeared back into the depths of nothingness, hovering somewhere in no-man’s land, with neither a past, nor a future, as if her soul was taking a long and deep breath before it continued on with the next leg of its journey.
At the same moment that Jene called for her mother, an elderly African man was returning from Sunday church and was walking home on the remote farm road close to where the girls were lying. It was a desperate cry, one that did not fit the peaceful setting. It was a cry that pierced the gentle breeze and silenced the birds, a cry for help. He found the girls lying in a dry river bed, unconscious and in a very bad shape. Jene had landed on a concrete pipe and Donna had collided with a tree.
When Jene’s mother Tish and Ann (Donna’s father’s partner) saw the man running up the farm road, they knew it was about the girls. Breathless from running, he told them that he’d found the Mngani’s (children) and that they were in trouble. Together the three of them jumped in the vehicle and raced off to the accident site. Ann was a nurse and when she laid eyes on the girls, she immediately knew that it was very serious and potentially life threatening. She firmly instructed Tish not to move Jene and to return to the house and to call Dr Gardener (the local community doctor) and to call an ambulance too.
When someone in a farming community is in some type of distress or danger and the community is alerted, it’s quite extraordinary what happens next. They arrive in their dozens within minutes. Within minutes a signal is sent via telephone or radio and a community that is made up of individuals and personalities of all types, merges into one well-oiled co-operative machine with only one thing in mind. To do what is necessary to help, protect, support and fix. Dr Gardener was called and told that the girls had been in an accident. Within a couple of minutes of receiving the call, especially since it was on a weekend, he knew it was serious and was on his way. There were no questions asked other than the location.
Dr Gardener arrived and assessed the girls. He then crouched down to Jene’s level and pinched her hard. He continued to pinch her again and again all the way up her left side. Then he pinched her under her arm and she yelped in pain and shouted at him, “What the hell are you doing?” Dr Gardener apologised and told her that he won’t do it again. Then he pinched her on the right side, all the way up from the waist and finally under the arm. When he pinched her under the right arm, she got really cross with him, because he had done it again. Nothing more was said and there were no more pinches after that.
The girls were carefully put on trauma boards and loaded onto the ambulance. Tish and Ann would accompany them on the slow and agonising three hour journey to Pietermaritzburg. While Donna remained unconscious, Jene was physically and emotionally exhausted and all she wanted to do was sleep. It had felt like the longest day of her life and she was fed up with everyone fussing over her. She just wanted to be left alone and to be allowed to sleep and to have this hellish day over and done with.
“You can’t” said Ann in her most authoritative voice. “You cannot go to sleep Jene, I wont allow you to.” Despite everything that had happened that day, Jene still had enough strength and fire in her to be extremely annoyed at being told what she can and can’t do, especially after a day like this. But Ann was adamant. The risk of missing a brain injury such as a seizure or a weakness on one side of the body after experiencing a head injury was too great and not a risk anyone was prepared to take.
Ann threatened Jene with a ‘smack on the bum,’ if she fell asleep. And without much thought, Jene replied, “I don’t care, I won’t feel it.”
“Well then, I will pinch you on your ear,” said Ann
And Jene stayed awake.