Overwhelming poverty overwhelms

22.24 Friday night. Full moon. Slovo squatter camp.

I’ll be posting this in the morning. If I had posted it tonight it would have been photographs without any captions, but the internet is down and I’ll look at it again in the morning. After a busy day with the children, I arrived back at the Chifi house around 9pm, exhausted. I was met with Bronwen packing huge bags of bread and vegetables; ‘we are going to the squatter camp tonight, have five minutes rest and we’ll head off to Joe Slovo squatter camp in Crosby’. It is named after a former Cabinet Minister – of Housing. That’s the South African sense of irony, of humour.

It seemed right that Bronwen would take me to the sort of environment where most of the children sustained their injuries. Four million South Africans live in shanty towns that are called squatter camps because they ‘squat’. They have no security of tenure; no rights. They can be forced from their homes at political whim, with no notice. Aspects are equally as cruel as South Africa’s Apartheid years, just the oppressor has a different hue. The chance of forced removals are higher if they do not vote for the ruling party. Taigh had been invited out with Lungisani and his friends. I wasn’t sure who to be more worried about. Maybe because I was tired, or maybe a normal response, but I had no words, initially, when leaving the camp, just an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness.

At first it was like walking into a festival, loud base music and people dancing around open fires or braziers (locally called imbawulas) – that’s ok I thought. Almost like Glastonbury. But as I followed Bronwen in the dark, followed by burns survivor and trainee plumber Franklin, walking behind me to make sure my camera was safe, I felt like I was trying to navigate through a theme park ghost train, but this wasn’t for fun- this was real.

The shacks, made from corrugated iron sheets, had tiny hip-wide walkways between them and we had to pick our way over lumpy bits of carpet, electric cables, a little rubbish and bricks, avoiding occasional spirals of razor wire, to find the people Bronwen wanted me to meet.- she has been helping the community for some 16 years and knows the camp well. She knows who has lost their home to fire once, twice, thrice. Each time, whether 2000 people were left destitute or just 20, she has been there to help them rebuild their lives again.

I tripped at one point and cut my finger on the sharp edge of a metal sheeting. I was grabbed by Franklin to steady myself. Its ‘month end” in South African speak, I experienced this earlier when in a supermarket where it seemed the whole town was shopping. Transport is so expensive in relation to incomes that it makes sense to buy for the coming month all at once. ‘So that’s why there’s a party?’ I asked Franklin. He said that at Fridays and Saturdays are when people let their hair down, but month-end is the liveliest; the young men were drunk tonight. I can handle a drunken festival with the best of them.

We first met Kelobogile Cordelia Maje. She’s well known to the charity as its longest-serving volunteer Tristan carried out a toxicity of plastics-in-fires survey on her rooftop (and others) some nine years ago. At that time the latest addition to their family was named Tristan in his honour. The plastics piled on rooftops, remain because government is indifferent about the health concerns. Now Kelobogile (Her name means “I’m Thankful”) is two weeks away from giving birth again. She was happy to see us, especially as we gave fresh bunches of roses to her and to her teenage daughter and a sack of bread to share with extended family. Bronwen asked if we could photograph and I felt awkward. But then I think it is important to record this place, typical of where the children I know really well now, suffered because of poverty; because of the need to keep warm in an enclosed, cluttered hut, in the winter.

Two of the shacks we visited had large old televisions buzzing fuzzily, plugged into double adaptors x2 and then some.. the electrical supply is illegally connected. Some shacks had paraffin lamps and others had bulbs hanging out of metal corrugated ceilings. It rains heavily here at times; summer is wet and winter is dry. I heard babies crying from inside darkened shacks and the children roamed free, among makeshift pool rooms, fires and pitch black alleyways…among mothers, grandmothers and inebriated young men.

We went to the home of Salamina whose two sons Vhongani and Khumbulani had the most severe malnutrition leading to them only being half the weight and height that they were meant to be. Bronwen used to run a weekly clinic at Slovo and had picked up on the Marasmus, so she intervened, fed the boys and got them back into school. They both work now and Khumbulani is great at repairing computers …. Every time some well-meaning housewife dumps a part-broken missing-part computer “donation”at Children of Fire, the charity delivers the dinosaur-technology to Khumbulani and he removes the useful parts to repair other devices. Salamina quickly told Bronwen that she’d quit her drinking habit and proudly introduced granddaughters Zintle (13) and Salamina (7).

Then wandering through more dark alleys we went to community elder Evelyn Ramohai, known as MaThabo. Bread was shared with these different households and the final French sticks dropped off for the white men sleeping on the pavements behind the Shell garage in Melville. Poverty is spreading in the not-so”New” South Africa, covering all demographics now.


Kelebogile Maje

We did another photo shoot this afternoon, after the mask one, where the children wrote a word on a chalkboard to describe how they were burned, and Taigh has filmed many of the children’s stories , most were children unattended, paraffin lamps overturning, candles toppling over or Chinese-made paraffin cooking stoves exploding as grandmothers tried to get a fire going, children burning themselves by reaching up to hot stoves. It shouldn’t happen but it does- as Bronwen says: ‘if you love someone buy them a fire extinguisher, a smoke alarm, a safer stove.’ We will be returning to Slovo on Sunday morning to help with the literacy class Bronwen started long ago and then flying back to the UK on Tuesday evening and to our home that has safe electricity, hot water, smoke alarms and brick walls, certainly more appreciative and definitely more humbled. There, I said it. It’s midnight and Taigh is home safe.


Pool hall in Slovo at night.


Community elder MaThabo


Rubbish inside the squatter camp is rare.


Winning shot while children eat donated ciabatta.


MaThabo was already heading to bed when we delivered bread.


Franklin in the home of Kelebogile.


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