Bronwen Jones – She doesn’t really like talking about herself, it really is all about the kids. Friendly loving, and formidable at times; she has to oversee some 20 children who she accommodates in her home, cottages in the grounds and nearby school. Many more are being helped long-distance every day. The children adore her, totally get her sense of humour and know that she will fight to the end to secure their rights in an unfair world. We spent last night here trying to find a café in local trendy Melville, to accommodate 24 of us for milkshakes as a goodbye treat. 7th Street (as in South African TV soapie Sieve de Laan) ran out of ice cream that night. When Bronwen realised there were singers and a comedy show happening in the annexe of Poppy’s restaurant she happily brought all of the children through to experience the show, not perturbed by the adults surprise that their show was being usurped by 20 children with burns sitting in the front rows. She wooed the audience, resulting in an ad hoc song from Feleng and Lebo and much cheering from the crowd. We left after five ”children’s’’ jokes from the comedians so that the show could continue in its normal adult format.
Bronwen travels between London and Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Tunisia, Zurich, New York, (but mostly UK and RSA) seeking treatment for some of the most horrific burns, most occurring in squatter camps where poverty means they are at risk on so many levels, especially the younger children. She does so without a salary so that people can know their donations are focussed on what it takes to repair children considered impossible to repair. Children of Fire is the First burns charity in Africa- given the scale of such accidents this is mind-blowingly inadequate but burns are not as big as malaria nor Aids for grandstanding do-gooders like Bill Gates.
Bronwen grew up in England but considers herself Welsh. Her grandfather; Thomas Jones (1870-1955) was a Welsh civil servant who advised four British prime ministers from 1916-1930 and wrote the Whitehall Diaries. Her father Tristan, whom her biological son is named after, was manager of The Observer in London. David Astor was her mentor. Bronwen was a journalist on The Times and other leading newspapers. She wrote a book on the Channel Tunnel and produced documentaries for the BBC.
She came to South Africa with her then husband, also a journalist, when her son was 10 months old. She wrote mining articles internationally and local articles on anything from theatre reviews to town planning. She launched Ithemba Publishing to produce bilingual children’s stories in about seven different languages and was chosen to represent South Africa at the Pan African Book Fair in Kenya, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, and was offered an animation film contract at the Cape Town International Film Festival but could not pursue it because little burned Dorah’s surgical needs became urgent at the same time.
In her adult life Bronwen had always been involved in human rights campaigning but in 1991 she took in Rickson Shirinda after his attempted murder by five assailants in a small town called Marble Hall. Mr Shirinda, Klaas Mogashoa and Lloyd Diagwane Ntswane had been selected at random by racists intent upon harming them. While two of the men died, Mr Shirinda was brought to Johannesburg by journalists and lived in one of Bronwen’s two (total) rented rooms with her, her child and husband, until he felt well enough to return to his home and workplace. She took the matter to court and one murderer was sentenced to 18 years in jail. Bronwen consistently helped the families over the following years, particularly the Ntswanes who remain friends 24 years later and whose daughter Wendy now helps Bronwen to battle for children’s rights.
Bronwen’s storybook series about Tristan and Thobeka won awards and both the real children visited a little burned baby Dorah in hospital with her. Dorah had lost her face and hands in a fire due to her mother’s negligence – left alone with a candle that fell and razed the shack to the ground. Bronwen, Tristan and Thobe visited Dorah for many months until they learned that due to medical dressings costing £50 a month being too expensive, surgeons wanted to remove Dorah’s eyes. Bronwen refused to let this happen and so it was this child who became the raison d’etre of the charity eventually named: Children of Fire. She is the reason myself and my son came to Johannesburg to document the children’s lives and past experiences. She is the reason we will be walking across Tower Bridge in London and around the Monopoly Board of streets on Saturday 12th September 2015.
I left Johannesburg last night with my son, having re-met Loide, Mitta, Zanele, Feleng and Bronwen. I have met so many other burns survivors and multi-nationality volunteers. I have experienced the squatter camp life where so many of them grew up. I will return to London to Perlucia, Dikeledi, Sizwe, Dorah, Wendy. Seven year old Perlucia hopes for a finger transplant on 21st September in a private hospital in East Grinstead.
Now I know the battle of the hemispheres. How these children have so little and the British children have so much. How injured African children get surgery by the luck of having encountered charities like Children of Fire and how injured British children get exemplary care in the National Health Service that is an unimaginable treasure to the rest of the world.
It is unequal. Entirely unfair. And if I could raise £35,000 for the hospital design competition for the hospital Bronwen wants to plan in Botswana, I would. If I could bump into Mr Gates and a dozen other millionaires and get them to understand why such a hospital must be built, I would. I do not know how much I can do, but I do know that the wealthier countries that are so often staffed by the doctors from poorer countries, could do a lot more to ease the inequity. I know that vuka sizwe (a South African phrase meaning “wake the nation”) should become uvusa umhlaba (“wake the world”). No I cannot speak Zulu but I am starting to feel the sentiments because I have now seen it first hand and I will not forget.