Joe Slovo, a great man, a shabby settlement.

Squatter camps are scattered about Greater Johannesburg and further afield across southern Africa – usually created by the need for work, more than 4 million people live this way. Huge sprawling settlements of small, overcrowded shacks, built of out corrugated iron, the springs from previously burnt mattresses demarking sectioned areas, shacks wired with illegal and unsafe electricity which snakes its way over and around the huts in endless cables.

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I have visited Joe Slovo settlement on two visits now, accompanying the Children of Fire to literacy schemes that they provide for the children every Sunday morning and on trips to share excess food that has been donated by Woolworths. The camp is based on the north west of Johannesburg on the edge of the suburbs of Coronation and Crosby. It has been part of the landscape for 22 years, built on land owned by Transnet in a land-invasion. Since then many occupants have sublet their properties and landlords taken many shacks to let and fund their businesses. There is little in the form of maintenance or upkeep, no security of tenure and the many fires that occur mean the rebuilding of adequate accommodation does not instill confidence in a home for life.

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I have visited the camp during cold weather and, most recently in the height of summer. On both occasions I have met with some really together people and the children run with enthusiasm to join in with the reading scheme – they know the volunteers well and are eager to show their skills and receive books ( most recently some brought over from the The Den / Northwood Lions/ project in Northwood Hills in the UK ). But at month-end when salaries and grants are paid, a percentage of the residents are drunk, both in mid-morning and during night visits. I was safe but witnessed violence among some inebriated residents. I have had many overwhelming hugs and hand-grabbing greetings though. The conditions are appalling, inhumane and miss the most basic of human rights. The camps are spread across South Africa. We saw many when on our steam train trip through the countryside- iconic images of children waving at the train as we travelled through their backyards.

There are too many stories of yet another fire, caused by illegal electrical connections, adults under the influence of alcohol or drugs, adults involved in domestic violence resulting in kicked over paraffin heaters, exploding paraffin stoves. Fires have several times brought half the community to the ground, resulting in people losing everything they own; at times also the people they love, and lots of burns injuries sustained.  The Children of Fire volunteers are often the first on the scene- helping to crisis manage. I’ve heard stories of Bronwen climbing on roofs and over shacks during ravaging fires, bringing home burned children and puppies to safer shelter while their homes are rebuilt.

 

The fires move fast because the shacks are close to each other and most contain paraffin.Children of Fire works in Joe Slovo squatter camp, helping residents in numerous ways and often being asked to help transport people to hospital because the ambulances don’t arrive. Many doors have been donated when homes burned down or even when kicked in by a drunken wife-beater.

In order to make communities safer and in particular, squatter camp communities, there needs to be gainful employment for residents. If people have purpose and income, they are less likely to sit around and play cards and dice and lose what little money they have. Gambling, especially when combined with drinking, leads to serious social problems, violence, and money that is needed to feed and clothe children, not being available.

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There are many skilled and semi-skilled people in squatter camps who just need that chance to make their businesses more formal. Lots of small shopkeepers sell their wares to fellow residents and visitors. They also build and furnish shacks for others and provide services like shoe repair. Children of Fire has been working in Joe Slovo squatter camp for more than 20 years. It has a long term “Sunday Library” outdoor reading project. It used to be indoors until political intimidation by the African National Congress made use of the library shack untenable. Now the children learn life skills, about fire prevention and wider community safety issues, draw, read and often receive toys.

Some time ago in 2001, Children of Fire met with Transnet, the owner of the land on which the squatter camp has been built. ‘We sought their co-operation to transfer the land to a Section 21 (not for profit) company that would have members of the squatter camp community on its board as well as well as other people prepared to offer their skills pro bono to help the residents. Some residents rent out shacks to other people for R300 a month and some landlords own more than 15 shacks. The illegal landlords have no interest in living conditions improving at Joe Slovo because it would remove their income and some of them have threatened Children of Fire, its representatives and trainees.

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Children of Fire had requested that the social development section of Transnet should consider building an ablution block for the residents to replace unhygenic chemical toilets with proper facilities attached to the main drainage. Such an ablution block should also include showers for men and women and an area where clothes can be washed and dried, to generate employment for at least some of the scores of unemployed women living there. Transnet said in 2000/2001 that it could not assist with such facilities because they would be permanent infrastructure on its land – on land that the company would clearly have to dispose off in the future. Curiously, nonetheless, some sector of local government went ahead with a poor copy of Children of Fire’s idea, installing too-shallow and insufficient gradient plastic-pipe drainage through the camp, which the residents were paid R60 a metre to dig and install – seemingly without any professional supervision. There are no man-holes to inspect the drainage as it passes through the camp.

Also the water pressure is so low to the taps that only one can be used at a time. Queues for water remain a daily feature of Joe Slovo life and when a tap washer fails there seems no one inclined or able to fix it. Flush toilets were installed and on the Coronation side of the camp there was an immediate problem of theft of components including toilet seats. Then there were allegations that a so-called sanitation committee and that a political committee were padlocking individual toilets for their personal use! Hygienic use of toilets was not understood by all the users.

Woolworths and Sorbet

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The local Woolworths (yep still here) continues to donate food to the charity. Without a hint of irony the children receive what is the equivalent to M&S food hall delicacies, albeit hard to sell or on sell by date. They have a range of bread; French, Ciabatta, meat, fruit and vegetables and more random gifts such as copious bunches of flowers, and recently miniature (Harvey Nic’s style) ice cream cones. I was asked to bring a melon baller from London so the children could make mini ice cream cones, with the possibility of photographing them and using them as thank you cards to the shop. I decided to have a sorbet making day with the kids. They where hugely enthused, particularly the boys, and particularly when they realised the sugar content. We used fresh limes, lemons and oranges ( in an effort to make coloured sorbet balls #failed) and it was enough to keep the boys from eating the ingredients, having smelled the produce and grated the zest. They have been avidly stirring are still nurturing the little tubs in their freezer at school- their tone becoming increasingly desperate as I tell them we’ll wait a bit and view the blocks of flavoured ice we have made. Yesterday Bronwen bought some huge tubs of ice cream, we also tried the melon baller on a melon with the aid of Kevin the volunteer. Not unusually, the children came knocking on my door at sand cottage bearing little ice cream cones, set in little wire structures made by a local street seller. An ice cream fest evening spent chatting around the garden table with, without a doubt, some quite exceptional kids.

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Chubb Johannesburg…party

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Wendy – General Manager Chubb Johannesburg

amazing what some people do to raise money.. kind of like a school sports day for staff, in the blazing sun with adults bobbing for apples, foraging in flour for spoons, and competing in three legged and sack race tasks. Chubb, ( the fire extinguisher people) invited the ChiFi kids to their staff Christmas party. They’ve raised a lot of rands for the charity and organised a magician who had the children in hoots, obligatory bouncy castle and lots of party games. The children ate loads from the bri (bbq), received presents, played football and posed for photos.

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Nosihle

 

Nosihle Khubeka  10.

 

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‘I was five when I was burnt in Mpulanga. I went to the room to fetch my jersey and I was dancing to some hip hop music. My dress caught the candle that was nearby. I got burnt around my middle. My aunt came and she put me in a big drum of water, I went under water and that was scary. They took me to Mclean Hospital where they bandaged me and sent me home, but they shouted at my mother and I was taken to a protective hospital. I stayed in hospital for a year then went back to school. Then my mum sent me to ChiFi. I still like Hip Hop.’

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#Karabo transl; ‘the answer’

dsc_2920Karabo aged 16.

‘I was four years old and living in Limpopo when I go burnt. I don’t remember it but I have been told what happened. I was just at home with my mum and the primus stove exploded. I got burns to my arms, shoulders, chest, neck and face. I went under the bed to hide.  When I was found I was taken to Mankweng hospital.  I have been visiting Children of fire for years and they have helped me get operations. I’ve had tissue expanders, skin grafts to help repair my ear, two little fingers released and an operation on my lip. I now live in Johannesburg with my mum, little sister, big sister and stepdad.

back in Joburg!

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I’m Back! not sure how I managed a second trip- more doing than thinking, but it’s so good to see the kids again. Just to sit with Loide, Tepieso and the others in the #Childrenoffire garden- to catch up on all their stories, was magical. And, well worth an 11 hour flight, on a changed ticket after my last minute visit with the #PrimeMinister in London with the Sarcoma UK team. The kids all look so well. It’s summer here and in the low 30’s so lots of swimming in the ChiFi pool and hanging out in the shade of the wonderful trees here. Some of the children I met on my last visit, more than a year ago, have moved on or back home and there are new children attending who I had not met previously. I’m getting to know them all through art, poetry and, yes more papier mache projects, inbetween requests from Bronwen to teach the children about penguins ( before a theatre trip) and to help them learn ‘The owl and the pussycat” Lear poem- I’m not sure why?! So far we have been to the Chubb Christmas party and taken a trip on a huge steam train to Magliesburg- more about that later!

doing up buttons..

home in the UK- the son back to school and me on my way to a slightly later than planned, scan- have tried to balance myself all week. But I came from a city where too many children are being burned, into a city with media images of displaced people and dying children- what is wrong with the world and why does it feel so overwhelmingly bad? The squatter camps in Europe mirror those that many of the children I met in South Africa have lived in for years.

Joe Slovo Squatter camp

Joe Slovo Squatter camp

Sure, there is ingenuity here and the shacks have corrugated roofs and makeshift kitchens, hoddled together over time. So many of them, and frequently, catch fire because of illegal electricity connections and the need to keep warm with substandard heating systems- and I’ve met with the consequences- the brave children. I want to take them all home but I can’t. Bronwen does a remarkable job- but she can’t do it alone. I hope this years walk through London will go some way to aiding the children’s medical needs- crisis management though it is, that Perlucia can have fingers to be able to do up her buttons,

Joe Slovo Squatter camp Sunday morning literacy #Childrenof fire

Joe Slovo Squatter camp Sunday morning literacy #Childrenof fire

that Melissa has the care to make her scar tissue on her face and arms bearable,

Melissa

Melissa

that Quando is able to grow hair on her head and Loide can walk without a limp…and the others ; too many to mention, and to those who continue to pass through the charities’ care. I have visited the camps, talked to the children through to the parents and grandmothers, witnessed their daily lives- it’s not something you forget. Unacceptable living standards- but this has been their home since birth, not because they have been displaced because of war but because this is where they live- it’s not a halfway house. They have no choice- no future.

Loide

Loide

Shortly before we flew home, myself and my son visited a burns unit some way from Aukland district- distressing for both of us to see children, many naked apart from their bandages, a smell of I don’t know what, an alien environment for the children with little contact with others and no visiting relatives at that time. – one toddler stood by his cot, holding onto the side, crying until we arrived and distracted him. We had come with books. Those who were sitting up gratefully received and held onto theirs. Some had a fluffy blue blankets in their cot- made me think of cat baskets- some comfort. I was told I should take photographs but not publish- what to do with these images that remain in the forefront of my psyche? – give them to the charity for their records- they have children who started at the hospital. I drove back to Jo’burg at speed so as not to miss our flight, navigating through dust cloud motorways being constructed alongside vast squatter camps- not easy to resume normal but an eleven hour flight to think about it.

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have you met Ms Jones…

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Bronwen and Feleng

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.

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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.

Melville 2015

Melville 2015

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.