I was eight when I got burnt. I was living in Harare in a house and we called our cousins to visit. It was nearly Christmas. It was time to sleep and my brother ( 18) was sleeping in the kitchen and the cousins in a room with me. My mother’s ex-boyfriend came and was angry because my mother didn’t love him, because he was cheating with another woman. He didn’t know my cousins were at home. He was holding a petrol bomb and some matches. He said he was going to kill the 1st, 2nd and 3rd born children- I was the 4th born and youngest. He put the petrol bomb in the house. When the fire came closer my sister jumped on the bed, my mother was calling me- one of her fingers was stuck to the wall. The man ran away to his family- he already had a wife. The ambulance came, there was a fence I wanted to get through, my skin was hanging. They said ‘don’t hug her, you are making her worse’. Seven people were burnt, my brother was okay because he was sleeping in the kitchen. There was lots of screaming.
13 when I first met him two years ago, in London, as he helped me unload my photo equipment and quickly became my assistant, is growing into a sweet young man. Of course he has the usual teenage angst but deals with it with the most theatrical aplomb. He is constantly dancing and singing and always ready with an opinion, and a helping hand to the younger kids. The eternal big brother, Rein Ne Dit adores him..
.. has been fostered by Mitta, ( so Gloria is his granny a gogo) and he has a fine relationship with the family and his cousins. He lives in Dobsonville with the family and attends a high school nearby. Feleng came to pick me up to take me to his home in Soweto on Saturday morning. We travelled by taxi bus, ( he dealt with the money exchange which I still haven’t mastered.) helped me buy some cool shades on the roadside and made sure I wasn’t mowed down by the, his words, ..’Blaaaaack South Africans..if they bump you they do not care! ‘ (sic) drivers. We swaggered into the township, ignoring my whiteness and were greeted by many neighbours, some of who remembered me from last time , and his little ‘brother’. Feleng told me he wants to be a chef when he graduates. I think he may do something in fashion!
The other evening the children came on masse, as they often do, to the little cottage I stay in on site when I’m here. There is always a lot of humour at the Chifi house and, after the children had formulated their CV’s at school that day, Bronwen sent them along to me to ask for a job. Even Rien ne Dit, the three year old waved a crumpled piece of paper at me. I said I’d get back to them. Their CV’s are pretty good though. Some of the children speak four or so languages. They taught me that Ngiyakunthanda means I love you in Zulu so I’m happy! The languages are similar African dialects but I’m in awe as they hold conversations with each other, swapping dialects between each other, depending on who they are talking to and who is in the group. Quite a skill. I’m not sure whether all of the children have bigged up their skills enough- Harmony and his musical talents that include playing jazz on the piano, even with one hand bandaged and their proficiency in swimming and chess. Their enthusiasm and ability to discuss in depth issues encouraged by the adults that work with them grow through their regular group meetings in the Chifi garden- often in the evening as the sun goes down. They are a pretty damn special bunch of kids- but hey I think I already said that.
Melissa -playing chess on the platform while we waited for the delayed steam train.
Nosihle Khubeka 10.
‘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.’
Karabo 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.
Feleng aged 13 was severely burnt at one month old when his squatter camp shack burnt down. In 2008 he underwent surgery in Switzerland where doctors removed two of his ribs, using them to rebuild his forehead which had only been covered in skin because of the ‘bone deficit’ caused by the fire. When I met Feleng in Pinner , in 2014 he greeted me at the door and was quickly designated as my helper/ assistant. He helped to carry equipment from the car and we worked together setting up the lights for a photo shoot. He thought it was a hoot that I’d forgotten one of my sticks for a softbox! He quickly set about finding some tape to construct a fully functioning light, scrabbled about with extension leads and, as the shot shows, was eager to show me his best pose. bit of a crush really…cant wait to see him again in Jo’burg and test out his cooking skills- he wants to be a chef.
Perlucia aged 7 is a survivor of a shack fire at the age of 6 months when she was left in the ‘care’ of a toddler. I met her some weeks ago in Pinner and she had me in awe with her energy and eagerness to show me different costumes she had for the photoshoot. She is the most huggable, happy and bouncy tigger of a child and showed huge resilience recently when I joined her at a fun day. She was a little confused at times because some of the children playing nearby openly questioned her about her scars- she came running back to our group laughing and giggling at their audacity..but she is still very young. Since then she has had tea at the Savoy, hugged doctors and firefighters and loves London. She would like to have green eyes and she thinks flowers are friendly.
Loide aged 18 was one of 17 children burned in an intentional fire at Vingerkraal, South Africa in 2010; ten of the children including her little sister, died. She hopes to study law.