Joe Slovo is on fire

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A ladybird  just catapulted onto my desk, on it’s back, spinning around on it’s red shell, wings flailing- I know how it feels… but as I type it has righted itself, buzzed around my face a bit and is now walking across the screen- a little survivor. I didn’t think, three years ago, that I would be writing a blog about children who are getting needlessly burnt because of poverty and the inequality in the world. I should be writing my cancer blog, but I’m still alive and that’s good enough for me on that score. I’m alive because I’ve been lucky so far and, despite the current political climate where the world and its’ citizens are overburdened with problems, I live in a place where there is access..to everything really.

There has been another fire, in the past few days, at Joe Slovo Squatter camp and the devastation is current. Bronwen told me ” the cause was probably an illegal electrical connection because if you are not an electrician, you don’t know how to connect safely. And you shouldn’t.  But hey surprise, poor people want electricity too” I’ve ducked and dived under the endless wires connecting the shacks and seen electric bulbs hanging precariously from corrugated metal roofs. The wires exposed in the rain and connecting double and triple adaptors to appliances, used by old and young.

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Bronwen, of course, was right there when she was needed, gathering volunteers and provisions and making their way to the camp despite a dodgy car. She told me that about 260 people lost everything; shoes, clothes, identity documents, school uniform, books, mattresses, blankets, pillows, pots, pans, mementoes, photographs, phones, food, toiletries- everything you would have in a home- a small home. The charity have given what they can, including  12 of their own duvets which means come winter, in June/ July when they need two duvets, the kids at the charity will be cold. But they don’t need things- they need money.

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I have so many photographs from my last trip that show the children who live at the camp (many attending the Children of fire literacy class on Sunday mornings) fooling around, vying for a photograph, eager to demonstrate their new literacy skills, and to take their books home to show their families- normal kids eager for normal attention. The adults who have kept it together are proud of what they have, even tiny shacks with basic amenities- their homes. They wanted me to take photographs of their living space.

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I’ve stayed with and worked with the children who have been burned because of squatter camp fires. Despite huge prejudice, constant stares, and at times abandonment because of their disfigurements, they are positive because of their contact with the Children of Fire staff.  They are survivors, teens and toddlers; incorrigible dandelions at times and flailing ladybirds at others but overall amazing kids. Many volunteer with the charity when they get older, to educate against fire hazards and teach the young children reading skills. They value human rights because they have seen the worst.

This blog post is a call for action under a cloud of charity overload, exhausted empathy and far too much need out there- but what’s the alternative?  Blogging in a safe and warm house in London, I’m too scared to ask if Prudence is ok.

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If you would like to donate, the best place  at the moment is on Bart’s page. He is running a marathon for the charity- take a look at his page. For Brits the government reimburses the tax component and so the charity get an extra 25%- thanks for listening.

http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Bart-Childrenoffire

 

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Melissa 11

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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.

 

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Feleng 15 (nearly)

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Feleng,

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..

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.. 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!

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Loide Ndemueda

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I first met Loide when she was in London in late 2014, when she went to Pinner.  At end-2016 she had just matriculated ( graduated) from school but was awaiting her results. She wants to study philosophy, politics and economics – she’ll need a scholarship for that – and then maybe to go on to a law degree.dsc_3450-2

We have talked a lot over the years and she developed a good relationship with Taigh when we were here last. I had never really heard her story, though, just snippets from herself and Bronwen. She had been wanting me to take her photo, being, naturally, from the selfie generation. She is a strong young woman and has a clear and determined sense of human rights, campaigning for Native American Leonard Peltier’s release from jail and for the rights of burned children. One of her many roles this past year has been to assist after shack fires and to oversee the Sunday Literacy scheme at Joe Slovo squatter camp. The kids there love her and she knows many of the community members.

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This morning she told me the story of how she was burned.

I was thirteen, living in Limpopo when I got burnt and it was probably intentional- a fight over land. The neighbours wanted to buy some land but the community refused.  The white American owners, though I don’t want this to be seen as racist- it was a particular family, got angry.  There was also a very senior South African black politician implicated.the first day after the school holidays. We could see smoke behind the houses. Everybody ran, trying to put the fire out before it caught the whole field alight. The man made a small gap in the electric fence so that he could get in and out – we thought he was helping but the fire extinguishers seemed to make the fire worse.

He started running after the kids, spraying them and they ran and tried to get over the electric fence.  It was winter but quite hot. I had jerseys and long school socks on but my sister was wearing shorts. I could hear my sister screaming so I went back to get her – I still didn’t know the cause of the fire. When someone asked the man to help and turn the fence power off, his employees were told to stay where they were. He shouted ‘it’s none of my business’.

A white woman came to help with plastic bags, water and her car and said- ‘hurry before he sees us.’  Then I believed it was an intentional attack and we had been trapped between electric fences. The ambulances came but the police didn’t.  It was alleged that the guy had paid friends in the police. Fingers and skin were left on the wire fence.

Seven children survived but ten children died, all of them my friends, and including my sister who was nine years old. I didn’t know she had died until a year later. She was in the burns unit and I was in the surgical unit. People thought it would be too stressful for me to know while I was ill.  My mum stopped coming to visit me for a while and they told me my sister had been moved to Pretoria.

Finally I was brought to Children of Fire. I was the only lucky one out of all 17, because I got so much more specialised surgery then, even a R100,000 hip replacement. I was enrolled in Greenside High School which was so much better educationally than what was available to me at home. And now I have two homes, two families, because Auckland Park has become home too.

I have travelled to Britain twice and I dream of getting a place at Oxford University but I know it will take time to improve my English for that. I wanted to stand as a ward councillor at the last elections and had enough community signatures of support for that but then knew I had to focus on my schooling first.

I researched the legal issues around my case with a French Law Student Simon Holley and we remain friends. I think that one day Simon might become President of France because he has already worked directly with the President of Canada. I am proud to know him and I think he is proud to know me. Children of Fire has given me the opportunity to work with and meet such a wide range of people. If I had not been burned, I might have been a Nobody in Vingerkraal but as I survived, now I will be a Somebody in the World.

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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