Here is an image from a shack town.
This one is in Cape Town - but they're ubiquitous around every major city in South Africa. Shack towns remain a challenge for South Africa: they're generally built illegally, either on patches of land not designated for housing or even on private lands. The ANC government sees them rather go than come. Housing, however, also remains a challenge in South Africa - although the governmental housing programme has just opened its two millionth house, a large segment of the country's population does not have access to a "normal" house. In the meantime, foreign migrants are still drawn towards South Africa's growing economy and there remains an influx of people from the rural areas to the cities.
Shack towns are something different than townships - although you will find shack towns within townships. The government provides the barest of essentials to keep conditions somewhat humane in shack towns - authorities install chemical toilets and a tap point for potable water, but that's generally the limit. Anyone from Europe who'd visit an informal shack town would be appalled. I surely was.
Associated with the shack towns is the large potential for fires. As there is generally no electricity, cooking is done on paraffin stoves, lighting relies on candles. Even when there is electricity, this also provides a fire-hazard as the quality of the electric wiring is not above standard. Combine that with the bone-dry winters here and what do you get?
Shack fires. Settlements going up in a roar of violent flames. Firemen are not at hand, and the accessibility of a shack town is marginal to poor at best. The majority of the victims, of those who survive, are women and children.
Children, damaged for the rest of their life, from a background where there is no money, let alone knowledge about burn wounds. This is where Children of Fire comes in.
I became aware of Children of Fire by chance - someone who had done some engineering work for the organisation told me about it. Then, when I moved places, it happened I moved close to the organisation's headquarters without me knowing in advance that I actually did. This too was a fortuitous turn of events, as my girlfriend came to work at Children of Fire as a volunteer this past winter, and allowed me for better contacts with the organisation. Children of Fire is a NGO, that had its beginning some twelve years ago. It was set up by Bronwen Jones, an English lady, who previously worked as a geological technician and as journalist. In the latter function she became aware of the fate of Dorah Mokoena.
Dorah is now 13 years old. There is, to the knowledge of the organisation, no one alive on this planet whom is as gravely mutilated by fire as Dorah. Her wounds originate from a shack fire when she was a mere six months or so. She ended up in hospital, but the doctors stood helpless - all expected the baby to die. Bronwen found Dorah, took custody of her and she is the sole reason why Dorah is alive today.
Dorah has undergone over twenty operations by now to restore her face that was taken from her. The fire left her without ears, lips, nose, eye-lids or fingers. Dorah's hairline is affected as happens to many who are afflicted by fire, and her speech ability is damaged. Dorah is almost completely blind, although she can recognise light - however, the doctors sewed her eyes shut as the eyes became problematic over time.
This is Seiso.
Seiso is now two years old, one of the youngest recent additions of Children of Fire. He has burn wounds on the left side of his face and in his groin. Although his burn wounds are appearing relatively mild, the story of Seiso is heading to become as high profile as Dorah's. Because Seiso's burn wounds are not the result of an accident. When Seiso was one year old, two boys, no older than eleven and thirteen years old, took Seiso, forced a piece of cloth in his mouth and poured scalding water over him. Intentionally.
I can only guess, but I mostly can't - it goes beyond my capacities. The two boys are now standing trial and have confessed their guilt. Part of my girlfriend's tasks was to set up a medical dossier on Seiso which was used in court.
Seiso was almost for a year in hospital for a skin graft and a wound that would not close. Urinating has become problematic and due to a bacterial infection of his urinary tract, Seiso's bladder is now easily susceptible for bladder stones. He has already had two removed after months of agony - as Seiso can't tell anyone yet what is hurting him.
A personal note. I'm not particularly good with these kinds of things - that's why I mess about with rocks as my profession. Emotionally, it affects me at the deepest level. When I went one day to pick up my girlfriend I had mentally braced myself - but it was not enough. I had never seen Dorah, or the other kids, and when I did, the experience left me physically unwell. I wish I didn't need to write this, but I felt my stomach turn over as the children filed outside to admire the newcomer. It was, in one word, shocking how damaged these children are.
Dorah and Debbie, one of the volunteers.
Language is important for Children of Fire - you're not allowed to describe the children as "victims" but as "survivors" instead. Having said that, any chances on a normal life for those children seems gone, in my opinion.
Operations can make bearable some of the worst tissue damage - skin grafts, hair extensions, cosmetic changes. But an eye can not be replaced, a nose or ear needs to be replicated, for women, fire leaves breasts damaged beyond repair. And let's not forget to touch the psychological damage.
As the operational costs are staggering and there is no money for these children, Children of Fire organises research, tests and surgery for free. It does this by aggressively pursuing and phoning specialists, not taking no for an answer and making an appeal to their conscience at whatever opportunity. And this verbal aggression generally works - also because doctors have been allotted a certain amount of pro bono work by the government that covers those expenses.
Shack towns are everywhere, but there is only one Children of Fire in South Africa or, for that matter, for the whole of Africa: here, in Johannesburg. Children all across the country, from Mpumalanga or KwaZulu-Natal, come to Children of Fire. As surgery is generally done in Johannesburg, the children stay around for a while. There is a shelter, and as the organisation grew bigger, Bronwen also founded the School for the Blind.
This is where the children can continue their (primary) education while they stay in Johannesburg - but it is also intended to give education for children who are blind or have poor eyesight, as there are currently no facilities for them in Johannesburg. Although both the school and Children of Fire are set up by Bronwen, the two organisations should operate independently, but complement each other. Many children also eat and sleep at the school. Feleng (above) has no family, and stays permanently at Children of Fire.
The vision that Bronwen has, as I understand it, is that there should be no reason whatsoever why these children should be left out of living a normal life. In June this year, an international group (teenagers), were sponsored by a multitude of companies and supporters to make it possible for them to climb Kilimanjaro - which they did.
Next year, it is planned to take a group of the younger kids to the Drakensberg for fun and games. So, besides organising paperwork, bloodwork, teaching, surgery, research, documentation, also organising games, music and birthday parties are part of the daily staple. Because making and having fun with the kids is part of the job.
A personal perspective, as a relative outsider. I feel that volunteers are the lifeblood of the organisation. I've absolutely no doubt that without the regular influx of volunteers, the organisation would not be able to function as it does today. I've the impression that Bronwen is chronically overworked, does not allow herself to take proper rest (I learned that she was seriously, threateningly ill with bronchitis last year) and simply takes on too much tasks. She also wants to expand into more countries - there are pilot projects underway to set up new offices in Zambia, Nigeria and other African countries.
Bronwen is the kind of woman who sets a plan and wants it done - which is also one of the reasons why I won't be able to work for her. At Children of Fire, the goals justify the means - and as laudable those goals are, I'm in sharp disagreement with Bronwen's managing style and people skills, although I haven't confronted her with those issues and rather doubt for improvement if I did. (But I suspect the managing style is one of the reasons why the turnover rate of volunteers is rather high...) I also have a problem with her simplifications of the cultures here - I've already witnessed a few occasions where I think the organisation is riding roughshod over the traditional (black) cultures. Bronwen is still thinking "white" in that regard, and not as a teabag (that is, white from the outside, black from the inside). This is a subject for another time - I've been classed a "teabag" and integrating into the black cultures has been one of the most fascinating and gratifying things I've done in my life.
But can you overcome the above - Bronwen remains a force for the betterment of this country and the volunteers that weather it through Bronwen's style and the first weeks of shock and awe are exposed to a part of South Africa only a rare few can talk about. The poorest of poor conditions, travelling to areas and places where no tourist treads, hands-on, practical teamwork in an organisation that's always short of money, which is guaranteed to breed creativity.
But, in the end, it's about the kids: kids who just want to have a normal life, play, have fun.
More on the website: Children of Fire
Volunteers and supporters welcome.