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For a Lark: Children of Fire

by Nomad Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 12:14:23 PM EST

This is a photo-story that began when circumstances and fortune brought lives together and created a force for good. It's also a typical insight into what happens in South Africa, about a subject where I suspect only few people have heard of - and it's a darker and more brutal facet of life in this country, of which poverty is the prime root.

Children of Fire

A warning in advance: some of the following pictures can be experienced as shocking.

Promoted by Colman

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.

Top: Feleng
Bottom: Sizwe

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.

Long in the waiting, but the first of a number of diaries to reciprocate with Colman's (in)famous rant "Fuck This for a Lark".
by Nomad on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 12:29:20 PM EST
A really powerful diary and thanks very much for bringing this here, Nomad. It's good to know that something is there for some of these children, but still shocking that they live in such precarious conditions as these that creates the need for Children of Fire in the first place.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 02:04:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for taking the time and effort for this diary, Nomad.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anas Nin
by Crazy Horse on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 02:20:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
at all, Nomad and it takes guts and caring to put it up.  Thank you!  It is breathtaking, enraging, frustrating as hell, but we need to know and feel even if we are helpless to act.

One of these days, a lot of us will reach that one episode-of-suffering too many and we will break down the walls of world stupidity and insanity.  And the next day another wave of us will be ready, and the next...  

Thank your partner for me.  I´m glad you know what and how much you can take on!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 02:51:36 PM EST
I really have the greatest of respects for what she did and is doing. Same goes for all the volunteers and Bronwen as well.

Thank you too, metavision, and everyone else for your responses. I suspected this diary would trigger something, but I hadn't expected this.... so far it has been somewhat overwhelming. Still. I practically went though an identical experience when I was introduced to the charity. I can relate. It's hard to take in the dramas that take place in SA on a daily basis in one leap.

People with a heart can easily go insane in this country.

by Nomad on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 12:06:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
People with a heart can easily go insane in this country.


by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 01:13:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
People with a heart can easily go insane in this country world.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 06:01:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know what to say so I'll say nothing. This is a fine diary, Nomad, thanks for writing it and sharing this experience with us.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 04:01:22 PM EST
It's taken me a while to quit crying and compose myself enough to be able to comment on this diary.  And still, my head is spinning with so many things to say, I can't possibly say them all and anyway every one of them only gets at a tiny part of this whole thing.  I want to say just one thing, then:  These fires are a plague, a plague, and all the medical care in the world will only go so far if nothing is done about the problem at the root, which as you point out is poverty.

The right to adequate housing is in the Constitution.  And the government is building houses, but the squatter camps keep growing, new ones keep springing up, driven by urbanization (which is driven in turn by rural poverty) and migration (or immigration) -- in other words by desperation, by the dream of a better life and a total lack of opportunity to build one.

Anyway, Nomad, thank you so much for this diary.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 04:51:06 PM EST
like afew, i cannot say anything.  except, like metavision, this is no lark.  and just, thank you.

as you note, this may not be the right place for the discussion, but one of the things you wrote that struck out was:

Bronwen is still thinking "white" in that regard, and not as a teabag (that is, white from the outside, black from the inside).

i hope you do get a chance to write a diary about that some time.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 06:08:32 PM EST
Nomad, hoe verwerk je dat.
Dit is een onmogelijke hoeveelheid werkelijkheid, laat staan emotie om in één keer te verwerken.
We lezen zoveel hier op ET, maar dit slaat heel wat.
Al bij al, dit is een 'must known' voor ons.
Petje af voor je moed om dit zo picturaal voor ons te brengen.
Hou je goed!

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Sun Nov 18th, 2007 at 06:10:50 PM EST
Overwhelmingly humbling.

Thank you.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 05:33:48 AM EST
I was here.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 07:23:39 AM EST
I sit here in my warm house with up-to-code gas and electrical and am brought face to face once more with how sheltered my life is.

This is a very powerful diary, and the pictures are moving - not merely appalling. In most of them, the children display the postures and attitudes of... children, in spite of all they've been through. I think Bronwen is right not to call them victims.

Thank you for posting this.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt t gmail dotcom) on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 02:21:11 PM EST
Thank you for the diary, Nomad! Nothing I can think of to comment, besides it is disturbing and deeply touching at the same time.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 02:21:45 PM EST
I'm afraid I'll never get the image of Dorah and Debbie out of my mind. And those boys sticking out their tongues.

I don't have a god, but if I did I would implore it to look after these kids and their caregivers..  I'd thank that same god for the volunteers.

by vicki on Mon Nov 19th, 2007 at 07:17:56 PM EST

These are two of chosen participants of the Miss Landmine Angola 2008 beauty peasant - quite a provoking project, with online voting...

The primped and preened contestants are vying not only for the title but for a prosthetic leg from a leading orthopedic clinic. The Miss Landmine Manifesto reads: "female pride and empowerment, disabled pride and empowerment, global and local landmine awareness and information, challenge inferiority and/or guilt complexes that hinder creativity ... question established concepts of physical perfection, challenge old and ingrown concepts of cultural cooperation, celebrate true beauty, replace the passive term 'Victim' with the active term 'Survivor.'"

The contest -- as well as its motto, "Everybody has the right to be beautiful" -- is the brainchild of Norwegian artist Morten Traavik. He visited Angola in 2003, shortly after the civil war ended, and found "a tragic and troubling reality, but also a great and profound joy of life." That contrast inspired him to organize an Angolan beauty pageant for land mine victims. He says, "I'd like the project to both move and provoke people. But if at any point I had perceived that Angolan society, and first and foremost the women themselves, didn't appreciate Miss Landmine, I would of course never had gone through with it."

Few will probably be immediately comfortable with the project, but the participants seem to be enjoying it, even if their special treatment won't last long.

by das monde on Tue Nov 20th, 2007 at 01:05:15 AM EST
No words to express our gratitude, Nomad, for bringing this shocking theme here. I have seen people who survived fire fortunately not children in my town - mostly anti-social elements (drunkards) but this case definitely caused by utter poverty in fire-prone shanty towns. Such a shame. Ultimate poverty is rife in India too but construction materials are different - usually the poor build fire-proof mud huts or just sleep on the streets that's why here I did not see fire victims.
by FarEasterner on Tue Nov 20th, 2007 at 02:55:19 AM EST

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