It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never lived in Africa just what it entails. How after weekends like this, Africa and its many complexities reverberate in your bones, the challenges right on your doorstep can shake you to your core. Cape Town is always plagued by fires at this time of year, having our annual rainfall in winter means summers are usually dry, but this summer is worse. We have enough water in our reservoirs to last about another 60 days, after that we are the mercy of the Rain Gods. Fires have been raging on our mountain sides like they normally do, but Friday night’s fire took hold in a far more devastating way. It started in a shack in the informal settlement Mandela Park, located in Hout Bay. With shacks built one upon another with barely enough room to walk between, let alone enough room for fire-truck access or even firemen with hoses, the fire wrecked devastation, burning roughly 1000 houses, claiming numerous lives, and leaving a yet unconfirmed number of people, but estimates are around 10 000, with virtually nothing.
Living in the Hout Bay valley has been a sombre experience this weekend. We watched as thousands of people covered in soot, carrying what few possessions they could carry out of their homes, amble their way down to the main road, as blackened leaves and ash rained down around us. Sometimes all people could carry was the young, disabled or the elderly, while they left everything else to burn. We are used to fires, we – sadly – are even used to homeless people, but this was so different. Listening to the sounds of exploding gas bottles every few minutes, which sounded like bombing, made me feel like we were fighting our own kind of war. It seems wholly unfair; people who have so little, losing what few possessions they have.
There is a huge disparity between rich and poor in South Africa, and a natural segregation that comes with it. One of the positives of living in Hout Bay is that our children grow up with their eyes wide open, aware of people who have less, and those that have more. We see their houses, we spend time with them and we share stories. When devastation like this happens our children are virtually on the front lines. They see the queues of people waiting for food and water, and we are forced to talk about these issues, the fact that we have so much more than so many people in the world, and there are things we can do to help. Sharing our clothes, our toys and our food with people who have lost what little they had seems the least we could do. As much as I want to protect my children from the big-bad-ugly world, I also want them to know how privileged they are, I want them to know gratitude, and I want to teach them that they have a responsibility to give back to people who need help. We are not alone on this planet; we are each other’s keepers.
It’s so easy to look past what’s going on next to you, think that someone else will deal with it, rationalise why it’s not your problem, but if we all did that who on earth would help? Thankfully Hout Bay seems to have a lot of people who don’t behave that way. There has been a spur to action to the point where there is no bread left in most of our shops, the shelves are being cleared by Hout Bay residents who are buying food and dropping it at designated locations where volunteers feed, clothe and medically attend to those affected by the fire. Organisations are rallying to collect funds to purchase new school supplies and uniforms for children who have nothing. The community at large seems to be doing wardrobe ‘clean outs’ and donating clothing to people with nothing more than the pyjamas they were wearing when they ran from their shacks in the middle of the night. It really is something inspiring to see, when your community and your neighbours stand up and do what they can to help. They give what they can give, and pass on all the love they can. I have seen more than a few onlookers in tears and heard parents talking about their children not being able to sleep because they are worrying about their friends from school who live in Mandela Park. Let us hope this care and concern carries on, because our community will need help for a while yet, with thousands homeless and many of them needing trauma counselling and support. We all need to do our part, whatever that part is, and we need to keep doing it after all the hype dies down. Thankfully the Hout Bay community has an incredible track record of pulling together. They are a beacon of light in a country that is still torn by inequality and racial differences. Despite our many problems, and we have them – make no mistake – there are few Hout Bay residents that will turn a blind eye on what’s going on around them.
After a heavy weekend, our own disappointments pale into insignificance when looking through the smoky haze of unfairness that surrounds us. Our own problems shouldn’t be ignored, but a disaster like this certainly puts them in perspective.
Love and thanks to all those volunteers out there who selflessly continue to give of their time and energy.
Thank you to www.sullivanphotography.org for the incredible images.
FYI – As of Monday morning there was still no electricity or water in the whole of Mandela Park, including the area that was unaffected by the fire. What most people consider basic human rights, are inaccessible for a large portion of the Hout Bay population. So while our attention is needed by those directly affected by the fire, don’t forget to check in with others from Mandela Park, make sure they have a way to prepare and cook food, enough water for basic ablutions, or offer those you know, at the very least, the opportunity to get clean at your house until water pipes are mended and electricity restored.