In the early hours of February 2016, my brother’s housekeeper Xolisile, and her daughter Kaushi, lost their home to a fire in Imizamo Yethu.
Later that day I visited the burn site with my brother, Ian, to see where we could help. When we arrived, many of the exhausted victims were already rebuilding their homes with whatever could be salvaged. The few hours I spent in Imizamo Yethu, I was blown away by the productivity of the victims, and how effectively they worked together.
That weekend, I met Joanne from the disaster relief organisation Thula Thula. I was moved by her relentless commitment in helping the fire victims. After interviewing Joanne and Xolisile, I felt compelled to tell their story. It represents the story of so many who lose their homes to fires.
Sadly, on Saturday 12 March 2017, Xolisile and Kaushi’s home burnt down again. This time she could not flee to her sister’s home. Her sister, along with almost 15000 others, lost their homes as well.
The many fires in Imizamo Yethu are devastating. This article does not seek to find answers. It is a tribute to Joanne, Xolisile and the communities in Hout Bay. The many who pull together to provide relief after disaster.
Rebuilding after the fire
“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” – Hellen Keller
Xolisile climbs out of bed and rubs her gritty eyes. Her chest hurts from the smoke, and she has been awake all night while her shack burnt down, but she has to go back to her plot. There is work to be done.
The percussive banging of hammers on metal echo through the smoke filled air, as she approaches the rubble strewn site where peoples’ homes stood mere hours ago.
Tears come to Xolisile’s eyes as she arrives at the tiny patch of charred cement where her home stood, high on the mountain at the upper edges of Imizamo Yethu township. She takes in the blackened wound of the surrounding mountains, dread flooding her as she recalls the horror of the previous night.
Close to midnight the screams of ‘’Fire! Fire!’’ had woken her and catapulted her out of bed. With adrenaline pumping through her system, she woke her ten year old daughter, Kaushi and together they grabbed a few belongings before fleeing for their lives. Moments later, the raging flames devoured their home and two hundred shacks along with it.
In the pitch dark, with screams filling the air and smoke entering their lungs, they ran, colliding with equally terrified people fleeing the burning flames. As soon as Xolisile was a safe distance from the fire she phoned her sister, whose shack was a short walk away. They had watched as men had valiantly tried and failed to put out the fire, with only one water hose. Then firefighters arrived, struggling to make their way up the treacherous terrain on foot, battling through the narrow paths in the dark. The firefighters extinguished the last of the flames as the sun was rising.
Although none of the victims have slept, they have already started working, clearing their plots and seeing what they can salvage.
“Molo sisi,” Xolisile’s neighbour, Topi greets her, his eyes red from the thick smoke of the fire. Xolisile’s direct neighbours, whose plots sit almost flush with hers, join the two of them. There are nine of them in all, with Xolisile being the only woman. The group are shell shocked and unsure of where to start.
Topi takes the lead. ‘’It will be easier, and quicker,’’ he tells the group, ‘’if we work together. We should start on Xoli’s plot because it’s in the middle. We’ll clear it together, then move onto the next one and clear that together.’’
The group agree, and stoically, they begin the task of banging out sheets of metal, which they place in a pile, collecting nails and placing them in a small plastic tub.
The group get into a rhythm, working as a team. All the men have done hard labor before, and have built up skills from a lifetime of self-reliance. Topi quickly assesses which skills each individual has, and takes to directing. Along with hundreds of others in the community, the group ignore their exhaustion, shock and grief. They begin the process of rebuilding, sweating as the rising sun blazes down on their exposed heads.
As they work, a couple of government officials arrive with loud speakers. Picking their way carefully among the rubble, the officials call people to fill out forms. The officials explain that people who’ve lost their homes need to sign the forms, so they know how many emergency kits to provide. The victims need to collect their kits, which will be arriving the following day.
Helping Hands of Thula Thula and the Hout Bay community
Two woman, Joanne and Nosi, are also collecting names, and handing out sandwiches and drinks. Emblazoned on the back of their t-shirts is Thula Thula, the name of their disaster relief organization. Joanne left her home in the valley, and arrived at Imizamo Yethu at five in the morning to collect Nosi, her colleague and close friend.
Nosi and Joanne get to work, taking people’s cell phone numbers. Once registered, each fire victim will receive an sms to collect allocated donations from the soccer field hall.
Xolisile and her neighbours take a break from their work to sign the forms that Joanne has brought along. She is deeply touched by this friendly young woman.
The long exhausting day draws to an end
Xolisile and her neighbours decide to call it a day as it’s getting dark. All four of their plots have been cleared. Plots around them are all at different stages of rebuilding. Impressively, some residents have already erected part of their structure with salvaged remains. Xolisile goes to her sister Bongiwe’s shack and cooks a stew for herself and her neighbours, encouraging them to eat. Tomorrow they will need their energy for the endless labor and queuing that the day will bring.
By the time Joanne arrives home, she feels exhausted. She knows however, how much work Thula Thula still needs to do organising and distributing the donations. She has been at the scene after many fires since she started Thula Thula four years ago. Although the devastation still shocks and upsets her, Joanne is driven to continue when she sees the resilience and industry of people who have lost so much.
She is motivated by the continued and generous support of the wider community in Hout Bay; the individuals and businesses who give willingly of their time and resources. There are restaurants who’ve donated food, retailers who leave collection trolleys, the Rotary club, individuals who raid their cupboards, and the volunteers who work together to make up the emergency packs. Joanne is amazed at the outpourings on Facebook from people literally begging to know how they can help.
Xolisile stands in the first endless queue, the merciless sun burning the back of her neck. Hundreds of people are in front of her and hundreds more behind. Tired, hot, hungry and needing the loo for ages, but she daren’t move as she will lose her place in the queue. Workers offload supplies from enormous trucks, and create piles of supplies for each shack, twenty piles at a time. While fire victims fill in and sign forms, and stand by their allocated pile. The piles consist of twenty-five metal sheets, four poles, nails, one door and one small window.
Only once each of the piles have been allocated to someone, do they get permission to be moved. Then another twenty piles are created and the process is repeated. Long, laborious, and unavoidable.
Once people have their pile, they begin the long hike up the mountain, returning to collect more. Men balancing heavy poles on their shoulders and woman carrying sheets of metal on their heads.
With the continued guidance of Topi, Xolisile and her neighbours queue together to work as a team. “When we have collected and moved our stuff to one side, we’ll put them together, carry them up as a group, then sort them out at the top. That way we can do it in one trip’’ Topi explains.
The long precarious hike
With the men carrying sheets of metal, and Xolisile carrying the poles, they struggle as they make their way up the steep incline of mountain. Navigating through the narrow paths and over the loose mountain rocks. Although they do this significant hike each day to get to work and school, doing it with such large supplies, is a huge challenge. The sheets of metal need to be tipped to one side, and poles repositioned while the group navigate the narrow paths, and avoid the tangle of wires overhead. By the time they arrive at their plots, their bodies are aching with exhaustion, but they need to keep working.
Like Guardian Angels, Thula Thula members and volunteers turn up to distribute food and water to the weary workers. After dropping off the housing kits, Xolisile and her friends make their way down the mountain to the soccer field.
They join another endless queue to claim their emergency packs and food vouchers, and then queue again at the police station where the food is handed out.
For the next two days, the exhausted and devastated survivors carry out the back breaking labour of building a shack from scratch. Topi asks his team to put together whatever tools have survived, then starting with Xolisile’s home, the team first digs holes into the cement. They place the poles into the holes, and fit the metal sheets to the poles. Xolisile does what she can manage physically and cooks for the team at lunch time. Kaushi makes herself useful with fetching and passing tools. Hundreds of people labour around them. After two days of solid work, it is as though a tin village has popped up overnight.
Post fire trauma
Xolisile shack has now been rebuilt, but she still sleeps at her sister’s home with her daughter. She is still too traumatised to stay in her new shack. Revisiting the site brings her traumatising triggers, nightmarish memories; the intense heat from the flames, peoples’ screams and fears of being burnt to death.
Losing all that she owned overnight has caused overwhelming distress. Xolisile cannot sleep with all the thoughts invading her frazzled mind; how can she afford to buy lost items, what if there is another fire, how can she help her daughter, Khausi with trauma.
Three weeks later – much achieved, but still far to go
Joanne arrives back in Hout Bay from her full time job, and although her family are waiting for her at home, she goes to the township to see what the fire victims need.
The land that was barren weeks ago, now has over one hundred shacks crammed next to each other. People chat animatedly to each other, music pumps out of a nearby shebeen, and children play amongst the rubble.
However, the extent of the loss is clear when Joanne goes from shack to shack, entering people’s homes to see what the fire victim’s still need. The insides of the tin homes are barren. There are no mattresses, bedding, curtains, cutlery or pots and the list goes on. Joanne takes down names and requirements, then places a Thula Thula sticker on the doors of the shacks she has visited.
Later that night, once Joanne has spent time with her family, she sits late into the night to document all the names and requirements of the people she has met, and allocates donations. Joanne wishes every person who has helped with the fire relief, knew how much their combined efforts have helped the survivors to rebuild their homes and lives.
She thinks how, at the end of the day, we all need the same things; love, peace and a safe home for our families, she vows to keep helping survivors of disaster as long as she is able.