14th Jul 2020 8:20:47 AM

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Children of Fire Community Work

While the charities have core objectives, it has become inevitable in our concern for safer communities, that a variety of other community-building initiatives are started. These are wide-ranging - from the squatter camp library to outings for children and baseline health surveys. Outings are organised as joint ventures with other groups like the Lions.

April 2003 saw the squatter camp library tackling serious topics as the young children asked for an explanation as to what the American invasion of Iraq was all about. They were aware of the news on television (there are TVs in some of the shebeens and also some squatter camp residents run small televisions from car batteries), and the news on radio.

A map from the Independent on Sunday newspaper was stuck on a shack wall and the topic discussed, complete with a can of 3-in-1 oil so that the children could tell the difference between that oil and "fish oil" that their mothers use for cooking.

The children, from toddlers up to teenagers, were concerned at their powerlessness. They looked at pictures of Iraqi children and said, unprompted, "they are no different to us". A few of the children attend Islaamic schools. Others asked about Moslems and headscarfs, and if they believed in God or Jesus. A serious seven year old wanted to do something. He said he would like to make a poster. But where would he put it? He had no idea.

They were told about embassies and high commissions but recognised without money and transport, they had little chance at this stage of their lives, for their voices being heard beyond their immediate community.

Often when topical issues are discussed, the adults want to join in as well. There would be a place for news forums in such communities if only they could be held without bias or politics.. and if only there were enough educated energetic people who could be bothered to run them.

On Sunday January 12th 2003 Loreta Nhlapo aged 10 and her sisters Elsy (8) and Thobeka (7) went to the Delta Park Environment Centre in Johannesburg to learn about spiders and to share a birthday celebration with their weekend library teacher Tristan De Ionno who was turning 12 years old the next day.

They were accompanied by Monica Coetzee (4), Georgina Moekwetsi (6), Alfred Mkwambi (8) and his sister Susiphe (9), Phontso Mukunke (11), Philadelphia Maaki (6), Bongani Zandile (7), Vhongani (13) and Khumbulani (16) Ndwandzule, Thabo Maenetja (14), Thuso Boyesens (10), Cjampi Josephin (13), Mothlaling Montwagae (12), Thagatso Maja (14) and his brother Khuhtana (9), Andrew Sedume (10), Alex Lingktokilo (10), Thabiso Mathika (8), Thembeka (12) and Lovedelia Maje (5), Mavel Luubenge (6), Bongi Mbaga (8), Maasi Sindikolo (5), Thato Sehumula (7), Veronica Moswani (8), Wellile Mbanga (14), Boithumelo Nstala (7), Themba Philip Motshwari (6) and his cousin Ashley Motshwari (8), Nomphucuko Silwane (11), Phuleng Modies (14), Liezel Cloete (15), Nomvula (14) and her brother Bafana Bayisi (11), Thapela and Obhakwe Philang (both aged 9) and Nokulunga Mbanga (9).

Adult helpers included Lisa and Lance Hutchinson, Ian and Kate McLean, Lorraine Doyle and Bronwen Jones.

The Environment Centre made a special arrangement to open on a Sunday and taught the children about spiders, insects, curious facts, songs and safety. The children made spiders from paper plates - a big circle as the body, a paper circle as the head and more paper circles as the eyes. Strips of black plastic bin bags were cut to make legs and they all coloured and glued them in (and a couple of kids seemingly pocketed the glue to take home!). Children of Fire paid the R9 a child to attend and Tristan hosted the refreshments with additions from the other helpers.

Ian and Lance played cricket with mostly boys, the children had running races and drawing competitions, and everyone had a soccer ball or toy to take home… as well as some wonderfully realistic plastic spiders. At the next Sunday's outdoor library session the theme was continued and the children received plastic baboon spiders to play with as well as learning how to spell useful words like "thorax"!

The following week the library session looked at the problems of alcohol, what it does to the brain, heart, stomach and liver, the cost, the social issues, the dangers - especially how it affects the mind if taken in quantity. Sometimes the Sunday library just tells fun stories and gets the children to draw pictures or to practice their writing.

Sometimes serious health, legal or moral issues are tackled in a child-friendly way.

No child under the age of 13 years old seems able to tell the time in Joe Slovo camp. They have very limited knowledge of animals, plants, birds, in fact very little general knowledge at all.

Of the children who attend library, an increasing number exhibit signs of malnutrition - from severely stunted growth to red-tinged hair; they also have external and internal mouth infections - a significant number of which seem to to be oral thrush associated with HIV-Aids; some have worms and many have skin rashes that look like ringworm, molluscum contagiousum; some demonstrate behaviour that hints at sexual abuse. Most are hungry and a few are very dirty. It does not seem to be common practice to wash hands or to cut fingernails or toenails.

Where it is feared that a child has suffered abuse, she is taken aside gently and reminded of her rights, of people who can help, and of how difficult it is to talk about certain subjects especially if someone has told one not to. We cannot secure reliable backup from any social work agency in the area.

In December 2002 a group of Alexandra Township children were taken to a concert including the Drakensberg Boys Choir and a symphony orchestra in Sandton, supervised by the UMashesha volunteers.

The most enthusiastic library attendees also attended a Fireworks Display at the Johannesburg Country Club in November 2002 (along with a contingent of burned and impoverished children from Alexandra township), and another group of the older children attended a Liberty Life Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra symphony concert one evening in October 2002… even getting their photograph on the "Society" pages of Johannesburg's "The Star" newspaper.

The children at Joe Slovo squatter camp all received a present from Father Christmas, accompanied by a TV soapie star (Parsons from Isidingo) and two young elves (Tristan and Thobeka) on Christmas Day 2000. They rode in style on a Brixton Firebrigade fire engine. The presents came from the community of Wivenhoe in Essex, UK.

The present-giving was followed up on Valentines Day 2002 and again on Christmas Day 2002 - Mike Downes of Wivenhoe, UK (see Wivenhoe section of the website) was particularly helpful in ensuring that the toys for December 2002 would keep the children busy - from ball games to Monopoly, chess and more.

Mike also arranged for his small town community to collect knitting wool and needles and this has been a springboard for a new Joe Slovo community knitting initiative in 2003.

All the families at Joe Slovo squatter camp received a bucket of food per family in December 2000; the bucket to be kept for fighting fires. This was supported by the Cradle Group of Investec employees.

In late March 2000 a large group of squatter camp children were taken to the special playground at Montecasino and out for hamburgers afterwards. Then on July 1st, 2001, 28 children who are usually hungry and usually barefoot, dressed up for a trip to Emmarentia to hear a full orchestra playing a mix of light and popular classics. For all of them it was their first chance to touch a trombone or sound a French horn. Some of the eight year olds tried out their first waltz as well. They ate a picnic at the openair concert and got a chance to play in a playground afterwards as well. The members of the orchestra were happy to share their skills with the children and at one stage a piece of music called 76 Trombones was conducted by six child conductors at once. Next we hope to take the children on a theatre outing.


Health Survey
The baseline health survey showed that many of the children are suffering from malnutrition, and two boys in particular have marasmus - long term starvation - and stunted growth. A 12.5 year old and his 15 year old brother are both smaller than an average 10 year old on a balanced diet. Other community health problems included a high number of cataracts, high blood pressure and sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV-Aids.

Khumbulani and Bongani, sitting on the shoulders of Children of Fire volunteers Collen Mudau and Aron Stout

A worrying number of children don't attend school at all. From Monday July 16th 2001, we ensured that two boys: Vhongani and Khumbulani, returned to school again after a three year absence (due largely to their family's lack of money, partly to their father's absence and party to their mother's alcholism). They were aged 15 and 12 years old but are smaller in stature than an average 10 year old, from long-term starvation (marasmus). They are now supported by a personal donation from Duncan Brisk, who is slightly younger than Vhongani yet considerably taller. Duncan visited the boys in mid 2002. We arranged for another child Ashley Motshwari to attend the same school and in January 2003 a further 13 children were assisted with uniforms and school stationery.

When we receive donations of items like second-hand clothing, these are passed on to the poorest of the poor. This is most needed on days like Sunday July 15th 2001, when about 45 shacks burned down at Joe Slovo camp leaving some 140 men, women and children homeless and with no possessions, in the middle of the highveld winter. This is now a key focus of the UMashesha's work (see their own website section)

Left: Trustee Bronwen met with the chief executive of private hospital group Netcare. While in the building she overheard that all the office carpets were going to be changed. She asked for the old carpets to be donated to the Joe Slovo squatter camp in Coronation, where people use carpet instead of tarmacadam, to help them walk on the mud. Thank you Netcare.

We have also received Vodacom coffee mugs via SuperCall (mostly given to the UMashesha), a mixture of donations from the Callie and Monique Trust, and continual support from AMB Holdings, formerly the African Merchant Bank.

This material is Copyright The Dorah Mokoena Charitable Trust and/or Children of Fire , 1998-2020.
Distribution or re-transmission of this material, excluding the Schools' Guide, is expressly forbidden without prior permission of the Trust.
For further information, email firechildren@icon.co.za