In February 2005, Children of Fire employs one person:
Thomas Ranamane of
Alexandra township, Greater Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. Everyone
else is involved in a voluntary capacity.
Some people come for a few months, some for a year. They are self-funding for the bulk of their costs. There is now a strong
link with the international student body AIESEC for development placements.
The projects being undertaken in 2005 include:
The Disability Transport Project
Otto Geukers (from the Netherlands) and Nancy Kluth (from Germany) are looking at ways to make it easier for
disabled children in Greater Johannesburg to attend school. They have liaised with the national Department of Transport as well as provincial bodies and the City of Johannesburg. Their task is to provide a map that the layman can understand and use, to travel from A to B.
While there is an optimistic Integrated Transport Plan 2003-2008 for Johannesburg on a snazzy CD Rom, the plans and the reality are still far apart. Also most people do not have access to computers nor even know that the CD Rom exists.
The reality is:
The most common form of frequent transport in Greater Johannesburg is the minibus taxi. While there are attempts to make these safer, many vehicles are still dangerous and the drivers barely regulated. There are in excess of 2000 different taxi routes across the city and no easy way at all for the general public to find out information on the routes. In addition to this, the taxi owners do not want to transport disabled people. They say that blind people cannot say where they want to get off and cannot handle the payment system on board. Taxi drivers are extremely reluctant to transport wheelchairs and charge for them as an extra passenger. So a mother pushing her physically disabled child in a wheelchair and accompanied by her other mentally disabled child, pays four fares to get the children to school instead of two. This uses up more money per month than the disability grant and prevents the mother from seeking work. In addition to this, a huge number of children entitled to a disability grant do not receive it.
Certain buses can deal with some disabilities more easily, but buses are infrequent, they travel largely in the morning and evening rush hours, and they are often incredibly late. This is not a matter of a few minutes but sometimes 40 minutes to one hour late. There is no system to advise or apologise to the customer; more often than not there is no shelter from the elements either. Any hope of linking a bus journey to another scheduled form of transport is lost, due to the unreliable timekeeping of the drivers and the slack management.
Trains are often the cheapest form of transport but access if hard for a blind person or a wheelchair user and travellers say that disabled people would be at great risk from the criminal element that strikes most readily on board train services. There are few if any links from the train stations to other forms of transport.
Because transport is so hard - and so expensive - there are many children who would like to attend a day school for blind children or those with other disabilities, who simply do not go to school at all.
One way to help make communities-at-risk into safer places, is for people to have gainful employment. To this end, Jon Maiden (from the United Kingdom) has continued Children of Fire's programme in Joe Slovo squatter camp, Coronationville, of getting potential entrepreneurs onto training schemes. It is liaising with the Business Place, run by Investec, in central Johannesburg to put five people at a time onto a course, but is seeking some external sponsorship for these courses of R250 a person.
While Jon is on secondment to the United Nations in Poland, Nancy Kluth is overseeing the empowerment project.
Johannesburg School for the Blind
Amelia Tandy (from Australia) is a marine biologist by training, but she has filled the role of school manager for part of 2004 and will continue this task until mid 2005. It has been a crash course for her, from learning Braille to attending courses on disability. She has helped to formalise contracts for teachers and classroom assistants, assessed insurance, sourced equipment and arranged teacher training. When Paula Wanner (from the Netherlands) arrives in April 2005, she will help prepare for the school's next Holiday Week - a free-of-charge programme of wonderful activities arranged twice a year not just for the school's regular pupils but also for children from other schools for the blind in Kliprivier, in Katlehong and in Pretoria. The holiday weeks to date have included music workshops by international pianists and composers; concerts by the Sontonga Quartet; Indian cookery by television celebrities; Islamic dance; Tswana, Pedi, Shangan, Venda and Zulu traditional dance and song; theatre trips to the Johannesburg Youth Theatre; art therapy; play acting; reflexology; and lots of crafts.
The school is establishing itself as a centre of excellence for complicated children and, when Paula arrives, will start its adult education initiative as well.
Constitutional Court Class Action
A long-delayed project due to lack of appropriately-skilled people, will start its research base in 2005 under the guidance of Nancy Kluth. The intention is to secure the same financial support from government for all children's education, regardless of their ability to get to school or not. This would e.g. allow a cerebral palsy child to have state-funded occupational therapy at home if she had no means of getting to a school or if no local school would agree to teach her.
UMashesha and safety outreach
The UMashesha (quick mover) initiative continues its programme of outreach, nationally and locally in Alexandra. Amelia Tandy will head the safety play programme in up to 50 schools Hoedspruit near the Kruger Park around April 2005.
Firefighting water tanks
Volunteers will look for funding and appropriate locations to put more firefighting water tanks into squatter camp (shanty town) communities.
Children of Fire still needs more qualified junior and senior primary school teachers and people who can teach the teachers, ideally already with a background of working with disabled children. They must be able to prepare lesson plans that meet the learning outcomes (and more), required for each grade in South Africa.
Bright researchers who can plod through manual records of e.g. burns injury in state hospitals or e.g. of causes of fires and location from fire brigades, and produce more useful and accessible information.
Volunteers with a legal background; volunteers with a medical background including those in physio, occupational or speech therapy.
Counselors able to speak South Africa's indigenous langugages fluently.
Highly computer-literate people who can produce emailable newsletters that use mimimal memory as well as enter complex data onto the transport-mapping software.
Most of all - people who are prepared to turn their hand to anything as each day brings new challenges, many of them entirely unpredictable.
Each person who joins Children of Fire is asked to prepare something about themselves and their home country, some of which will feature on the website.
Here's Paula Wanner's picture collage:
Rewards of a volunteer
In June 2004 I went to South Africa to volunteer for Children of Fire and its subsidiary charity, the Johannesburg School for Blind, Low Vision and Multiple Disability Children (Beka). I originally went for three months but was lucky enough to be asked to extend my stay. I studied marine biology and business at university so my job seemed not to be related to this in any way. However, I soon found that I had many skills to share and more to learn from. I have grown from the challenges I have faced and gained life-long skills. I haven't stopped wanting to work with animals or for the environment, but I am really glad to be making a difference in the lives of injured children and indigent people.
In December 2004 the charity director Bronwen Jones arranged something special for me. Some research scientists were looking for volunteers to help them with a study on Southern Right Whales on the South African west coast. So, Children of Fire flew me to Cape Town where I spent a week working with UMashesha head, Thomas Ranamane on links with other charities and disaster management. Then I spent two wonderful weeks based in Saldanha. Each day, weather permitting, we'd get up at 5:45am, get ready and be on the water by 7:30am. Our day was spent searching for whales, photographing them, taking faeces plankton samples, doing biopsies and we even tagged one whale for a few hours.
I was so excited to see the whales up close and also to be doing something related to my degree. Mostly the whales were alone, though we saw a few mother and calf pairs. However, on the last day we were lucky. We came across a SAG - surface activity group. There were three whales rolling about at the surface - two males and a female. Apparently they do this for some time. Basically the males are competing for the female's attention in the hopes of 'getting lucky'. However, it doesn't get aggressive as they simply rely on their sperm to be stronger than that of their competitors.
On another day we came across a feeding frenzy - a large school of dusky dolphins were feeding on some fish, possibly sardines, and they were joined by some cormorants, gannets, gulls and seals. There was activity everywhere and it was so exciting to see so many animals in one place. When the weather was bad I got to read or take a walk in the nearby nature reserve and just relax.
Thanks to Children of Fire's huge network of contacts, the director could organise this break. She is classed as a "marine educator" because through the Sunday library initiative, she takes sand, shells, posters and other visual aids into squatter camps and so helps urban shanty town dwellers to understand a little of the magic of the sea. The flip of a whale's tail is far from the roar of a squatter camp fire, but through this unusual charity there is a link to be found.
I had a wonderful time and it's something I've always wanted to do. Thanks for this experience; my résumé has never looked so colourful and interesting!
This is one of many letters received by Children of Fire, that sums up
the frustrations of trying to help as a children's ward-or-home volunteer.
Children of Fire works with, and recognises, the wonderful commitment of many
medical staff, but has witnessed too much apathy on the wards not to comment on
it as well.
Letter from the Cape:
I read your article about Dorah with great interest - and with
sadness as well, because I had a feeling that I was hearing myself speak.
I am not looking after a burns victim myself the way you do, but I
have been involved in a children's hospital for a year now. This hospital
caters for a variety of long term patients - from mentally retarded, to TB
sufferers, spina bifida and burns victims. The number of burns victims at that
hospital is quite high. The children spend months there, having their skin
stretched for grafts, or going for daily therapy. I became involved with the
hospital about a year ago and since then my frustration has only grown.
Initially I went there because of an article in a local paper, asking
for donations. So I took my three children and one Saturday morning we set off
to deliver the toys. Our first reaction was shock. The hospital was very clean
and all the children were fed and dressed and their immediate medical needs
were obviously taken care of. But it was a place of such desolation. We went to
the playroom and found several children sitting on benches along the wall in a
completely empty room. There was not a single toy or book among them and the
room was painted hospital green. In the baby ward all the babies and toddlers
were safely locked in their cots and the playpen was clean and very tidy - and
very empty too.
Since that first visit I have been back to the hospital on numerous
occasions - to take some of the children out, to paint murals in the playroom,
to help with feeding the babies, and my constant feeling is that of
frustration. I have never seen such indifference and apathy as I see among the
nurses at that place. Invariably, when I come the babies and toddlers are
locked in the cots without toys and the bigger children are just roaming the
ward - again without anything at all to occupy them. In the mornings the bigger
kids go to a little nursery room run by a pre-school teacher but in the
afternoons and on weekends they are totally at the mercy of the nurses. And it
is always the same story - the nurses are either chatting or endlessly washing
the floor while the children sit, lie or wander around, bored to tears. They
are very seldom taken out, even to the hospital grounds. In fact some of the
long term toddlers are so used to being inside that they are terrified of
anything new - be it grass, planes or just cars passing by. The hospital has a
little playground - complete with rusty swings and slides, that are of course
very seldom used. The explanation is also always the same - the nurses are
overworked. I find this explanation as hard to believe as you did when you went
to visit Dorah at the hospital. And I also feel very strongly that the kind of
indifference experienced by these children, who spend months at the hospital,
amounts to mental cruelty. I also found the nurses' attitude to volunteers
almost hostile. Some are friendly, but often I feel that they would like me to
go away, to stop meddling in their business, that they would prefer me to put
the toddlers down in the cots, to pack away the toys and just leave everything
tidy, neat and easy to clean. I have thought on several occasions of writing
either to a newspaper or to the authorities in charge of the hospital but
eventually decided that it would be counterproductive. Who am I to tell the
nursing profession that they are not so terribly overworked, that no child, and
in particular immobile handicapped child or severely wounded child, should be
left unattended for hours without stimulation, that burns victims need more
than aqueous cream to help the skin, that children need to be touched, kissed,
carried, tickled, talked to, that it is not enough to just keep them alive and
Good luck with Dorah. She sounds like a lovely girl.
PS - I experienced the same fear and uncertainty about exposing my
children to the burns victims as you did, but have found, like you, that after
the initial shock, they accepted these children for what they are - just
children - funny, naughty and lovely. It has been an invaluable experience for
my own children and I think they became better people through that.
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