Help Lavender Hill fire victims

Dr Beverley Roos-Muller, Marina da Gama

The tall thin figure standing in my garage last Friday morning is black with soot. Then, tears mark his cheeks. “There was a fire last night,” he says. “This is all I have left…” He holds out his empty, blackened hands. “Just the clothes I am standing in, and my phone in my pocket.”

Paul Kuiler lives in a poor, overcrowded and dangerous area in Lavender Hill, with his wife, son and daughter, and 7-year-old granddaughter. It is a tight warren of cobbled-together wood-and iron-structures adjoining dirt paths. Last Friday night, May 19, around 6pm, five shacks caught fire in the middle of this group of tightly-packed dwellings.

It was home to Paul for 18 years. He had lived with his mother until the longing for his own place, with his wife and family, drove him to build the little, simple space with the tiny garden he lovingly tended from cuttings he took from our larger, lusher gardens. There were chameleons there; their cat lounged in the sun. Everything is now gone – the shack, clothes, furnishings, food. Also the cat, and his pet birds, and the chameleons, all perished. There is just blackened, scorched earth.

“I am shocked,” he says, over and over, “I can’t stop the shock. Eighteen years and there is nothing left.”

His tears flow again as he apologizes for coming to me. I am, rightly, mortified. As a pensioner, life is harder than ever, but compared to him, I’m a billionaire. He needs to buy wood and zinc sheets, to borrow a hammer, saw, spade. “You need more than that,” I say and contact my young neighbours for whom he also works, Lara and Jannik, in Park Island Way, Marina da Gama,

We ransack our cupboards and begin to collect supplies for him and the distressed families. Then Lara, of the social-media generation, does the smart thing and puts his plight onto our Park Island group. There is an immediate response – still ongoing.

Paul needs to go back home at once to begin to rebuild. He and his son slept through the cold, smoke-filled night, to protect his ash-covered site which he owns. Filling my car with emergency goods, we drive to the end of Military Road, past the brick buildings and bump onto a dirt track winding tightly through shacks. Neighbours sit on chairs so close they can touch my car as they wave.

We reach the obscured fire site where people are busy clearing, carrying, sorting through the black earth. The charred bedsprings of what was once a bed are visible. Children scramble on ash heaps. Everyone greets us warmly; we are one block away from gangsterland.

I photograph the chaos. In this small clearing, five homes once stood, and many around them are badly damaged. I am invited to walk through the remains of a wood home – a foam lounge suite, fire-damaged, sits abandoned in the small room; the entire outer wall is gone, open to the fire site.

This Lavender Hill fire, on this night, is one of many that plague townships. We read about them, or see them on television or social media, share a moment or two of sympathy and for a few seconds think about the human tragedy. We may even contribute funds or goods. Then we carry on with our lives. But their lives, even after they rebuild, even after they struggle to restore some semblance of living, will continue, and should continue, to reproach us.

Hard-working Paul and those around him will rebuild, and slowly they will accumulate the few things they need. But there is too little dignity here and in other townships. I have been in many townships, over decades, and my bleak message is that I cannot see any improvement. We have not fulfilled our promise made in 1994. And that is not someone else’s problem – it is ours. This is my request – that our hearts may never be hardened to poverty and human suffering; we absolutely cannot give up the struggle for a better life for all.

Goods and funds are still being collected for the families. My contact details: Dr Beverley Roos-Muller, Marina da Gama, ampiem@mweb.co.za or 021 788 2016. Anything not used by the affected families will be appreciated by their neighbours.