After the event of fire

On the weekend of the 20th of December 2019, while Mr Majola Ganymede was visiting his cousin, children started a fire in the tall grass opposite the residential area of B-M section in Site B, Khayelitsha Township. Later on that day, after firefighters had quelled the inferno, it was decided that building a shack to house a library on the scorched site would be a good idea. The writer has built a universe – a library and a garden – around that small event of fire. 

On a day when summer decides to behave exactly like summer, a bush burns in the B-M section of Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town. A day we’ll call ‘The day of the event of fire’. You hear the name B-M section and before you think people, you think of the narrative fed by TV screens. B-M is on the edge of Cape Town and on the edge of Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha is a township designed to function like Tupperware, a container for what’s left over. The rapid movement of people from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape was a tragedy of Apartheid in post-Apartheid times; a movement which gave birth to words like overpopulation and informal settlements. People who knew how to navigate cultural doorways had to leave their homesteads in neglect and join the rat race in the city.

“Khayelitsha is a township designed to function like Tupperware, a container for what’s left over.”

On ‘the day of the event of fire’, a blaze carries a vision of children playing in an environment already at play. Children are forever at play, and the children of B-M section play around rows of public toilets allocated to the community. Children climb up these toilets trying to reach their imagination. On this day, they decide that playing with fire is much more appealing than withstanding boredom. Children who play with fire know how to nurture danger for gain and when they have mastered danger, they play a game known as ‘I’ll stick out my gun and you’ll give me all your belongings’. A game of extreme cruelty, chaining their community to a fear reminiscent of a time when an inclusive flag surfing the waves of the wind, was a vision in a dungeon.

When the time for them to play this game comes, you could be walking down the street, throwing your arms gently to the wind. Their suddenness would force you to run for your life, into any yard with an open gate. Crippled by their powerlessness, elders can only shake their heads in disbelief. Imagine the shock of watching a child who came into their full height before your eyes, turning into a stumbling block to your own freedom of movement.

“Imagine the shock of watching a child who came into their full height before your eyes, turning into a stumbling block to your own freedom of movement.”

You would be mistaken to believe that the violence on Cape Town’s streets is caused by overwhelming inequality. This is old, old violence. This violence goes back to a time when the Khoi were forced into a bloody war by a man named Almeida. A bush is burning and burning bushes tend to have a lot of stuff to say. The bush delivers the following line: “Build a space for children to read and play, and if you choose to do nothing, you will still have chosen to do something.”

When the fire fighters arrive, the flames have already defeated the children. Profanities are hurled at them before this simple question: “Who started this fire?”. The children respond at the same time, each child pointing at someone, someone who is pointing at someone else, until everyone has been pointed at. More profanities. Once the fire has submitted to the power of water and when fire dust has settled on the sandy soils on which the homes are built, panic must be cleansed with spirits.

A mouth hidden behind a glass asks a question: “Who remembers the fires on New Year’s day in 2013?”. A sharp whistle takes flight. A whistle reserved only for the most delicious gossip or the reception of the most horrific news. Faces stare into space as if seeing again the horrors of a fire tearing through 800 shacks. Homes. Over here, there’s a shared anxiety over heavy rains and rough winds, but anxiety caused by fire is worse. Fire is a black hole to a realm of nothingness. A tradition of nothingness passed down since the tragedy of the cattle killing.

 “Over here, there’s a shared anxiety over heavy rains and rough winds, but anxiety caused by fire is worse. Fire is a black hole to a realm of nothingness.”

 The bush speaks and a garden emerges on the edge of town. A town known not to bear the company of gardeners, maids, carpenters, hawkers and their children, although dependent on their strength to function. Since the Dromedaris and her entourage of vessels stabbed these shorelines with their anchors, gardens have always been the prime site for power play. “Go and build a fort and a garden,” Amsterdam instructed Jan Van Riebeeck. Desperate to please the crown he served and the promise of a rise to riches, he took to task. A forced servant named Hendrick Boom sailed with Riebeeck on his ship. Boom was a master gardener of the company and his skill earned him freedom from class slavery. During the time when global slavery wore the face of the Trans Atlantic slave trade, Boom was awarded the title of “freed man”.

Those who had time to track his narrative report that by December of 1658, Boom had stolen up to 40 morgens of land, he owned an old bull, 10 oxen, 11 cows, 2 heifers, 7 calves, 6 Dutch and 37 Cape sheep as well as 23 pigs. However, on the 15th of June 1659, 20 Khoi men led by Doman launched a mob of ‘justice’ which seized all of these possessions. A few months later, on the 16th of October 1659 to be exact, his house went up in flames, an act of God. The God of the Khoi. He was forced to return to Holland with his wife and children, leaving behind a world of privately owned gardens.  

Enter Mr Sinethemba Dlodlo, Mr Sinethemba Mthala, my cousin Mr Siyabonga Buti and the writer, who upon the instruction of spirit start to build a garden for a library and the library itself. A public poem and poets know that theirs is a thankless service to humanity. We are full time residents of this community, giving this gift from the overflow of our souls, giving something even the wealthy cannot afford to give. Three men demonstrating leadership, thoughtfulness, selflessness compassion in action, virtues almost unknown by contemporary souls. Souls ravaged by a virus without a cure, ‘The famine of the soul’.

Three men that trade with their manpower from sunrise to sunset give up what’s left of their little rest, to build something from nothing. Building freely from their souls although they cannot afford to work for free. They perform this duty because they know this work relates to our souls. They know it is our souls that have been the reservoirs of hope for humanity, on humanity’s driest day. It is our souls that have breathed life into major city libraries the world over. The three fathers have stepped forward offering themselves as that place where mothers and fathers can rest the hopes carried in their children.

“They perform this duty because they know this work relates to our souls. They know it is our souls that have been the reservoirs of hope for humanity, on humanity’s driest day.”

In a time when men hunt women like dogs and kill children like flies, these men represent goodness; we’ll stand for it, get mocked for it, come what may, we’ll stand for good. We come from a long line of people who have taught the world the same thing in a million ways, courage. To keep losing your dignity and not stop rebuilding is genius beyond any medal of excellence this world can offer. To be seen as lacking of mind and still not lose your mind is Godly.

These hands have rebuilt a world where ancient words and worlds can re-enter our imagination. The incoming age of the robot is set to replace the labor of cashiers, cleaners, petrol attendants, truck drivers and many other skills considered low. This community will have to think of other ways to put food on the table. As they are busy testing robots, let us inform our children or else risk leaving them with the nothingness we were left in. The world offered by books is the only route for children to take in order for us to recreate the story of opportunity. Give a book to a child and help a child learn how to keep their own soul.

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On the morning of the 11th of February 2020, a bakkie carrying two gentlemen from the municipality of the City Of Cape Town arrived in B-M Section. They are referred to as law enforcement officers and deal with matters related to informal settlements. They demolish structures built unlawfully. They had come to tear down our library structure, but a committee from the community, where we got permission to build, prevented them.

Between the committee, the local Councillor and ourselves, we have thus far halted the demolition. We hope the letters from the community and the local Councillor will succeed in stopping this for the long haul.

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To donate books to Esitiyeni Sethala Leencwadi, the Library at the edge of B-M Section, email Mr Ganymede: majola.jolinkomo@gmail.com

 

 

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