We lived in a squatter camp – a crime-infested area where kindness is as rare as the moon eclipse. Our shacks mimicked the weather: freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Fires were an abnormal normality because of leftover cigarettes, burning candles and illegal electrical connections. Luxury only existed on our flickering television screens.
We don’t learn about the birds and the bees in the ghetto, only life lessons, and mostly the bad ones and seldom the great ones…
It was dawn when I woke up with blurry vision that stung my eyes. It was because of smoke from a fire. My heart raced at the thought of dying. I coughed, waking my mother.
Without exchanging words we navigated to the door, using only our hands as the smoke was too strong for us to keep our eyes open. After we escaped, a canister of deodorant exploded inside. That, with some paraffin, fed the hungry fire, growing its stature and making it more vigorous.
“Not this again,” said my teary mother.
All her sweat from scrubbing a madam’s floors were being swallowed by an inferno once again. It looked like a volcano about to erupt with so much smoke covering the sky. Sounds of falling shacks and crackling wood tormented our ears. Everything before me; the cries and the burning shacks, depicted hell in my eyes. We tried putting out the fires until we surrendered. We lived in a place with poor sanitation. Hearts sank, souls wept and eyes were red.
“Help!” yelled a young girl trapped inside a burning shack.
Her mother was infamous for locking her inside so she could sleep away from home. The girl banged on the wooden door numerous times. The fire brigade hadn’t arrived and the JoJo tank was empty. Her screams were becoming intolerable. We felt like we were listening to a live person’s cremation. Buckets were filled with soil in an attempt to put out the fire. And then she stopped banging and screaming altogether.
That’s when we downed tools and simultaneously went in mourning and said silent prayers.
One man grew courage and kicked the door open. There was no sight of the girl, just black smoke. There were murmurs: “She’s dead. He’ll die. They won’t make it.” All those were followed by a piercing silence. It was so tense that even the silence was a disturbing sound. With each second passing, the fire hovered over the shack like a burial of sort. The anticipation of the inferno’s saga to end drove me insane.
A disfigured dark shadow appeared through the door frame. I was afraid it was a piece of furniture that was blocking the way, but I was wrong. It was the man carrying the child. They escaped the angel of death but it was still lurking as the child was still unconscious.
Taxi drivers volunteered to take victims to the hospital. Fire fighters arrived when the fire was tired and we salvaged whatever we could through the ash and sickening smoke.
They had burn wounds but they lived.
The man’s heroic act gained him a liking from us. He became the protagonist of anecdotes grandmothers shared with their grandchildren. The near death experience encouraged the mother to go out less and care more. What I learnt that morning is that super heroes have only one superpower, and that’s selflessness.
That man was selfless. Tata Nelson Mandela was selfless. Mama Albertina Sisulu was selfless. And everyone who makes the effort to help others without anything to gain is selfless.