More than 50 people from the village were now inside Makhulu Tshezi’s yard trying to douse the flames. Some were throwing in water using buckets; some were throwing in sand to extinguish the flames; some were beating the flames down with shrubs and sticks.
The big green Jojo tank filled with water, that Makhulu Tshezi had bought so her cows could drink nice clean rain water, was very helpful. She had never envisaged what it would be used for this night!
Someone had called the police: soon a siren could be heard wailing close by. (As for fire fighters – even if they were called from East London 120 kilometres away, it would take hours for them to get to the remote village as the roads were horrible, scattered with dongas and potholes. So yes, no-one had bothered to call them.)
“Oh madoda! What bad omen is this?” cried Skhwehle trying to twist the key jammed in the key-slot.
“Bhuti! Anything I can do to help? Where is Makhulu Tshezi?”
Young, Zintle, a neighbour had just arrived. She had seen the fire illuminating her window as she was trying to sleep, just after coming home from St Peter’s hospital where she worked as a nurse. She was carrying her First Aid kit.
Zintle was almost Vuyo’s age and she knew him well. All of his age mates treated Makhulu Tshezi as their own granny.
“Finally! Oh great!” yelled Skhwehle as, at last, the key turned. He quickly ducked in under the thick smoke, covering his nose with a scarf. It was hard to see inside but he soon found Makhulu in the small room. With great care he lifted the limp, tiny form of the old lady, cradled her as if he was carrying a child, and hurried out.
People gasped when they saw Skhwehle emerging with the seemingly lifeless form of the courageous old woman. Some started sobbing while some covered their eyes in anguish. The sight was too dreadful to behold.
Now there were the hushed tones of the other women in the neighbourhood, woken from their sleep by the commotion:
“How could a person do this to such a lovely old woman?”
“What started the fire?”
They stood there in disbelief, holding on to their chins, mouths ajar in disbelief.
“Is she still alive?” whispered one, covering herself with her old checked shawl, her ixakatho.
No-one answered; only their eyes were talking. As one woman looked to the next, none dared say what she thought. They feared for the worst. This was not new. They had heard of old women being burnt to death at night, but it was the first of its kind in this village of eQolweni.
“Oh, who could do such a cruel thing? Is she alive bafazi, answer me?” Though the other women were aware that she was asking this out of sheer anxiety still they scolded her.
“Khawuthule Magaba! Please be quiet.”
“Magaba! Shhhhh! You can’t be asking those kinds of questions now. Rather say a prayer, if you can, please!”
“Let us see how is she doing. Put her there bhuti. I will check her pulse,” said Zintle, opening her First Aid box. “I have called Vuyo. He is on his way,” she added, seeing the tears streaming down from Skhwehle’s eyes.
“Who could do this? I am going to find out! I am going to find out who did this! He will curse the day he was born I am telling you!” he wailed.
As Zintle was busy with Makhulu Tshezi, one of the neighbours who had a car arrived to rush her to the nearest hospital.
“She’s inhaled a lot of smoke, but has only minor burns on her body,” said Zintle.
“Yhooo! The wind is making things worse, madoda! exclaimed one of the men, still trying to extinguish the flames that were roaring like hungry lions, ravaging the grass roof of the rondavel. The whole house was now engulfed. Their efforts seemed futile, but they kept on doing what they could anyway.
“I have connected my hose pipe from my own tank from home. Use it!” said one man, handing the water pipe to one young man. He jumped on top of a big water drum so he could be higher and splash right through the big flames. This seemed to help, but then the roof collapsed inside and in no times the flames caught the clothes cupboard.
“Hey this is a devil of a fire! I have never seen something like this,” exclaimed one sweating man.
Even children were now standing outside their houses watching, some crying, some praying out loud to God, some calling on the ancestors to help. No-one knew whether Makhulu Tshezi was alive or dead.
“Let’s rush! She is still breathing. I have told Vuyo to drive straight to the hospital,” ordered Zintle and they put the trembling woman in the car and drove off.
“Oh God be with her. Save her Lord,” whispered Zintle, as the car bumped up and down over the terrible broken roads of this Eastern Cape village.
Tell us: What do you think should happen to the men who almost killed Makhulu and destroyed her home?