While in Johannesburg, South Africa on my sabbatical, I am volunteering at Children of Fire, an organization that helps child burn survivors throughout southern Africa. Many of these children are burned as a condition of their poverty—for example, in shack fires. Three afternoons a week I help them perform scenes from MacBeth and write about their lives. Here is a recent journal entry, with photos of the day.
Today is a day I won't soon (or ever) forget. No fireworks, no grand views, no celebrations or memorials. Just a hike with the kids: a three-and-a-half mile hike to Emmarentia Dam and the Botanical Gardens in Johannesburg with 13 Children of Fire kids and one fine volunteer.
At 10:15 a.m. we set off on foot. It was raining so Bronwen, the director and "Mama" to all these kids, outfitted them with coats. Perlucia and Hlumelo, both six years old, barely up to my waist, and completely bald from having their scalps burned, sported adult medium-sized black rain coats that they wore like dresses down to their ankles.
It would be hard for a non-South African to believe how perilous this little walk to the park was, but imagine this: 13 kids ages 6-17 strung out along a tiny narrow red dirt path next to a four-lane "main road" (i.e. highway) with cars zipping past in the opposite direction going 40-50 miles per hour. At times the path was a foot or two from the road. Then imagine some of these kids wearing flip-flops (thong sandals), and add the rain and the mud. One of the girls, Nthabesing, is hopping along on one leg and a crutch and another, Dora, is blind. The two little ones held Clara's (age nine) hand—her good one—but then again neither of these little ones has a hand, only a stump with the joint between what would have been thumb and index finger serving as a tiny vice.
None of these hazards nor the challenge of the walk as a whole affected the children, except to make them happy being together. Several times they broke out in song—usually led by Nthabesing—both pop songs and traditional African ones. When we got into the park we came upon a birthday party being set up under a big red tent; a boom-box blaring hip-hop. The kids broke into dance, Nthabesing on one leg—a real hip-hop.
I spent a good part of the walk in the park with Perlucia and Hlumelo in their dress-like black raincoats. When we came into a wooded area Perlucia said, "Maybe the three witches live in here." Even the little ones have become part of our MacBeth (or more precisely, Witches of MacBeth) saga! She was having trouble with her flip-flops: mud kept getting between her sole and the "shoe" so she was sliding around. Several times she stopped, wiped the mud off on the grass, put the flip-flops back on and continued without comment. She liked the ducks and I hoped to get a picture of her with them at water’s edge, but when she approached they flew off. Several white boys about the older kids' age were kayaking in the dam pond. "Look," someone said, "canoes!"
We arrived at the Botanical Gardens outdoor restaurant at 12:30 p.m., two hours and 15 minutes from departure. The girls sat quietly along one bench while Loide brought out the food. Nelson and I kicked a soccer ball. It was a nice and needed feast: sandwiches, eggs, bananas and apples, rolls and muffins. I'd wanted to buy everyone a cool drink but the restaurant, which was empty outside but for us due to the rain, did not take credit cards and I had only 30 rand ($2.75) on me.
Watching some of the kids eat was poignant, that's the best word I can use to describe it: sad in that they were handicapped by their disability, but profound in the ways they overcame it, Hlumelo in particular. This little guy has no hands and so must hold the sandwich, already crumbly, between his stumps. For the most part he does well, but every now and again a big chunk of the food would fall to the pavement. Dora needed to be fed. Wendy and Dikeledi took turns putting food into her mouth, most of which she's able to eat, though quite a bit fell. I said, "I hope the ducks can find this—it's quite a feast we're leaving." But they didn’t leave it at all. When we finished Wendy asked for a broom from the restaurant staff and swept up as the others cleaned off the tables.
Now it was time for MacBeth. Bronwen had outfitted us for acting with a little plastic Viking helmet and a wild red-and-black wig. Nthabesing was Witch 1, Feleng was Witch 2, and Munashe a wild-haired Witch 3 in the opening scene. I got my little camera rolling and the kids nailed it—to great applause. Act I, scene 3 was not as successful, but I kept the camera rolling through a brief argument between the actors as to who was supposed to say what as well as a funny screw-up when Nthabesing, now playing MacBeth, gave Nelson's speech as a messenger and delivered a message to herself, MacBeth, and responded to the message as MacBeth.
The rain was relentless and Anele correctly predicted it would not let up, so I proposed to run/walk back to my car and fetch them in two trips. We called Bronwen to inform her. Walking and intermittently running back I thought, wow, when's the last time I've walked seven miles—in the rain no less. But thinking of the kids, little Perlucia and Hlumelo plodding silently along in their soggy shoes/sandals, or Wendy-and-Dora keeping on at the back, my little walk seemed nothing. That's what Bronwen means to do for these kids, I think: set the bar so high that nothing seems impossible, or at least worth complaining about, because no one did. Even when Perlucia pointed out her slippery feet, that's all it was—a matter of information, not a complaint.
Back at my room I picked out five pictures and posted a brief note on Facebook hoping to capture my sense of this day. The first person to respond said what I'd hoped, "Amazing!" But this is what Bronwen wrote to me in an email after reading my post: “The kids quite often walk there and back; it's better without rain but they don't shrink in the rain... in fact for those of them that get to travel to the UK or who hope to travel there, it is part of pre-acclimatisation... finances, logistics and visas permitting, they will do so.”
Martin Klammer is a professor of English and Africana studies, and is the writing director at Luther College. Klammer has spent several January terms taking students to South Africa to study literature and culture, and to lead a camp for disadvantaged children in Cape Town. Recently Martin edited and co-wrote a memoir of the life of Blanche LaGuma, an underground activist and wife of the celebrated novelist Alex LaGuma: "In the Dark With My Dress on Fire: My Life in Cape Town, London, Havana and Home Again" (Cape Town: Jacana, 2010)."