Monday the 5th of June started like any other week except, maybe, for severe weather warnings for a monster storm expected in the Western Cape. By Tuesday the country was abuzz with the news that the Western Cape Education Department made an unpresidented decision to close all the province’s schools on Wednesday, causing many a local joke about the storm with screen grabs of an hour by hour weather report with our expected ‘stiff breeze’. Africa, after all, is not for sissies, Cape Town is renowned for her storms and in the Garden Route we are used to our berg winds.
The berg wind woke most of us that morning, chasing up dust devils.
The first reports of fire came from Hoekwil, and while we took notice, most of us carried on with life with not much more than a fleeting thought of the Hoekwil fires of 11 August 2016, and the hope that there will be less damage to property.
Reports followed of fires raging in Elandskraal and, as the day progresses, we started to dread the sounds of our telephones. Every call had the potential to carry news of another house that burned to the ground; another family, friend, colleague or acquaintance who have, in some cases, literally just seen their whole lives go up in smoke.
It was a day that turned into fighting fires on our doorstep. Offices soon emptied with men and woman rushing out to assist. Engrossed in the here and now, it was only when news feeds started to flood with the frantic messages of people who couldn’t travel, or when family and friends from across the world started to call or message, we realised that our whole world was burning down. Roads were closed, families trapped in different towns and rescue missions launched to save property, animals and humans. By Wednesday evening we have become a trending hashtag.
Yet it was on social media that we could find the most accurate (and the most inaccurate) information. Brilliant pages like Knysna fires 7th June kept us up to date and was also instrumental in mobilising the country.
There was not much thought of sunsets or sunrises those first days of fire and smoke. Orange flames and lingering smoke filled the horison and, if you slept, you woke up in a haze, with dread, wondering what the day might bring. It was somewhere in this eerie landscape that the first relief arrived. They came from all over the country – first a trickle and then a stream of vehicles – cars, bakkies, trucks…
Disasters are the great equalisers. It exposes people. It unmasks us.
It carries the defeated face of a friend in a supermarket. Or an empty voice on the other side of a telephone line. It has the nothingness of a person who gives orders every day, reduced to the Obedient by the whim of the gods. It is the exhaustion of a firefighter who came to eat just to head out again. It is the tears of a volunteer when finding a piggy bank in a box of donations.
It is breaking down on the side of a highway, sobbing your heart out when a truck of relief supplies pass. It is the line of friends who fight by your side to save your house. It is the miracle in the madness.
It is the silence when you have no words. Or an embrace when there is nothing left.
It brings out the helpers…
They came in droves, setting aside their own worries and woes, the concerns of their every day. They worked tirelessly to provide refuge to those in need. They came to cook, to clean to carry. Every cry for help met with swift response. A community united.
They flew and drove in from far and wide, or mobilised communities across the country, friends from overseas. They donated, packed and posted.
Disasters humble us.
It changes our perception and the value of our earthly things. It shows us how fragile we are. It brings us face to face with the choices we make, the trappings of our daily lives.
Disasters give us love.
The love that is patient and kind, the love that does not envy, does not boast, nor is proud. The love that does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, nor easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. That love that rejoices with the truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.
The love that forges friendships through fire.
The love it takes to Rebuild Eden…