Last Updated: Monday, 15 September 2014, 14:12 GMT

South Africa: Children of fire

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 26 December 2008
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), South Africa: Children of fire, 26 December 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/495897302c.html [accessed 16 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

JOHANNESBURG, 26 December 2008 (IRIN) - A few months ago, Tapera Jani, a three-year-old Zimbabwean boy who lived with his parents on a farm outside Bulawayo, walked into a fire. The fire left severe burn injuries on his feet.

With a non-existent health system, there was little chance of the toddler's survival in Zimbabwe. The farm owner, who heard about the incident, got in touch with the South African office of Children of Fire International (CFI), a charity, which helps provide specialised care to children with burn injuries.

Bronwen Jones, a writer and former journalist who founded the charity, said they had budgeted for treating Jani's burns, but were not quite prepared for what was in store - the toddler had kwashiorkor, a nutritional disease caused by inadequate protein consumption, which can result in death if not treated.

"If Tapera had not died of his burns, he would have died of starvation in Mugabe's country," said Jones, as she kissed the grinning Jani, now a healthy child. "He weighed 8.5kg when he arrived. We expected him to weigh double that for his biological age."

The charity has come to expect complications in each case it takes up. "There is poverty and HIV/AIDS in the region - as we help to heal the children, we have to deal with all their problems."

Since it was set up over a decade ago, CFI, which is registered in the UK as a charity, has helped 70 children with severe burns and 200 from across Africa who required less complicated surgery. "We continue to help the 70 children who need complicated surgery," Jones said.

Reconstructive surgery is expensive. "It can cost anywhere between R40, 000 (about US$4,123) to R1 million (about $103,095) per child," explained Jones. The charity, therefore, takes on few cases, "and the ones we do, we know no one else would help, for example if the child is also HIV positive."

CFI works with a network of doctors, surgeons and health care specialists, most of whom volunteer their services. The charity has never received any government aid and operates entirely on public donations, using volunteers from across the world.

"My son Tristan calls us a boot-camp for spoilt European students," said Jones. Children come and go out of the house which serves as a home and office for the charity in Johannesburg. A school near the main building with a staff of three teachers ensures the children have access to education while undergoing treatment.

Burning problem

More than 90 percent of burn injuries occur in developing countries and 70 percent of these are in children, according to statistics compiled by the Welsh Centre for Burns & Plastic Surgery in the United Kingdom and the Dow University Medical College Burns Centre, Pakistan. Paediatric burn statistics in Africa are hard to find.

At least 15,000 children in South Africa get burnt every year, according to CFI estimates. The figures are higher in winter when the chances of children rolling half asleep into open fires lit to warm their rooms are higher.

In the five biggest cities in South Africa an average of 200 people die in shack fires every year, according to Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African shack dwellers' movement.

It was the story of a little girl burnt in one such shack fire in Johannesburg in 1994 which drew Jones into the cause of helping children with burn injuries.

A visit to see the little girl, Dorah Mokoena, was to change Jones's life forever. Mokoena's face was a mass of melted flesh, but Jones could see the little girl inside and raised funds for reconstructive surgery. Mokoena, now a teenager and a permanent member of Jones's family, has a nose, lips, can communicate and loves to dance.

Prevention matters

Besides helping children with burn injuries, CFI also tries to educate communities on how to prevent fires.

"These are simple measures such as not cooking on the ground [because children often walk into open stoves placed on the ground] and not allowing children to sleep alone with an open fire," said Jones. The charity also helps communities affected by fires rebuild their lives with construction materials and other household essentials.

Jones has also been trying to get the authorities to implement a ban on the use of a particular brand of unsafe cooking stove which leaks paraffin oil. "These [unsafe] stoves cost only about R40 (about $4), while the safer ones cost about R200 (about$20), which few residents in squatter camps can afford - I wish someone could help with cheaper, safer versions."

But the biggest challenge remains to get people to perceive children with burn injuries not as victims but just children. "I often end up being rude to people who stare at my children, despite my telling them not to do so as it upsets them," said an exasperated Jones. "Acceptance and getting people to see the child inside is perhaps the most difficult thing."

jk/cb


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