The aftermath of the Kroo Bay fire - my personal experience
By Boyd Heuvelman - Street Child volunteer
As I woke up on the morning of Tuesday 5th March I was greeted by one of the Street Child of Sierra Leone social workers. I have recently arrived in Sierra Leone to volunteer with Street Child for two months and this was my first day in Freetown. The Social Worker explained that she would take me to Kroo Bay, one of Street Child’s largest slums. That night there had been a huge fire where the whole neighbourhood had burnt down. As we made our way to the area I was informed of what happened and what we would do.
After making our way through the small streets, barely wide enough for one grown man, we came into a big clearing with 2 football goals. This was the community football field which has become the roofless home of the affected families. To the other side of the football field there was only rubble and ash. Nothing had survived the fire - it was total destruction. I was told that the fire started near the water/bay, but nobody knew the cause of the fire. Fortunately no lives were lost.
I made my way just around the corner to the Street Child partner school which is run by We Yone, our local partner. Street Child supports over 200 students at the school. Around 60 of them were not in school that day. These children had lost their uniforms, pencils and books in the fire. Although I was greeted by each class by a friendly welcome song, the empty chairs where deafening. The head teacher showed me around and gave a more detailed report of the fire. Apparently, the firefighters could not reach the fire - the tiny narrow streets meant they just could not access the area.
So it was up to the teachers, the children and community members who fought the fire themselves. It took 3 hours. First they used up all of the water in the houses, but that was not enough so they resorted to using sea water, which was successful.
I waited while the We Yone team went to source emergency items to distribute to the children and their families from the school. Clothing, water, cooking oil, toiletries, pencils and notebooks.
During my wait the school lunch bell rang. Even after such a recent tragedy the children rushed out singing and clapping. Such a sight gave me a feeling of hope. There was one little boy who rushed to me. He was standing next to me as I was too tall for him, even when seated. He put his arm around mine and proudly looked around to see if anyone had seen what he had done, he could not have been older than 5. As I sat there waiting for the items to be delivered, I decided to teach the little boy to play a game from my childhood; thumb wars. After some time, he understood the idea and the glee on his face of beating me was a true delight. I would meet him later on during the distribution of items and realising that such a young, innocent boy had suffered in this way was certainly motivation to work even harder.
The clothes had finally arrived and we started separating the boys’ and girls’ clothes into different piles. We used the school tables to create a large table of sorts. After this the other items arrived. It took some time, but eventually the team got all the affected school children together with their parents or siblings. They would come in pairs of two to get their items. A can of cooking oil it was to be shared between 2 families. After sorting all of this out, we were left with some extra items and clothing. We decided that these should be given to other members of the community that were affected by the fire. It was not long before the children came rushing to the school and cramming themselves through the doorway to receive our support. The gratitude was clear.
I got the chance to talk to one of the girls affected by the fire. She had a burn on her right arm. She took me to the football field and showed me her family, consisting of her grandmother, sister and cousins. Their shelter had a roof but that was about it. They were sitting in a corner of the field with some wooden poles around them. It was no bigger than 2 x 2 meters. This was their new ‘home’ but they were happy to show me around.
Later the young boy from earlier came running to me and grabbed my hand and asked if I remember his name. Reassuring him that I did made him walk 10 times taller and he came back to the school with me, as proud as a mother showing off her newborn child.
Right now these children have no home, and their families have no means of living. In such circumstances where the community don’t use a banking system your house is your business, your living. They have nothing and they sleep on the streets. This is their reality right now.