Opinion: How much is a story worth? The light of Imizamo Yethu

From where I was standing, it didn’t seem to be worth much. Telling a story doesn’t seem to be worth the paper it’s written on when you are standing on a spot that used to be a home, but that was now just a cracked, concrete slab.

It wasn’t a unique spot compared to the surrounding scene at Imizamo Yethu.

The fire that had raged through the informal settlement two days earlier had left the hillside not much more than the blackened stumps of wooden lamp posts, twisted pieces of corrugated iron and ash.

Ash was everywhere and covered everything.

It fooled the eyes into believing you were staring at a black and white image.

It also covered William and his two compatriots as they sifted through the wreckage of what was his home just 48-hours earlier.

He wouldn’t take my hand when I greeted him – I’m not sure if it was because his was dirty, or because he couldn’t be bothered with another well meaning, but ultimately useless onlooker.

I started asking him questions about how he was coping, how long he thought it was going to take to rebuild and if he thought the process was going to be difficult.

“What do you actually want?” he asked in response.

I suddenly realized how much I was hassling this man. He was tired, traumatised, and was facing an uncertain future. And I was wasting his time by asking stupid questions.

“I just want to understand what you are going through.”

If I didn’t feel absolutely useless before, my answer did the job.

“What am I going through? I have no place to sleep. My three children can’t go to school because we don’t have clothes. Everything I own was lost in the fire. There’s little food and clean water. We’re trying to rebuild but we don’t have the equipment…”

As if to emphasise that point, the spade that they were using to move the ash broke.

“…and we need people to help us. Are you going to help us?”

His voice was firm, but eyes betrayed the desperation this father was feeling.

What was I doing there? Just getting people’s stories? How was that helping anyone?

I had the sudden urge to retreat. I told him I would see who I could talk to (in reality – no one) and wished him good luck.

Despite my surroundings, his final words to me left the greatest impression:

“I don’t need luck because as long as I’m alive, there is hope”

So, how much is a story worth?

To William, a man who just wants to provide the essentials for his family, this one is not worth much.

But maybe, this one (and the thousands like it) will be worth enough to get Cape Town to stand up and say that it is unacceptable for people to live like this.

Maybe we will realise that it is wrong that the homes of thousands of families can be wiped out because we could not provide a safe and affordable area for these people to live in.

Maybe his story is worth enough for us to want to never have to hear another one like it.

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