Abahlali: Briton among homeless fire victims

21 07 2008

Correction: Matt’s surname is Birkinshaw, not Brown. Click here to see Matt’s pictures of the fire.

July 21, 2008 Edition 1

by Rivonia Naidu

The shack fire that ripped through the Kennedy Road informal settlement last week was an experience Matthew Brown will never forget.

Standing a few metres away from where he watched his shack burn to the ground, Brown revealed why he had left the comforts of his home to live in a shack in South Africa.

And although he is more than 9 000km away from home in Hackney, London, and still in shock after the shack fire, Brown says he is as comfortable as ever in his tent.

Last Monday about 200 people were left homeless after their shacks burnt to the ground. Brown and roommate Senzo Nsingo were able to save most of their possessions.

President of the KZN Shack Dwellers’ Association, S’bu Zikode, said people were getting their lives back on track and those who were still homeless were living in tents in the settlement.

“The fire happened so suddenly and I think we were very lucky because it happened as we were leaving for work. We were also able to save our stuff, but it was quite chaotic.”

Brown, who has a masters degree in human rights from the University of London, said he arrived in Durban about two weeks ago and came here because he had heard a lot about the informal settlements in South Africa and wanted to know what it waslike to live in a shack.

“I studied with someone from SA who told me about the KZN Shack Dwellers’ Association, and because I was interested in the informal settlements, I contacted them and informed them that I was keen to work with them, and learn about them and their lifestyle.

“When I first arrived, the community was shocked to see me, but they’ve adjusted, and I’ve adjusted too.”

Brown said he was really disappointed, but impressed at the same time to see how people survive in informal settlements.

“These people were the previously disadvantaged in South Africa, and it’s inspiring to see that despite not having proper houses, they’ve made a life for themselves, some of them have good jobs. Resources are very limited but the atmosphere is lively and community orientated, so unlike London.”

Nsingo said sharing a shack with Brown had also been an unusual experience for him.

“The thing that I am most grateful for is that a person from a rich country like England is willing to stay with us, support us and learn about us, but our own people don’t want to,” Nsingo said.



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