The fire of Imizamo Yethu

As seen on the Huffington Post

A story from Africa that I have not written or talked about since returning home is the fire.

After arriving at the coastal township of Imizamo Yethu, the first thing I noticed was the giant line of people outside the local community centre. The line snaked around three different corners, where the locals were crowded together, their indistinct chatter carried away in the soft breeze. They were holding a variety of things – small bags packed to the brim, piles of clothes, bottles of water.

As we sat down waiting for our guide to arrive, we asked a local what the line was for.

“Well there was this fire a couple days ago…”

In early March of this year, a massive fire swept through the township of Imizamo Yethu, ravaging the densely packed shacks and devastating the lives of many locals that lived in the area. It was reported that approximately 15,000 were now homeless.

I’ve written previously about how visiting Africa was an experience that shifted my perspective about the world. The trip bridged the gap between the Africa portrayed by western media, and the Africa that is lived by the locals – the struggle and the beauty.

The trip also provided context to the struggle that saturates our news cycle – especially how the remnants of apartheid still divide cultural unity and progress in South Africa. Immersing and conversing with locals provided me a fresh understanding about the political climate and the issues of race that often underpin decision-making.

The corruption, nepotism and relative negligence in governance has left many communities vulnerable and exposed.

So as I stood there listening to this man talk about how a fire had just destroyed his community, I couldn’t help but feel a strong wave of hopelessness. It seemed that there was no end in sight for the struggle they have endured.


But as I looked around, the faces I saw were far from devoid of hope.

The people in line were embracing each other, speaking words of love and support. Kids ran riot along the streets, with games of all kinds being played. Those who weren’t directly impacted by the fire were committed to helping in any way possible – opening up homes for friends to stay in where there was room or, taking their own blankets, clothes and food to share with those that needed it.

Not once did anyone approach me for money.

“Don’t feel bad for us, just go home and tell our story,” said one local man.
Those words ring in my ears till this day.

My hopelessness quickly dissipated and was replaced with a sense of renewed hope. Crisis is the ultimate test of human mettle and the fire of Imizamo Yethu was no exception.

In crisis, true human connection flourishes.


We are told to feel sorry for those that are less fortunate than ourselves – be sympathetic and compassionate. But townships like Imizamo Yethu do not need our sympathy. They need our belief – our belief that as a global community we can all move forward together.

This involves more than sympathy and compassion – it requires changing our actions in everyday life, taking the lessons from abroad to create more unified communities and relationships in our own lives.


Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.

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Instagram: @chinkinthearmour

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