South Africa's singing firefighters return from Canada mission

Johannesburg - While their start in Canada may have been "hectic", by the time they left for home a month later, 48 South African firefighters had made new friends, shared and learned new skills, and "owned the fire-line".  

"We went to Canada to help with the forest fires," Esther Mtyilibe told News24 at OR Tambo International Airport on Friday morning, when half of the 48-strong Working on Fire team arrived back in the country.

"We are part of the many teams from many countries... that were there to help."

Mtyilibe, who has been with Working on Fire for one and a half years, said the group's aim was to be disciplined from Day 1. She said singing was one of the ways they would keep morale high.

"Every morning we sang to uplift each other and the team spirit because... the [working] day in Canada was longer than ours in South Africa."

Even as they walked through the international arrival doors at OR Tambo, the 24 firefighters were singing.

A passenger who had come out before them remarked that they had been singing "since Paris" and sounded "quite good".

'We've learnt how to work and still have fun'

The South Africans worked very well with the other teams, who were from Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand and the United States. Mtyibile singled out their hosts for being "warm" and "welcoming".

"We've learnt so much from them. We've learnt how to work and still have fun, to enjoy what we're doing on the fire line," she said.

"It was even hard to say to [the Canadians], 'guys we are now leaving'. But we had to leave. We missed home so much."

While the firefighting work in Canada was different from what they had experienced before, they were fast learners.

"Maybe it took us a day to learn how they worked. Then the following day, we were like, 'It's our country'. We owned the fire-line," Mtyibile said.

An important reason why the South Africans were able to impress their peers and adapt so quickly, was because they were physically fit - an aspect of their training strongly emphasised by Working on Fire.

'Big family from different countries'

Asked if she would go back to Canada, Mtyibile said she'd be happy to. The experience had taught her that all firefighters were part of a "big family from different countries".

Mtyibile's life had changed a lot since joining Working on Fire.

"I can walk in the community with my head held high. Now, it's beautiful to be there," she said.

Crew leader Jonas Matlala, who has been with Working on Fire for five years, said the reason their start in Canada was so "hectic" was because the work day in Canada was 12 hours long.

"Our training is very simple. In order for you to be able to work long hours, you just have to train and then keep your mind and your body fit as well."

He said the firefighters they met in Canada were initially surprised by the size of their South African counterparts. 

"It was like 'Ah, what are these young boys and girls doing here?' But when we get to the field, they were so surprised, because we are hard workers," said Matlala.

"As Working on Fire, we [have] our important tool: singing. By singing, you are getting the morale of the team together, the spirit of the team."

'We just have to sing, and sing and sing'

Every morning, the crew leaders ensured, that just before they got to the briefing or before they went into the field, that there would be singing.

"We just have to sing, and sing and sing and sing, so our team gains in morale.

"By singing, it was perfect. Even the Mexicans, Australians, Americans and Canadians, all of them were so happy because of the way we sing and the way we dance," Matlala said.

Commenting on the international firefighting fraternity, Matlala said, "It's like we are a family. What we are doing, is what they are doing in their country.

"It was very simple for us just to click with them, just to talk with them. It was amazing. The Americans, the Canadians, they were so friendly to us and we learnt a lot from them and they learnt a lot from us."

One of the things the South Africans taught their international colleagues was attending the briefings as a group, compared to their peers who initially came in one by one.

"When days went by, they adopted our style, so every day they were coming as a group  and not as individuals," Matlala said.

"That's what we taught them - team work, group work, the cohesion of our team."

As a crew leader, Matlala learnt a lot about being forward-thinking and looking at the bigger picture, instead of just working in the moment. The South Africans also came to grips with the advanced equipment used by the Canadians. 

However, for the South African firefighters, home was still home.

"I'm glad to be back to touch the soil of South Africa," Matlala said with a smile.

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