After smelling fumes and seeing her hysterical son, mom Zipho Hlomendlini and grandmother Phumla Hlomendlini knew something was terribly wrong.
The pair was sitting outside their home in Mitford in Ntabethemba, a village outside Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, while five-year-old Lulonke was playing with toys in one of the bedrooms in the house.
“He kept going in and out of the house, and I know when he does that, he is being naughty,” 29-year-old Zipho says.
“But we thought he was just innocently playing with the box of toys on the floor until we heard him screaming.”
They jumped up and ran inside the house to find Lulonke had found a box of matches they had used earlier that afternoon to burn rubbish. He had been playing with the matches in the house when a fire broke out and burnt one of the continental pillows.
“I tried to put the fire out from the pillow, but it had already moved onto the bed,” she says.
“I screamed for people to come and help. I did not want to use water to put it off because I heard water makes it worse, so I took a blanket and tried to hit the fire. But everything just got out of hand,” Zipho says.
The blankets were on fire, including the curtain and bed.
“By then the fire was out of control and the ceiling started burning. Neighbours came with water to help us switch off the fire but a lot of damage had been done. The fire moved to the bathroom and other bedrooms and there was a huge flame,” she recalls. “Everything happened extremely fast and the next thing I saw was a big flame and the roof on fire. And all the furniture melted and burnt. The electricity cables got burnt but and nothing happened to the electric box.”
Zipho says the neighbours helped to put the fire out but no firefighters came. “I’m not sure if someone called the firefighters or not because it was all a big rush. The police said they would come to open a case, so we can try and get some help. But the house was not insured, so we are currently homeless.”
Zipho says luckily no one was hurt, just minor burns and swelling on her mom’s leg. “My mom has small burns and swelling on the leg, she still can’t walk properly, but she is recovering. I am glad my son and mom are okay, and no one got hurt,” she says.
The unemployed mom says her son, Lulonke, feels guilty about what happened.
“It was a mistake,” she says.
“I try to comfort him and tell him that it was a mistake. At the moment he is struggling to sleep, and he often wakes up crying at night. But we have taken him to see a doctor and I try to reassure him that mistakes happen,” she says.
“The other day he saw a fire on TV and said he is not the one that caused it. It will take time for him to get over it,” she adds.
Rocklands Village Police Station’s Captain Vuyani Vokonqoshe said, "The incident happened at night. The family does not wish to open a case. The family has given a statement regarding the incident and that it was a mistake by a five-year-old child. The police have attended to the matter, there was no foul play and further findings will be communicated with the family."
Zipho, Lulonke and Phumla are currently living at their pastor’s nearby home. “We are staying with our pastor and his family until we find a place of our own,” Zipho says.
Zipho, a single mother who lives with 48-year-old Phumla, says since the fire destroyed their home they have received food parcels and blankets from Sassa, and their neighbours and friends have assisted them with food and clothes.
“My friends opened an account at Cashbuild to help up rebuild the house and people who wish to donate can send money to Cashbuild or my account,” Zipho shares.She says it’s important for her to get the house fixed because it is a family home that belonged to her late gogo.
“The house is my late grandmother’s, and my mom and I were planning to leave and find a place of our own. But we cannot leave without fixing it because it is a family home and there is too much family politics regarding the house, so we wish to leave it in the state that we found it in, if not better.”
Zipho says none of her extended family members have come to assist.
“No one has reached out to us, only friends and neighbours,” she says.
The mom of one is unemployed and relies on her mother’s R2 300 monthly salary she receives from selling clothes in nearby Tarkastad.
Zipho left her job at Majors Pharmacy last year after suffering from depression, which compromised her work.
“I suffered from depression after being raped by two of my uncle’s friends when I was seven years old. I tried to bottle it up, but it resurfaced last year. I was always sad, stressed out, always sleeping and I did not want to leave the house. That took a toll on my work because I would be late for work or have anxiety attacks, nosebleeds or fall ill at work. It turned out to be depression,” she says.“I struggled to cope with it in the beginning and my employer couldn’t handle me being off sick or coming to work late, so I was forced to leave my job.”
But after receiving treatment and learning to live with her condition, Zipho is at a better place to start working again.
“It has been difficult to try and find work, but I am trying. I have a higher certificate in computer clerk from Boston Media and I just wish I could get my family out of this situation and learn to manage my depression,” she says.