Waiting their turn for lights to go on

Johannesburg - Sizakhele Nyulu is scrambling eggs on her paraffin stove. Paraffin is expensive, and she can’t afford to buy any today. Luckily, her friend lent her some, so she can cook for her daughters, Buhle, 12, and Sesi, 10, when they return home from school. Her two-year-old son, Sbusiso, plays with their puppy, China.

Nyulu, her friends call her Mimi, lives in Meriting, an informal settlement near Lenasia. She says life here is routine, and outsiders rarely come to visit. But on April 6, Joburg Mayor Herman Mashaba arrived and spoke to hundreds of Meriting residents to celebrate the start of a “long overdue” project in the informal settlement: electrification. He said electricity would be provided to more than 1000 homes in informal settlements in the area by July.

The next two months may be Nyulu’s last without electricity. But until then, she has to rely on the paraffin stove. Nyulu sits on the bed with her daughters, playing with the plastic bag from the now-eaten loaf of bread. She blows air into it, and quickly ties it up. “It’s balloon-y,” she says to Sbusiso.

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Mimi, her daughters and other children from the neighbourhood enjoy the warmth of the fire. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso /ANA PicturesBuhle Nyulu cleans dishes in her family’s shack. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso /ANA PicturesMimi pushes her wheelbarrow home from the communal tap with a 20-litre bucket
of water and her two-year-old son. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso /ANA PicturesMimi Nyulu sits with her daughters in their shack as they work on homework. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso /ANA Pictures

Nyulu opens a pack of cigarettes, lighting one with a match that she carefully blows out. She is particularly careful with matches inside the shack. Too many neighbours’ shacks have been destroyed by a misplaced match or a knocked-over candle.

It’s early afternoon, but it’s already dark inside the home.

The flickering orange light at the end of her cigarette is the only source of light. The black tarp ceiling insulates the house but lets in no light, and the walls made of a combination of cardboard from refrigerator boxes, sheets of metal, and green floral curtains, leave no room for windows. Candles rest on a dresser, to be lit that evening. Next to it, however, there's an item that feels out of place: a TV.

Like most people in Meriting, the Nyulu family steal electricity from Ennerdale.

At night, her husband sneaks through the bushes, running a cable from inside their shack to an electrical transmission tower, where he illegally connects it. Often, these connections overload the systems, meaning that both residents of Ennerdale and Meriting lose electricity completely.

Nyulu cannot wait for the day she can disconnect it. One of their neighbours, a friend of her husband, went out one night to repair his connection. As he was walking towards the electrical transmission tower, he accidentally tripped on a live wire and was electrocuted. He died immediately, leaving behind his wife and their one-month-old baby.

“I was so scared after that. I tell my husband every day that he can’t go to check on the connection alone or without a torch. And I don’t let Sbusiso play far, because there are lots of wires everywhere.”

Nyulu uses her child support grants to pay for food and school fees. She has a job cleaning a five-room house in Lenasia on Fridays but she wants a full-time job, and the weekly R100 she makes isn’t enough to feed a five-person family and to send Sbusiso to pre-school.

Her husband once had a steady job, doing construction work in Lenasia, building the type of home he could only dream of for his family. But one night, robbers struck the construction workers and stole all his money and the week's groceries he’d bought. The robbers broke both his arms and doctors used metal pins to fix them, but he’ll never be able to do construction work again. He occasionally finds odd jobs, which is what he is doing today. But he feels lost, she says, and drinks heavily, often screaming at her in fits of drunken rage.

Nyulu blows a neon pink bubble with the gum she’s chewing, and then tells the story of her parents’ deaths. Her father, a heavy smoker and drinker, died in 2008, on Nyulu’s eighth birthday. Her mother died in 2015, but had not spoken to Nyulu in years. One afternoon when Nyulu was 13, she was home alone with her stepfather, and he propositioned her for sex. He said he would buy her shoes. She panicked, said no, and later told her mother what happened. Her mother called her a liar, and kicked her out.

Nyulu was desperate to find a place to go, and turned to the then-26-year-old man who worked with her stepfather. When he would cut the grass in her front yard, she would talk to him, and developed a crush. So when her mother kicked her out, she asked him if she could move in.

Exactly twice her age, her now-husband said yes, and they had a child a few years later.

“He helped me when I was so desperate and hopeless, so I’ll do anything for him,” Nyulu says.

After her mother’s death in 2015, she took in her then eight and 10-year-old sisters as her own. She calls them her daughters.

The sun is close to setting, so Nyulu starts working on a fire. She puts wood in a metal bucket and lights matches, but the blocks won’t catch. She begins burning plastic shopping bags, coating the wood. She strips apart a piece of cardboard to feed the still-tiny fire, which nips at her skirt as she tends to it. Nyulu boils water to cook dinner, borrowing more paraffin from a neighbour. She pours porridge into the water, using the little light streaming in from the front door to aim.

She adds her fourth plastic bag to the fire, and sends Buhle out to ask the neighbours if they have more.

Sesi checks the porridge, coughing as she inspects her forthcoming dinner.

Buhle returns with nine more shopping bags, which promptly go into the fire. Nyulu wields a shovel with a blade larger than her head, swinging it like an axe to break up the wood and make it more flammable.

The newly-chopped wood immediately goes up in flames, and neighbouring children come to huddle around the blazing fire, no longer shivering as they sing and giggle and play with China.

It’s only about 6pm, but the entire street has become dark and cold. Nyulu says it’s close to the time of night that “nyaope boys” come and raid the shacks, stealing anything they can. She says the dark makes it impossible to see them coming.

But if you look past the shacks and squint a little, you can see the horizon line glowing with the lights from inside the houses of Lenasia. Soon, Meriting will glow too.

Saturday Star

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