Barrett's Harrington Street home had burned to the ground a week before Christmas in 2013. Her only concern at the time was saving the children, and she risked her life running into the house for one of them.
Barrett's Harrington Street home had burned to the ground a week before Christmas in 2013. Her only concern at the time was saving the children, and she risked her life running into the house for one of them.

After burning to the ground, Ma Barrett’s home which houses 13 needy kids, rings with sounds of laughter again

By Chevon Booysen Time of article published Sep 3, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Eight years after a fire ravaged the Harrington Street home of Elizabeth Barrett, affectionately known as “Ma” – the hero who had saved 14 children from the inferno smiles through the memory of the hardship.

Barrett, 75, has lived on Harrington Street for about three decades and continues caring for 13 of the children whom she had saved from the fire which razed the Victorian-era two-storey house that her late husband had bought.

Her home had burned to the ground, a week before Christmas on the morning of December 18, 2013, and she couldn’t save any material possessions from the fire which had started from a plug shortage as sparks fell to material just below the fitment.

Her only concern at the time was saving the children, and she risked her life running into the house to save one of them.

“I can’t believe it has been so long since then already,” she said.

Barrett's house had been rebuilt in 2016 and some of the household belongings were replaced through the generosity of volunteers who raised the sponsorship and donations required.

Barrett wakes up at 4am every day to make a pot of porridge for the children, as she believes in having breakfast to start the day. The children, from left, are Lee-Ann Juta, Joy Bergsma, Ubaidullah Koff and Abdusamat Koff.Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

“One of the children I chased away when I saw him doing drugs on my porch.

“I love all the children who I share my home with, but they know I am very strict on discipline and if they put one foot wrong, they know I will chase them away.

“I come from a big family and that is also where my love for children came from.

“Today I have 24 of my own grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. It’s just my love for them all and it keeps me going,” said Barrett.

Having spent her youth working as a cleaner at a hospital in Wynberg where she met her late husband, Barrett said despite the devastation from the fire, she “is living a better life than before”.

“After the fire, I still rummaged through the debris to see if I could save anything but nothing could be salvaged.

“The history of the sale of the home when my husband had bought it, including pieces of sentimental value and jewellery had all been lost.

“I found the jewellery pieces but it had all melted together in the fire but I decided to throw it away so that I could start building a new life.

“It was no use holding onto what was already lost,” Barrett recalled emotionally.

“The house looks better than before and I have no complaints.

“The donations of an oven, pots and crockery I received over the years after the fire, I look after like pieces of gold. I am happy and content,” said Barrett.

No stranger to hardship, Barrett – a rape survivor who at one stage was homeless with three of her children – said she had a tough upbringing coming from a household where she witnessed her father abuse her mother, and the abuse wasn’t spared from her either.

“My father, who was in correctional services, was a terrible man who abused my mother and one day I bit him when he hit her.

“He beat me with a baton across my back, which resulted in me not being able to walk for 11 years.

“One day, I started feeling pins and needles in my legs, I told my grandmother and she made me stand up.

“Miraculously, it happened a few times but the moment I could walk, I ran away from home.

“My legs have never once forsaken me since then and are still going strong,” said Barrett.

Sitting in a room which had been rebuilt as a dining area, furniture, crockery and big pots stand exposed on tables, next to three beds.

Barrett, who complained of having had a cold fever during winter, had roped in the help of a family friend to paint the rooms, brown-stained roof and walls.

The stains come from a leaking roof where rats have attempted to chew its way through.

“This room was rebuilt as an eating room but I have since changed it into a sleeping room where there is more space so that I could have two of the sickly children beside me at night.

“The one gets epileptic fits and I need to keep a close eye on him in case he gets sick.

“I wanted these walls painted because it looks too terrible with the brown stains. It has been leaking for some time now but I do not have the money to have it fixed,” said Barrett.

The grandmother says her pension sees her through the month and she feeds all the children in her care.

“I am happy to care for them. My love and care for them keeps me going.

“If they aren’t around, I would ail quickly,” she laughed.

“I wake up daily at 4am to make a pot of porridge. I believe in having breakfast to start the day.

“And then at 6pm sharp is supper time. I do it all out of love,” said Barrett.

One of Barrett’s five daughters, Louise Juta, had come to assist her mom on the day she wanted to have her room painted.

Juta said at first they could not understand why their mom would want the “burden” of looking after so many children.

“But we realised she is doing it out of love and it makes her happy.

“They love being with Ma and they enjoy her food so much. She can make anything from scraps and it will taste amazing. That is part of why they won’t leave here,” said Juta.

If you would like to assist Barrett, contact her at 021 462 3023.

Cape Times

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