Luthando Klaas is one of SAs first recipients of a litre of light", a device which feeds natural light through a hole in the roof. Picture: Thomas Holder

Cape Town -

Luthando Klaas stands in a pitch dark shack, the consulting room for his work as a traditional healer.

He lifts his hand to the roof, tugs at a black plastic packet and, the room fills with light. The light is not harsh and electric, but soft and natural.

Klaas, a resident of Mtshini Wam informal settlement in Joe Slovo Park, is South Africa’s first recipient of a “litre of light,” a low-tech device which feeds natural light through a watertight hole in the roof of a tin shack.

The device was pioneered in the shacklands of Indonesia, and knowledge of its simplicity and effectiveness is now being spread to informal settlements across the world.

It consists of three simple, cheap ingredients: water, a recycled plastic bottle and a few spoonfuls of bleach.

“This is going to be great for business. I have to close the door for privacy during consultations, but people – especially those from other cultures – get a bit creeped out by all these things in the dark,” says Klaas, pointing to the muti and calabashes on the ground.

“Besides, now I can keep an eye on my pet snake. He won’t be able to creep up on me so easily any more.”

Klaas is one of the leading members in Mtshini Wam’s reblocking initiative. In a few short months the cluttered, dense informal settlement has been systematically demolished and rebuilt. Clusters of shacks now huddle around easily accessible open spaces.

The idea is that areas for recreation double up as arteries for basic services – fire trucks, ambulances, sanitation – to be able to penetrate into the community.

“Shack fires were a big problem in this area before,” said Khaya Nozombile, another recipient of a litre of light in his shack nearby.

The litre of light has allowed Nozobile and Klaas to refrain from using candles – a common cause of shack fires around Cape Town – during the day.

The community-based reblocking initiative is being facilitated by Cape Town’s branch of Shack Dwellers International and the Community Organisation Resource Centre.

On Thursday, these organisations were joined by Touching the Earth Lightly, an eco-design company, and students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, from the US, to demonstrate to City of Cape Town officials the potential for transforming informal settlements into more habitable areas where the risk of fires is greatly reduced.

With the litre of light, Touching the Earth Lightly’s arsenal includes a vertical vegetable garden which runs up the outside wall of a shack. The irrigation system kept the plants nourished and acted as an additional barrier to spreading fires, explained the company’s Stephen Lamb.

“The city has been looking for innovative ways to reduce shack fires and to get services to informal settlements within our boundaries,” said JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for safety and security.

“I am very proud of Mtshini Wam community. This is exactly the sort of thing that we would like to see happening in other informal settlements.”

The different organisations involved in the reblocking and “greenblocking” (to use Lamb’s term) of Mtshini Wam will be petitioning the city to fund a wider roll-out of this initiative.

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Cape Argus