IT IS a time-consuming, tedious and messy procedure, but it saves many families money that most do not have.
The clue is all in the name – eMalahleni, the “place of coal”.
This is an informal settlement nestled between Nancefield hostel and Nancefield train station in Klipspruit, Soweto, where most residents have given up on ever getting RDP houses and electricity, and make coal as a source of energy.
The coal can burn for more than eight hours. The coal balls are used for cooking and heating during winter.
For four years, coal making has become a regular chore for resident Harriet Ludidi, an unemployed 46-year-old mother of five.
The informal settlement is situated in an area which is covered in coal dust. It is not known whether there used to be a coal yard there, perhaps for trains which were travelling on the nearby railway.
Once a week, Ludidi goes out to gather coal dust in the area or dig it from along the nearby Klip River. She also digs soft yellow clay from the river banks.
The real work starts the following morning.
Hands start getting dirty as soon as Ludidi begins mixing the ingredients: clay and combustible black coal dust.
“I believe the clay gives the coal dust toughness for longer combustion. We then add water to the already mixed clay and coal and blend it into grubby sludge,” Ludidi explained.
“Still with my bare hands I then scoop a portion of the mixture and start moulding my coal. One at a time I mould the coals into balls and place them on the concrete surface to dry.”
Ludidi said she could produce up to 200 coal balls in one day, depending on how much coal dust and clay she had.
“The balls will then slowly change from black to grey, which indicate that they’re dry and ready for use.
“It can take several hours, depending on how strong the sun is for the coals to dry completely,” she said.
“Making the fire is the easiest job. We add some lean wood to about 15 to 20 coal balls in a 20-litre brazier and the coal will turn red and burn for almost the whole day.”
Ludidi said she had learnt the craft of making coal from a neighbour.
“There is no electricity and most of us are unemployed and poverty is rife here. We save on paraffin through this coal, then we can buy food,” she said.
“Not that we can afford to use electricity all the time, but if we could get it we would be relieved. This coal is still dangerous if we take a brazier into a shack and go to bed leaving it there.”
Ludidi said she hated the dirt that came from and time put into making coal, but like many of her neighbours, they do not have a choice.
“The only thing we’re not doing with this coal is lighting. Otherwise we’re dependent on it for cooking, boiling water for bathing as well as heating,” she said.
“Unless we get RDP houses with running water and electricity soon, this coal will be part of our daily lives for as long as we still live here in poverty.”
A community leader at eMalahleni, Thembalakhe Jaca, said they had unsuccessfully tried to take their plight to the officials over the years.
“We had to contribute money ourselves to buy pipes and illegally connect water to the pipes running nearby.
“The area is called eMalahleni because of the coal dust around here, and although it has become our source of energy, we’re not even sure if this place is liveable because of it,” Jaca said.