Best Time in our Ghetto

Ezra Azra

Copyright 2023 by Ezra Azra
Photo by Oxfam East Africa via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Oxfam East Africa via Wikimedia Commons

Loud vocal sounds, day and night, were not unusual in our ghetto of Clairwood. At night, most of the time, we slept through them. When we paid attention to them, day and night, it was for the first few seconds in order to determine if the situation involved us. From an early age we became experts in those few seconds' determinations. If we assessed we were not involved, we could not care less; by the natural laws of self-preservation; water off a duck's back; Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

In the dim light of dawn on a day in the 1940s, for the first time ever, the loud shouts and screams were alerting everybody to an imminent danger. In our home, the first shared instinct was that it was a trap to lure us out of the home.

We armed ourselves. Some of us, hesitantly and ultra-cautiously, ventured outside to investigate. The alerts were fact. The ground everywhere was covered in ankle-deep water, and, imperceptibly at first, moving along and rising.

It was puzzling. There had been no rain. There was no river nearby or faraway to flood. Nobody paused to ponder the puzzle. We hastily went about taking measures, and, for the first time in living memory, ever, helping strangers at the same time as family!

There was no electricity in our ghetto. What little cooking food was done, was on fireplaces on the ground in kitchens, or outside.

With water on the ground, all fireplaces were inoperable. A neighbour, with the help of hitherto stranger-neighbours, hastily piled flat stones into an altar-like structure, and invited everyone to line up to use the fire she got going. She had enlisted strangers to rescue dry firewood from the waters, and to pile them on an adjacent pile of flat stones.

Fortunately, the food that was in most demand always in our ghetto, was tea. That altar fireplace served tea to perfection. And the tea was free; again, for the first time in living memory, ever.

To this day, I have never drunk as many cups of tea in a day. The drawback was the discomfort I suffered, therefrom, when the excessive amount of tea sloshing around in my stomach upset my balance when I, monkey-like, was moving among the branches in one trees, and from tree to tree. The life-long lesson I learned was to not climb a tree if I had more than one cup of tea. A very, very easy lesson to apply in a ghetto where children went for days and days without drinking any liquid other than water, before the flood, and after.

The second reason I kept drinking free tea so frequently was the fear all of us had that the flood water would rise high enough to render the tea altar useless.

The other worry was that the flood waters could soon rise above the two water wells that served our ghetto. We had no piped running water in our ghetto.

Strangers helped strangers stash clothing high up in trees.

Trees! Clairwood was a ghetto inside virgin jungle all around. It was the density of jungle vegetation that was the main force that restrained the rate of flow and rising of the flood waters.

By midday, the waters, still slowly flowing, had ceased rising. By then the level was waist-high. The highest level of the tea altar was an inch-or-two above water, and still serving. We had jerry-rigged the wells closed; they, too, were a breath away from being under flood waters. We noticed the flood waters were ocean-salty.

Days later we learned that the probable cause of the flood was seismic eruption on the floor of the Indian ocean. Clairwood was a suburb in the south of the port City of Durban, that has an Indian Ocean coastline.

Geologists have warned, and continue to warn, that there is a geologic faultline on the ocean bed along the South African Natal coastline. Movement in this faultline will be the cause of tidal waves, and on-shore accompanying earthquakes.

It was weeks before the flood waters completely dried up. Long before that, we opened the wells. Sadly, the tea altar had to be dismantled because of signs of communal tensions from competitive free use.

We were puzzled by the complete absence of wild animals during the presence of the flood waters, until we came to find out about the geologists' explanation.

Seismic activity always is sensed by animals at great distances, in time for them to run away before the consequences occur. As for domesticated animal pets, fortunately for them, there weren't any of those in our ghetto.

Inexplicably, in all my twenty-nine years in our Clairwood ghetto, I never saw any homeless persons resting or sleeping at the sides of roads, day or night. In my later years of affluence in major Cities beyond ghettoes, I witnessed homeless persons at street sides, in street doorways; sometimes playing musical instruments! Two cheers for our Clairwood ghetto?

I knew of some older adults who left the village because of the waters, and never returned. Miraculously, there seems to have been no fatalities caused by the flooding. I heard of none. That might have been mainly because during all the days the waters were there, a philanthropic Society from another City arrived every day with free food and medicine. Friends Of The Sick, Association, or FOSA.

I might be speaking for most persons when I say I had not eaten such good food, and so much, as I did while the flood waters were there, thanks to Friends Of The Sick, Association.

The City of Durban did not help. To the City of Durban, Clairwood did not exist. Many, many years later, that negligence seemed to have been logical to me since the Durban City Councilors were democratically elected into office. To my knowledge, no adult in our ghetto ever voted in a political election. Including me.

We children loved the flood waters. We were not required to attend school.

Adult waist-high water levels made it easy for children to climb trees that, otherwise, were out of reach. Some of those trees had vines only high up that produced juicy berries. And, because we knew there were no snakes around, we climbed and climbed. Because the ground was so submerged in water, no adult objected to us climbing. Most exciting for me was that in some areas, trees were so close, it was possible to climb from one tree to another, high up.

The flood waters brought extraordinary freedom for girls. Before the flood, girls were not allowed to climb trees. Until the flood arrived, I thought girls did not know how to climb trees. Before the flood, girls were seen everywhere on the ground, usually doing home chores, and running errands. During the flood, water on the ground meant there were far fewer home chores to be done; a girl on the ground wading through waist-high water on an errand, was a rare sight.

Before the flood, boys and girls strangers were not allowed to be alone together talking to each other, anywhere on the ground. During the flood, high up in trees, boys and girls were giddy with talking and laughing with one another.

It's been such a long time ago, it might be my mere imagining, but I remember marveling at the time that some of those girls were better skilled at climbing trees than were the boys. I have slipped between branches at times; I've seen, I've rescued many boys in trees. I never witnessed a girl in trouble from branch to branch, nor did any require or ask for help.

Those few days during the flood were the best time I remember being in that otherwise miserably evil, ugly Clairwood ghetto.

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