Like rain bouncing off the window panes, laughter tumbles through the classrooms and flows along the pathways, gathering volume as it goes. After six months of wandering in the wilderness, the children of Camphill are back in the familiar surroundings of their school, beautiful beyond imagining! The grass seems greener, the refurbished buildings whiter, the air cleaner, the sun brighter and love, like a blanket wrapped around them, warmer than ever before.
The underground peat fire has at last been extinguished.
This journey of attrition began on 11 January when Camphill School and Farm found themselves at the centre of an inferno of flames and gale-force winds that ripped through that section of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, destroying all the vegetation in its path. The school children and intellectually impaired adults from the farm were evacuated in the nick of time and when the fire was eventually extinguished, it seemed nothing short of a miracle that the buildings on the two properties were found to have remained almost unscathed.
Unfortunately, it soon became evident that the fire had gone underground in the peat wetland at the bottom of the property and was emitting such clouds of smoke and toxic fumes that the children could not return to the school. Fire-fighting and wetland consultants were brought in from far and wide to confer on how to extinguish the fire, which turned out to be located in one of the most environmentally sensitive peat bogs in the country. In some spots the surface temperature was in excess of 350 degrees Celsius and the fire itself was smouldering up to seven metres below the surface, which made normal fire-fighting methods impossible.
While these deliberations were proceeding, the children and their teachers ‘went to school’ first in Sandbaai Hall, briefly in the United Church Hall and then Bosko School. Intellectually disabled children need routine and predictability in their lives, making this disruption very traumatic for many of them. The boarders found it particularly difficult to settle into temporary accommodation in two rental houses in Sandbaai and Onrus. For the teachers, house mothers and foreign volunteers this was also an extremely stressful experience.
But now, thanks to the determination, commitment and ingenuity of a variety of specialists, co-ordinated and motivated by the Overstrand Environmental Department under Liezl de Villiers, and the Overstrand Fire Department under the leadership of Lester Smith and Angelo Aplon, everyone is back where they belong.
The excitement is over the top. This teacher is proud to show us how well the children have progressed with their writing and maths, another one points out that one of her pupils has learnt to write his name for the first time. The kindergarten children go through their entire repertoire of songs, accompanied by actions and clapping hands; another group is sitting outside in the sun, excitedly sorting through a box of wool in preparation for a craft workshop.
The large playground has been newly mowed and Masonwabe tells me how excited he is to be able to play football again. He‘s a striker, he says, and is practising to play against Waldorf School. “Who will win?” I ask. “We will, of course,” he says. “How do you know?” I foolishly enquire. “ I’m in the team…” He looks disparagingly at me as if I’m a complete idiot.
Aviwe breaks into a huge guffaw of laughter as he shows me the drawing he did on the very day of the fire, before they were whisked away from the school. He is amazed to find it still there in his classroom where he left it. Mbali sits quietly at a table and draws. Her teacher says she was one of those learners who were particularly traumatised by the move.
“When we got back here she kept covering her ears and eyes and was too anxious to participate in any of the class activities. So we took her for a quiet walk outside and gradually, as she experienced the familiar sights and sounds of the school, you could see her visibly relax. It’ll take her a while, but she’ll be fine again.”
Ollie Gödde is one of the young German co-workers volunteering at Camphill School for a year. His particular charge for the year has been one of the older boys, Neil, a boarder. “It was terrible for him to be bundled into the school bus as the fire was on our doorstep, and to be rushed away with the other crying children – he was terrified,” he remembers.
“I went back with him to his home in Cape Town until a new place could be found for the boarders to stay in and I have been with him there, too. All these changes were so difficult, but they have brought us very close to each other. In three weeks’ time I will be going back to Germany and I am pleased that I could at least be here to settle him in at the school again. I will miss him so much; he has taught me a lot more than I have taught him.”
The person with the biggest smile of all is school principal, Jeanne-Marie Botha. “Yes, it’s been a very challenging time for all of us and of course, it’s cost us an enormous amount of money, but I can’t tell you how grateful we are for the generosity so many people have shown us. Our insurance claim was over R1 million, but the temporary accommodation and associated costs alone came to more than R300 000. As a non-profit organisation, this is tough, but the Association of Camphill Communities in Scotland has reached out a helping hand to get us on our feet again.
“In many other ways, we have received amazing support from the local professionals who helped us clean up the property, repair damages to the buildings and extinguish the fire. We can never repay them for the love they showed us. They went way beyond the call of duty.”
Of course, this is only the end of the beginning. Ahead of the various authorities lies the onerous and costly task of rehabilitating this valuable wetland, from catchment to coast, a task which Liezl de Villiers and her team will soon begin to tackle. But, in the meantime, we cannot but share with the children and staff of Camphill School their joy to be home again.