Student documents tragedy in South Africa

By on October 3, 2006

Many call it a place of overwhelming pain and suffering; some call it a place in need of charity; one calls it love at first sight.

Jo Slovo, an overcrowded South African township, is described as rows upon rows of “houses” built of scrap wood and thin layers of tin, painted in various colors. It has no indoor plumbing, a line of portal potties shared among thousands of residents, no vegetation, no street signs and even fewer street names.

It is in townships like these, shrouded by violence, fires and unsanitary living conditions, where overwhelming amounts of suffering smother the hope and future for more than 7 million residents across South Africa.

These locations of excessive agony, however, have found a place in the heart of Junius Hughes, a successful media producer who returned to Quinnipiac to finish his degree in media production. They inspired him to utilize his skills to better the lives of township residents.

“My first time there was like being introduced to my future wife,” Hughes said.

Hughes, 40, is a winner of the 2001 George C. Peabody Award for outstanding editor of ABC News’ Sept. 11 coverage. He also won an Emmy Award in 2001 for his work as the News Team Producer at ABC.

Hughes is proud of his accomplishments as a professional producer, but is now in search of a different kind of reward.

“This is much more meaningful and personal to me than any of my past work,” he said.

Since he was young, Hughes has always possessed a strong desire to help people. He just needed to find a focus.

“I can hear my minister father asking me the question now… ‘Junius what do you want to do when you grow up?'” Hughes said.

Less than a year ago, in December on his first trip to South Africa, Hughes found that focus.

“I lost my passport two days before we were supposed to leave to come back to the States and I didn’t even care,” Hughes said.

He had been travelling with a group of eight other Quinnipiac students led by professor Liam O’Brien. During the trip they shot two documentaries, one in Cape Town and one in Kruger National Park. Although the experience was life-changing for Hughes, he still felt there was more work for him to do here in the United States.

“I left knowing there was unfinished business. I knew there was a story to be told,” Hughes said.

In his 120-minute-long documentary, “Children of Fire,” Hughes plans to encapsulate the abundant life within these townships, highlighting that people there desire a better life but are confined by the decrepit walls of their tiny shacks.

The focal point of his documentary will be the teenage burn victims who survived fires in South Africa and have been saved by the Children of Fire Charity. They were selected to climb the highest point in Africa on a seven-day expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in July 2007.

This South African-based charity, similar to the United States’ Ronald McDonald House, provides assistance, surgery, therapy and hospitality to township burn victims and their families.

According to the Children of Fire’s Kilimanjaro expedition proposal, South Africa’s township fires are responsible for more than 15,000 badly burned children each year, making it the second leading cause of childhood deaths in the country. HIV/AIDS is the first.

Originally created under Apartheid laws in 1948, townships, once referred to as “homelands,” were established to assist in segregating the country’s races: white, black and “colored,” meaning of more than one race. Those classified as blacks were forced to live on the townships, had very little rights and were required to show their passports upon entering other parts of the country.

Finally, in the early 1980’s, after decades of sometimes violent struggle and under pressure from the international community, the South African government began to make changes to the Apartheid policy. By 1990, the Apartheid Laws were entirely eliminated. Nevertheless, the majority of South Africa’s population today is still forced to reside in poor living conditions because of race.

“Nothing will change unless the continent as a whole takes action and seeks help,” Hughes said. “They are 20 years over the Apartheid Laws, but many of them still have an old mentality.”

Hughes plans to air his documentary to audiences in South Africa and Britain using a British narrator, and to the United States using an English-speaking narrator with the goal of raising enough awareness to finally put out the lethal flames.

“I am doing this documentary not only to catch the audience’s attention but to make a difference, a difference in the lives the story is about,” Hughes said.

Hughes will film the documentary during three separate trips to Africa over the next several months. He plans to present the documentary in a logical yet humanistic manner that will allow the audience to truly know the life of a teenage burn survivor, feel their pain and hopefully, inspire action to help.

“I don’t want to rush to the story, I want to give viewers the time to understand what is going on,” he said.

Through personal interviews with individuals who dedicated their lives to this charity and the children who were chosen to participate in the climb, he plans to incite feelings of empathy and generate acts of goodwill among audience members.

Hughes hopes that his documentary will encourage a stronger connection between the broader South African public and the townships.

“I want this to raise awareness to a situation so many know so little about both on domestic and international levels,” Hughes said.

Focused on human despair, triumph and victory, Hughes does not intend for his documentary to find success in the commercial market. Instead, he says it is a film exposing one’s true love with the hope of inspiring productive empathy.

“I’ve won awards for my work before and I proudly hung them on my wall,” he said. “But there is still a space that remains in my heart that I hope this documentary fills.”


About Erin Elfeldt