There’s a photo in my phone that always features as the latest picture in my album, even though I downloaded it in June 2017. A silvery black and white image from Khadija Saye’s dwelling: in the space we breathe. A woman bending over as a spirit-like form performs a healing. Khadija Saye, a visionary of an artist, was only 24 when she died in the Grenfell fire. Her invocations of spirit-work, imagined through healing practices in her ancestral Gambia leaving a trace here. An echo.
On 14 June 2017 I had woken up at 4am in a Nairobi airport hotel room to catch a flight and turned on the television to flames. A local council tower block in West London was on fire. The cameras rolled as people described in adrenalised clarity about how they had just jumped over walls and ran up burning staircases to attempt to pull their aunties, cousins, neighnours from the burning building. Perhaps the only saving grace is that it was Ramadan and so many of the Muslim residents and their kin across the city were awake for late night prayers and gatherings. The Grenfell fire was catastrophic. The stories of attempts to save babies, the elderly, children, each other- unthinkable in some of their end points. The fire fighters whose protocols failed them and many in the building, and who eventually by-passed their training and exposed themselves longer than they should have to the flames because what do you really do in the face of a community, burning. They say 72 died that night. As the news emerged friends shared what had happened to family, childhood playmates, to Khadija.
I don’t know why I thought Grenfell would become the symbol of what is wrong with Britain. How it might make people really reflect on the hatred that underlies classism, xenophobia and racism and what that means for safety standards in public services serving the minoritised and systematically excluded. How it might make people relook at the whole concept of ‘value for money’, an obsession of British governance, and consider that there are times when saving pennies = eliciting death. Imagine how much contempt of working class people’s lives it takes to decide that flammable cladding would suffice for a residential building because the non-flammable version cost a bit more.
And the scandal of the response. To think that Teresa May couldn’t even show up with a bunch of flowers the way everyone else did, speak to survivors face to face. How it was the Queen and Prince William who arrived to do that ritual of governance that’s about empathising when devastation has struck in the lives of people residing on land you oversee. But then the valour in the face of Grenfell was and remains in community. Community offered heartbeat in a time when so many hearts stopped. Local mosques and churches, underfunded community centres, local businesses, people travelling across London to offer free healing, counselling, listening, and sharing their belongings with those who had lost everything. The richest borough in London. Kensington and Chelsea. And it was everyday people coming through with the community love that has been built over generations of exclusion and resistance in West London. Even in terms of meaningful commemoration, its was gestures like the one from the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival to observe a moment of silence in the parade to honour people lost who would otherwise be walking the streets of the carnival route- that felt like they actually cared.
It is four years on and there still is no real justice. Which means no full healing. An expensive enquiry was launched, testimony was given. The carcas of the building has been covered but its ghost remains. The depths of the failure to honour life as a central responsibility of government will remain in Grenfell’s ashen story. A haunting.