We don't need no water, let it burn.

Trip Start Jan 02, 2009
Trip End Mar 22, 2009

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Flag of Sierra Leone  ,
Saturday, January 24, 2009

So we got a little bit of extra excitement here on Thursday afternoon.  We were just wrapping up for the day, waiting for everyone to gather for the ride home,  when we noticed a lot of smoke coming from the field on the far side of the hospital boundary wall.  Now this is not an unusual thing to see here in Sierra Leone, it's the middle of the dry season, and it's customary to clear fields, gardens, lawns, and trash piles by burning them.  Over the past week or so we've seen dozens of people burning things, and the air has been thick with smoke.

This particular fire seemed a bit unusual.  The community water pump is located just inside the wall, and the local children sent to fetch water for their families were instead looking at the smoke, and some of the bolder kids even climbed atop the wall to look across, jumping back during flare ups.  I asked Benjamin, our facilities man, if a fire this size was typical.  He sort of chuckled and shook his head, but no one seemed too terribly concerned.

So deciding to do as the Romans do, I took up a spot in the small crowd to watch the fire take its course.  After a few moments of watching, the fire managed to jump the wall, catching a downed mango tree.  "Benjamin," I say, "the hospital is on fire."  "Okay," he says.  I pose the question, "Should we do something about this?"  "Yes," He said, casually strolling over to examine the now openly flaming tree, "This is a big fire." 

And so we finally rallied a few people, got our shovels and machetes from the garden cache, and proceeded to fling some dirt until we managed to contain it to just the smoldering tree.  We gathered a fair sized crowd, but they quickly dispersed once all the visible flames were out.  Disaster averted.  Oh, except for the still raging grass fire on the opposite side of the wall, which was quickly spreading around the far end, and was now headed directly at the hospital grounds, and about two blocks of houses.  "Should we call the fire department?" asks Julia, our volunteer administrator.  "By the time they got water from the river and got here, it will be done burning." was the reply.

So being the dry land natives that we are, the WAFF volunteers set off with our shovels and machetes and implements of destruction to cut some fire breaks.   Benjamin and our driver Pappa joined us, being forward thinking Sierra Leoneans believing in such radical things as "birth control" and "fire prevention."  We were also joined by Bimba, one of our laundry guys and our strong man, who speaks no English but will enthusiastically join in any physical labor you undertake.  We spent the next hour cutting breaks and extinguishing small fires.  We managed to get around about a third of it, the other two thirds being cut off by walls or petering out at the far ends of the field.  We gathered a bit of a crowd, most of whom merely watched despite their homes being endangered.  We finally convinced a few local youths to join us with cutlasses, and a young girl did run us a couple buckets of water.

The most interesting part of the whole event came when we began cutting a fire break around a shed behind a neighborhood house.  We were just getting started when the occupants came out and told us to stop.  "No, no, no," a woman says, "the fire will go out on its own."  "What about your shed?"  "We're going to hope it doesn't burn down, if it does, it does." was the reply. 

We tried to explain that it wouldn't be too hard to ensure that it didn't,  but they were resolute that nothing was to be done, that they were content to hope and pray.  We didn't press the issue since there was still plenty of work to do, but we said that if they needed any help they could call and we'd come.   They said okay, and of course five minutes later their shed was up in flames.  The family never said a word.

Later, Benjamin told me that in Sierra Leone people want to deal with the effect of a problem, that they'd rather not try to prevent it.  There is a lot to discover in this country and I'm still adapting to a lot of it, but this philosophy is something I'll never understand.

In hind site, our efforts might not have been real important.  It was just a grass fire, and with all the roads and areas of short brush, it wasn't something that could have gotten too far out of control.  Like we were told, it would have gone out eventually, and anything destroyed could have been easily replaced.  but in the end I think we did some good.  The shed was the only building lost, and while that was frustrating since it could have been saved, several other residents did thank us for our efforts.  Our breaks worked well, and we managed to keep the fire out of the hospital and mostly contained to the field.  We saved a few gardens, kept it out of some living areas, and no one was hurt.  But today I look out the front door of the office on a still smoldering mango tree, and I can't help but wonder if what I'm doing in this country is truly helping people, or if I'm just throwing dirt on a grass fire.
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