Fire Runs Faster Than We Sweep

It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m lying on my back in the courtyard, enjoying the big mat made out of crocheted plastic bags that we have protecting us from the ground and the roof of passion fruit above that shades us from the afternoon sun, which can get quite warm even in the current cold season. I’m feeling not quite satisfied by our lunch of nsima and greens and am contemplating what snack would better fill me up.

I begin to hear the now familiar crackle of a fire in the distance. In the dry season everyone burns their fields; looking out from the hill where the farm is situated the Malawian countryside often looks war torn with fires burning everywhere.

The gush of fire that sounds like running water gets louder and I notice that the air is a bit hazy. I get up and walk out towards Molly’s house. I can’t see the fire but the smoke looks close and the fire is louder than I’ve heard it before. I walk around the building and see the Malawian staff looking attentively in the other direction, where more smoke is billowing above the trees.

“Enoch,” I say, “is it ok? Should we go look?”

“Yes, let’s go.”

Enoch, Sam, and I walk through the commercial garden out into the bush beyond. After about 50 meters we see the fire. Enoch and Sam start yelling at each other in rapid Chichewa.

“Should I get the others?”

“Yes, go.”

I run back to the buildings to find that everyone has heard the shouting and is on their way towards the fire. I follow them.

Running through the woods the Malawians rip big branches off the trees. Rhoda hands me a stick about eight feet tall with some leaves on the end. As we reach the fire everyone starts yelling at each other. Us uzungus (white people) stand back unsure of what to do until we see everyone is using the branches to sweep along the firebreak, which had been cleared a few months ago but now has dried grass strewn across it.

The fire seems to be dying down when I see Enoch running south along the firebreak towards the far end of our property where we can see smoke billowing above the trees. I run after him, a few others in tow.

We see that the fire spread this way as well – the land is scorched and smoke is billowing along the path, though the flames seem to have died down.

We round a bend and see that the fire is ahead of us, blazing through the grass. We sprint towards it then, as the heat from the fire hits us, we run back into the bush on the other side of the firebreak.

“SAM!! KUNO KUNO KUNO (HERE HERE HERE)!! MOLLY’S HOUSE!” Enoch yells. I turn around and realize our director’s house is close behind us.

Sam: 1 Fire: 0

The wind picks up and sparks fly across the firebreak just as Sam and some of the others come running up. We go to work smacking our branches on the clumps of grass that have caught fire. We soon have them all out, though to the detriment of my branch, which no longer has any of its leaves.

We continue running along the firebreak until we hit the end of the property, where we find workers from the neighboring property waiting to control the fire as it crosses over to their land.

As we slowly walk back along the property line, we realize that everyone is out fighting the fire with no one back at the buildings. Edward and Enoch encourage me to go back.

“Sometimes people start fires so they can steal everything while we are out.”

I’m torn between wanting to stay with the action and concern about our things. Then I remember that I left my computer lying on the ground in the courtyard and sprint back, Molly’s dog, Cyder, leading the way.

When I arrive I discover everything as it was, all doors wide open and valuables everywhere.

I pace around the buildings, trying to see where the fire has gone, bummed that I have to be the responsible one to keep watch for potential looters. Then I see Rhoda and Veronica coming up the path.

Issac – always cool under pressure

“Can you watch for me? Can I go back?”

“Yes, you can go.”

Again, with Cyder by my side, I head back towards the firebreak. When I hit it no one is in sight. I go south, towards the staple field and woodlot. I see all of the trees and grass on the far side of the break are burned and smoldering.

I find the group in the woodlot, with the fire still raging. They are quickly trying to clear the firebreak, which is in worse shape than the one on the other side of the property. Edward hands me a branch and I go to work trying to sweep the debris out of the break before the fire reaches it.

Alison, wondering what we’re supposed to be doing

But the fire is gaining on us.

“The fire runs faster than we sweep,” Edward says.

We rush along the break, clearing it as best we can, the fire right beside us. When we are about 10 meters from the main road the firebreak dead ends.

Madness breaks out. The Malawian staff runs around yelling war cries. The uzungus look like deer in the headlights, trying to figure out if we’re yelling because we’re having fun or because we’re in trouble. Sam runs through the burned grass, barefoot, climbing trees next to the fire, screaming. Dan runs back and forth, through the trees, cutting branches, with huge grin on his face. Edward tries quickly to dig a firebreak before realizing it’s hopeless. Enoch looks concerned and seems to be yelling orders that no one is listening to.

The wind picks up and the fire grows to a huge sheet of flame, rushing across the field around the firebreak. We all begin backpedaling.

The fire coming through the field

I turn to Biswick, “What do we do??”

“We wait til the wind dies.”

We stand there, watching the flames grow, yelling at each other.

Finally the wind dies and everyone rushes the fire, branches held high.

The uzungus – who knew this was part of permaculture…

We pummel the fire line with our branches, knocking into each other in the rush. Samuel yells “IWE IWE IWE (YOU YOU YOU)” every time he whacks his branch down on the fire. The rest of us rush to any bit of fire we see and beat it into submission.

We take a step back and realize the fire is gone. We have conquered it. We are the champions and our farm is still here to confirm it.

As we walk back along the road, heads held high, adrenaline pumping, thanking our stars that this happened during a workday, we stop and pose for a victory picture.

The Fire Brigade

Between the fire and the wild pig attack (more on that in the next post), this has been an eventful week.

Photos courtesy of Austin Dunn, our stellar researcher/photographer.

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Gallery | This entry was posted in Malawi, Permaculture Demonstration Centre. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Fire Runs Faster Than We Sweep

  1. Blythe says:

    Wow, very intense! So glad everything is ok.

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