Friday, October 03, 2014

Fire: a lesson in integration

It was just after lunch. Sitting outside at the community building, I was half listening to my colleagues speaking Sesotho while knitting and thinking about my weekend. Suddenly, all three women rose and Ausi Mareisi calmly said, "Come, let us help Ntate with the fire."

I was greatly confused until I came around the corner of the building and saw it: a large grass fire near a rondavel on top if the hill.

As we headed up, the women with me grabbed leafy branches while I pondered why we were not at the pump getting water. Looking up, it seemed like the tall wall of fire would catch the thatch roof of the rondavel before we arrived. Given how dry everything is and the gusting wind today, I knew this would be disastrous for everyone who lives on that hillside, including my counterpart, Mareisi.

By the time I reached the fire, people had used branches to beat it away from the rondavel. The Ntate whose house it is and Mareisi were quickly throwing bundles of thatch away from the blaze as others attacked with shovels and branches.

Despite having taken Basic Firefighting as part of my Coast Guard licensing process and despite having drilled aboard tall ships for years, I found myself hanging back, uncertain how to help. I remembered that during our Peace Corps training we had been told not to intervene if it might put our own safety in jeopardy, however, that was not what stopped me. Instead, it was the awareness that I was completely out of my element.

As the Basotho around me worked to successfully do something I have been trained to do, I found I did not know where to step in and actually be useful. None of my previous trainings or experiences had taught me how to put out a large brush fire without water, how to get in there and literally beat the fire to death. I watched, looking for ways to help but mostly feeling awkward and useless, while a 17 year old with her daughter on her back excitedly attacked the fire.

While my instinct would have been to try to frantically pump water back at the bottom of the hill, the Basotho knew that there was not time for that, especially on such a windy day.

All week I have struggled internally, trying to find more patience within myself. I am eager to jump in and start making things happen here, however, the Peace Corps approach to development requires me to first integrate and really get to know the people and culture I am working with so my work can be both successful and sustainable. At times it feels awkward standing back wanting desperately to help. In the end though, no amount of training or past experience can replace understanding local culture and custom.

Today's firefighting was a perfect reminder of that. With branches and less than two buckets of water, fewer than ten people successfully saved a family's home and extinguished a well fed fire. The only casualty was an empty animal's shelter. While I may have stood back feeling like a useless and foolish outsider, if I ever again face a fire in the village, I will know to grab a branch on my way and how to jump in and help without getting in the way.

I tried to discretely take these two photos. They show where the fire had traveled in on dry grasses from the right side, the rondavel that was just licked by flames, the thatch bundles that were hastily thrown from the fire's path, and the animal shelter that ended up being a complete loss before I left the scene. And yes, that is the 17-year-old 'M'e with her daughter on her back fighting the fire.



1 comment:

Susan Pederson said...

Ah but you see, the lesson, now learned, is taken to heart and should there ever be another fire, you will know exactly how to help fight it!! Great post!!

You should choose as your life's work whatever feels the most like play.
-Harvey Oxenhorn