Tuesday was a quiet day to start. Drove out to Lukudzi Primary School with Chris (“here we go, bumpy ride!” - a Joel & Jenn saying from when the girls were little - is my rallying cry whenever I have to get into a car to go to or from Morning Star - bone-jarring rides) to drop off one of the supply boxes and to check out their water supply. They have Foundations for Farming (Farming God’s Way) set up in a big garden, and thought they might need to put water from this stream over some massive boulders/a hill to get it to the garden, but they can actually use a watering hole they already have very near the garden, and use a much smaller pump. So that’s great for them. The Headmaster is a very nice man who was wearing a black suit coat and dark pants and shirt and tie and tie pin, even in the high 80s heat. I love it :>)
On the way back to MS, we stopped by the side of the road to talk to a few people (Patson, who runs Young Life in the area, and another man who is somewhat a patron of the area, who shall remain nameless) and dropped off another box of supplies at Matopo Primary (which is quite close to MS). Had a nice lunch awhile after we got back, and then I read for a bit, then went and helped Norma and Bianca sort out the sewing room, then went back to my book. After a little while, Norma (who had disappeared for awhile - she does this often, as she gets distracted in turns by the million things she has to do) walked by my door and said something like, “I’m just going to take my bike out to the corner to see about the fire.”
I had been smelling woodsmoke all afternoon, and it seemed to be getting a bit stronger in my room, but I didn’t think much of it at the time because out here, with no electricity, you will often smell a fire going in one of the wood stoves - used for cooking and heating water or any number of other things I’d imagine. So when N went by and implied that there was a wildfire that she’d seen when she walked up to the area we’d walked to on Sunday afternoon, I just kinda thought, “Ugh, bummer.” and went back to my book as she rode off. It’s very dry here, the rainy season is still 2 months off, and fires happen all the time. You can see the blackened earth all over as you drive thru the countryside. People start the fires deliberately much of the time, of all the stupid things in the world, out of boredom or spite or what have you. Again - UGH.
In maybe 10 minutes, Norma came flying back into camp, hopped off her bike and kept right on moving. She stopped at Chris’ office (hut, of course), and said that it was closer than she’d thought, that it was right up to such-and-such, and that they’d better get the water containers ready, just in case. I think this was also when she called up to Shumba Shaba (1 or 2 miles away) to see if they could see it/if they could send a few people down to help if it got bad/see how they were.
Within another 15 minutes, the fire was at the outer gate of Morning Star and everyone was fighting it for all they were worth. It is still surreal to me that I was there and part of it and that the Fergusons have had to do this over and over again in their lives. Another few minutes and it would’ve taken Diamond & Caroline’s house (they’re the main staff at MS, kids are Prince & Squeaky). Poor Caroline said later, once it had been redirected, that she was trying so hard to figure out what she should take with her and if she did get away with anything, where would she put it?! It’s not like there’s a river nearby that we could’ve crossed to get away from the fire if it took the camp. We would’ve just had to literally run for the hills (further into the hills, to be more precise). Totally nuts. There were a few minutes where I looked out to where the fire was and the smoke was impossibly thick, and I looked up in the other direction, to where the sun had been shining a few minutes before, and it was just this deep orange ball hanging in a haze of smoke that seemed miles deep, SO far away from us... At that moment, I wished that I had my camera but I didn’t want to take time to go get it in case someone needed me (I regret this now and wish I had pictures of those few minutes); at the same time, I was thinking about what I absolutely needed to grab if I was going to have to run, if the thing took camp - laptop/passport/binocs/camera/Squeaky. Not in that order. Just what to grab.
I don’t think it would’ve taken camp because so much of the ground is just plain ol’ dirt and the buildings are made of concrete/cement (never know the difference). However! There is dried grass in patches and quite a few trees and bushes throughout the campus, and everything is surrounded by more dried grass/bushes/trees. Oh yeah, and all of the dozen buildings have thatched roofs. :>P
Now lest anyone have heart attack, or think that I was some kind of crazy hero in this situation, I must say that it was the men who really FOUGHT THAT FIRE. Chris, Diamond, and 3 other staff guys, I think a few from MS and one or 2 from Shumba Shaba. They fought and fought and fought that fire around Morning Star until we were pretty much safe (as safe as we were going to get at the time), and then they came back and got lots of water and juices, etc, and filled up 3 water barrels, and drove off again for another few hours to fight it where it had moved to in another direction. Basically for 6 hours - 430-1030. I was pretty much done and dragging my dried out self around to shower and get dinner by 8 or so, as were Norma and Bianca. N & B had gone out with shovels to put out what they could while it was really nasty, shoveling dirt wherever/whenever they could. At the end, N was finding the horses and bringing them back from the farthest corner of the paddock to get their dinner, then returning them to their fire-free area behind camp. I didn’t see much else that N&B & Caroline did because I was the one standing by the spigot, watching Squeaky and refilling the giant water barrels every time that Chris brought me empties in the truck. We’d haul the (wicked heavy!!!) full ones into the back and off he’d go again, scarf around his neck/mouth, while I started the filling once more.
**You can pray for Chris - he’s been having lung trouble lately and 6 hours of smoke inhalation most certainly didn’t help. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, he needs a clean x-ray to get his visa/residency permit trouble sorted, and right now, he doesn’t have a clean x-ray :>( So please pray that he’ll get well. I think he feels pretty much okay? but the whole thing is no good.**
The camp continued to reek of smoke even as we went to bed that night. It had mostly cleared by morning but 2 fires managed to restart/keep burning thru Wed morning. For now, tho, MS is safe and everyone is well, and even the neighbors’ houses were missed because of the weird pattern the fire took (it was very windy, which is part of why it got to us so stinking fast). My eyes were killing me after 2 hours, and I wasn’t even in the thick of it - I don’t know how the men did it, really, but they HAD to, so they did, you know? If I’d had to be out in the worst of it, if someone else had been on refill duty or something, or if it’d gotten worse and I’d had to tell Squeaky to stay while I ran out to join the rest, I would’ve. But I’m glad I didn’t. I will say that much, for sure. I’m glad I didn’t, because it was nasty out there, and I don’t know how Chris made it thru, especially. I was close enough as it was.
After the worst of it was headed away from us, and the men had refueled with water and packed up drinks and buckets and water cans and driven off to keep fighting, Norma grabbed a shovel and a flashlight (torch) and I’d grabbed water and a headlamp, we headed back out to where she’d been fighting to put out any of the small flare-ups we could. Maybe 45 minutes of that? Tromping around on black and white ground that crunched like frost under my sneakers, trying to avoiding getting a thorn or stick in the eye in the dark... Following Norma is dangerous enough in the daytime! Forget about in the dark, surrounded by small fires ;>P After playing Smokey Bear for a time and doing what we could,
Squeaky was an excellent fire fighting assistant, turning the water on when I’d gotten a barrel under the spigot, dragging empty barrels around as needed, always keeping track of where the barrel caps were and setting them aside/fetching them. She’s a pretty awesome 3 year old, I gotta say. I’d periodically walk out to the road to see what was going on and she’d always come with me. When I start to walk away and she’s nearby, I don’t even need to look any more really, I just hold my hand out facing backward, toward her, with my fingers spread very wide and palm open, and she giggles as she races up and takes my hand. Couldn’t love it more, having such a pleasant shadow about :>) It was good to have a purpose other than just filling water jugs, too. It was good to need to be calm so she wouldn’t be worried, and to take care of someone else while I filled and waited and tried not to worry.
I was never insanely worried. I had those few moments when the sun got blocked out and the smoke just burned, burned, burned in my eyes and throat, and you couldn’t see much anymore, when I was watching and saying “oh my word. oh my word.” and prayingprayingprayingpraying “Lord, please don’t let the camp go up, please keep Diamond and Caro’s house safe, please please please please please no one else is coming. No one else is coming....”
It’s a strange thing to be in a place where there is truly no back-up in a natural disaster or major emergency. Thinking about the whole thing the next day, I realized that perhaps the biggest difference between America and Zimbabwe (and Africa in general) is that it is so easy in the US to pretend that we’re in control. We’ve got 911, hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacies, fire departments, police departments - all these resources that help us to confirm that we are, in fact, not living in a chaotic, harsh world where anything can happen at any time. No, no - we are in control. We are "safe". Here, you have no such illusions. Things don’t go according to plan. Cars break down and you wait for your friend to come get you - no GPS so it takes some time for your friend to find out, out on the dirt roads, out in a poor suburb. Fires start and you fight them. Floods happen, you go clean up. Someone falls at a dam, you get to them, you wrap your shirt around their bleeding head, pick the parasites off their skin, wait for the others to come, carry them the few miles out. These are things that have happened to me in the last few days, or others in the last few years. Life is crazy and free and anything can happen and there is NOTHING YOU CAN DO but trust God. Nothing. You either believe that nothing can separate you from the love of God - neither death nor life nor angels nor demons nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height/depth/any other created thing - or you don’t. It’s that simple. Around here, you have to believe that each disaster averted is God’s hand and when something hits you, there’s a lesson somewhere. These are things I think in the States, but it’s so clear here - there’s nothing in the way of seeing God in things. There are no illusions that I have control over anything that happens; it’s so painfully clear that everything that happens each day is totally out of my hands. And ya know what? It’s all good.
As I gaze out at the blooming purple jacaranda trees and the crazy Matobo boulders, I find it almost funny how at home I am out in the bush at Morning Star, and in Zim in general, and I wonder if, at some point, I will come and stay with no departure date. I miss everyone at home, I do - but mostly I want you all here, rather than wishing I were there. I miss phone calls and hugs from Adam’s kids. I miss my dogs. I miss being able to Google random things I wonder about throughout the day, or shoot off an email when I think of something important (or funny or whatever). But at this point, I honestly don’t miss as much as I thought I might. I’m excited to keep traveling with Forgotten Voices for the next 10 days and then have another month here. I’m excited for the Ems to come. I’m constantly thinking about the trip after this, dreaming about what’s possible and who I want to bring next time...
Look out, world. Here I come.
-the african queen