We were teaching our last day in Tojjwe [toadj-way] on the island of Buvuma in Lake Victoria when a women burst into the one-room church building screaming incoherently. Immediately, several men jumped up and raced out. I left the podium and stepped out the door to see what all the excitement was. There in the middle of the village rose flames thirty feeroofingbt in the air – the village was on fire! This is a constant fear and terrible danger to these villages because the houses are packed so tightly together, and the thatch roofing is made of such flammable materials that any fire can leap quickly from house to house and be totally out of control in moments.

We ran, the islanders from distant islands who had boated in to our conference and I, toward the flames to render any kind of aid we could. These people well underst1642ood what an out-of-control house fire can mean to a lakeside village like this one. I first encountered a small girl, maybe 6 or 7 running away from the flames and screaming and crying in terror. I knelt and reached for her and she ran into my arms weeping, close to hysteria. I was relieved that she was uninjured and only terribly frightened. I called for Gail, who has such a gift with the children here, to come and gather the children to safety.

This village of Tojjwe sits on the edge of the lake and has a population of over 650 with immediate suburb spurs raising the population up to around 2000. The houses are built side by side with occasional “meadows” for parking items like boats, motorcycles, goats, dogs, all manner of building materials and various village-related detritus. This entire area is inhabited by legions of ducks and chickens, all who seem to co-exist without much apparent concern about the 1648human population, which occasionally reaches out and snags one of them for dinner. These are thatch roof homes with a mixture of grass thatch on some and thick mats of a bamboo-like plant covering others. There is the occasional tin roof, but it is rare. The walls are mainly mud-wattle, but there are many wood board structures as well.

As I left Gail gathering children, I ran toward the flames with the other men, and I noticed first that there were already a large number of burning buildings with roofs going up like torches, flames jumping from one structure to the next. The only strategy I could make out in all the smoke, screaming chaos, and overwhelming heat waves was to either empty a home of its valuables – furniture, stored food, bedding, kitchen utensils, etc. – in an attempt to carry it away before the flames destroyed their house, or to climb to the roof and strip the 1640thatch off the wooden supports as fast as possible so that the flames would not be able to catch in that dry material. We ran in amid the buildings at the edge of the flames with grass thatch raining down all around us, covering the ground to a foot deep in places, smoke filling our noses and lungs, and alternately grabbed belongings to haul them back and away and then great armfuls of thatch which had to be moved back away from the blasting heat and flying sparks. Some people were throwing water from pails carried from the lake, but the fire was too hot and the water too little for this to have any effect at all. Others used the few dirt tools available to throw dirt on the advancing flames.

Of course, the wood walls went up in flames instantly, being very dry and seasoned in the equatorial sun. But I was surprised to see the mud-wattle walls also burning hotly until I realized that the heat was causing the mud to harden and crumble away from the tree-branch super-structure that was holding the mud in place. That wood, when exposed in this manner, almost exploded into flame.

1647Gradually, an organized strategy emerged of clearing a fire-break all the way around the burn-zone so the flames could not leap to another house. This was complicated by the many deep piles of grass thatch and bamboo sticks that were stacked to improve the roofs from time to time. We had to quickly carry all of this material away, throwing it to the ground thirty yards in the rear and running back for another armload.

The most harrowing incident involved a trio of men on the roof of a house trying to pull the bamboo loose and throw it down while flames advanced toward them from the opposite end of the roof-line, bamboo popping and sizzling as the flames reached it. Finally, the men leapt down defeated, and their house became another victim. At least it also became part of the fire-break, and gradually the flames were trapped with nowhere else to go and finally began to die down.

No one was injured, a miracle in itself. Twenty-eight homes were turned to ashes, and I saw many women weeping openly in the watching crowd as they saw their homes and possessions devoured. Two children playing with fire inside one of the homes, they tell me, was cause of this disaster.

As we patrolled the edge of the destruction, seeking any new threatening flames and quickly putting them out, we finally realized there was no more to do, that the danger had been contained. Our group slowly withdrew back to our church structure at the edge of the village. There we found Gail surrounded by a small and exhausted group of children, some asleep on the floor or the benches, and some sitting against her, wrapped in her arms. As the word spread, relieved mothers began to arrive to collect their children. Gradually, we returned to our church-planting conference.

I feel uniquely bonded to this village. Many of the villagers were shocked to see a musungu fighting shoulder to shoulder with them, but they did not have time to comment on it, and many were very protective of me, a total stranger joined with them by a common enemy. Many gently made sure to keep me away from the dangerous places, sometimes taking me by the hand, as is the Ugandan custom, and leading me away from the hottest spots. “No, muze‘, no, muze‘, you go here….” Muze‘ [moo-zay’] is Lusoga for “elder,” or “old one,” and is a term of great respect. It was an experience I can never forget.

Advertisements