Sunday, September 23, 2012

Time of Fire

September is hot and dry.  It has been more than three months since we last saw rain in the province of Tete and, as such, the scene is primed for fire.  Local farmers have been executing small-scale, localized burns to clear away weeds and to prepare for next year's growing season, sending pillars of smoke and grit to clog up the view along the horizon.  Half of Tete Province has burned at some point during the last few months and the air quality is horrible.  Zobue hasn't seen a decent sunset since July.  This is the "Tempo de Fogo" in Mozambique.

For the most part, the weeks have been passing without incident.  Most of the fires that we see are small, reasonable, and under control.  The few large fires that we do see are far on the outskirts of town, lighting up the night from their position on the mountainsides.  These fires, while threatening, always seem to dissipate by morning.

Yesterday, though, we had a pretty big event.  At about 10 o'clock in the morning on Saturday, September 22nd, the entire Zobue marketplace burst into flames.

We heard about the fire just minutes after it had happened.  A crowd of neighborhood children came barreling into our front yard, babbling and shouting at Dan.

"TURN OFF YOUR ENERGY!"  They shouted.  "Turn it OFF!  Turn it OFF!"

Dan stuck his head out the door and cocked his head.

"What?"  He asked.

"There's been an accident in the marketplace!"  The children yelled.  "You have to turn off your energy or you will DIE."

After some discussion and clarification, Dan managed to piece together the entire story.

At about 9:30 that morning, a farmer was burning his land in the fields below the marketplace.  After successfully lighting the fire and getting it moving in the right direction, he walked away and let it burn.  It continued to burn merrily for about fifteen minutes without incident.  Then, at about 9:45, the wind picked up and began to blow the fire in the direction of the marketplace.

The fish stalls on the lower end of the marketplace were the first to catch fire.  The fire sent the bamboo poles and straw thatching up in flames and then lept towards the bancas by the road.  From there, it spread down the rows towards back of the market, taking down stores and stalls as it went.  The flames burned so high that they burned right through the electrical line, cutting power to the rest of the market and sending a shower of sparks over vendors as they ran back and forth to save their products.

There was some confusion, at first, about the situation with the power lines.  Some onlookers seemed to think that the fire was caused by a problem with the electricity, and that the whole town was going to burn down.  Waves of children were sent out across town, warning townsfolk to "Turn off their electricity or die." More credible witnesses, however, swore that the fire started in the fields.

"The flames were twenty feet tall," they said.  "The fire came first, and then it took out the power lines."

Dan and I came to see the damage at around sunset.  Everything was a mess.  The bamboo stalls on the lower side of the market had been razed completely.  The fire had spread uphill and destroyed a few tin bancas, burning to the top of several papaya trees on the outer edge of the market and even destroying a few brick bancas in the very center. 

The air was still hot and smoky.  A few timbers were still smoldering and sending out ash.  People were milling around and gawking.  Plenty of kids were out, playing in the ashes.  Nobody, it seemed, had been hurt.  Mostly, the fire just seemed to have created a lot of excitement.  The fire had happened hours before, but it was still a big event. 

We went to visit some of our friends in the marketplace, all of whom seemed to have escaped the worst of the damage.  Sebastion’s banca was an island in a sea of burned ground.  Jorge’s shop was fine, too, and Danny’s, as well. 

“Were you here?” I asked our friends, when we stopped by to visit.  “Did you run away?”

“Of course we didn’t run away,” they said.  “We had to protect our stores.”

We were glad to hear that nobody had been hurt, and we were relieved to see that so many of the big bancas had been spared. 

“Thank goodness the fire didn’t enter your store,” I said to Danny, looking around at the shelves of stock and products.  "You would have lost everything.  And you would have been trapped!  I can’t believe that you didn’t run away.”

“My whole life is in my store,” said Danny. 

Sebastion agreed, and then added:

“Run away?  I would rather die in my banca.”

We're still unsure about how many goods and products were actually lost in the fire.  Entire stalls were burned to the ground, but their owners escaped unharmed.  Did our friend Bright manage to escape with his stock of flip-flops and tupperware?  Did Raimundo escape with all of his capulanas?  What about Eric and his collection of cheap Chinese bras?  We weren't sure, and the owners were nowhere to be found.  

It was clear that the used clothes had burned too quickly to be saved.  The old boxcar that served as a calamidades storage shed was now nothing more than a twisted pile of tin and smoldering fluff.  

Our town's reaction has been interesting.  Most of the adults have been milling around, shaking their heads.  

"Terrible," they say.  "Just terrible."

Vendors are already hard at work, tearing down their old, ruined stalls and beginning to build anew.

The kids, on the other hand, seem to be pretty excited.  Hordes of children can be found in all corners of the market, pushing their toy cars through the cinders and scrounging for bottles and other broken things.  It's a dirty job, but their search yields all sorts of hidden treasures-- cans, glass, and bits of wire.  

Hope from the ashes, I guess.

The old market:  Bamboo stalls, thatched roofs, and plenty of flammable goods
The old market:  A shot of the market in February 2012.  Note the system of inter-connected thatched roofs
The new market:  A shot of the market after the fire
A view of the market after the fire
Sebastion's banca, ironically named "The Lonely Banca."
A view of the market (fish stalls) after the fire.  Note the missing electric line on the upper right.  It burned away.
A view of the  market (fish stalls) after the fire.  The fire started on the left-hand side of the frame and rapidly moved to towards the back.  
Remnants of a small, tin banca
The bread stall (left) and Jerusalem Banca (right).  A child picks through the ashes, searching for bits and toys.

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