Harmattan Meets Fire

Every person (at least almost everyone) enters a New Year with a sense of optimism. Amidst the joyous celebration mode, the expectation is that the New Year would be a treasure chest of good events. For some, that’s exactly how it goes; for others, the optimism is cut short right at the start of the year.

For some residents on my street, it was the latter. They’ve just started 2015 with a pretty sad present—a burnt house.

Tuesday, 5th January 2015 is a day that many persons on my street would not forget in a hurry—the acutely short memory of the average Nigerian notwithstanding. Sometime around 10:00am, while the Harmattan breeze was preaching the gospel of dry cold, a shout rent the air, “Fire! Fire! Help oh!” Residents rushed out of their homes to see a huge column of smoke rising to the bright sky.

Immediately, a huge firefighting campaign was initiated, led by no one in particular. Everyone just concentrated on any part of the burning house that he or she could access. While this was going on, some tried to call the fire service. A huge disappointment awaited us all.

The first thing we should note (which many Nigerians already know) is that you must never rely on government services being available promptly during an emergency. I called 112 on an Etisalat line and was duly informed that the number did not exist. Someone else dialed 112 on a MTN line, and was able to report the fire. Some other persons were able to reach the direct phone line of the fire service.

In Hollywood movies, we see a fire outbreak; someone calls 911, and within minutes, the place swarms with firefighting trucks, police officers and ambulances. However, in Nigeria, we enjoy the inverse of Hollywood’s utopia. Our knights in shining armour do not show up when we need them most.

Since the professional firefighters were not in the horizon, the street’s rag-tag group of inexperienced, but highly motivated amateur firefighters faced the fire headlong. Bucket after bucket of water was poured at the roaring flames. The Harmattan season had produced very dry materials waiting for a little excitement from the flames, and so, more materials became fuel for the hungry flames.

The intensity of the fire was matched by the “gingered” state of the residents. People donated lots of detergents, some donated buckets, some jerrycans and hand carts for fetching water, some volunteered to continuously fetch water from nearby houses, while the last group were at the frontlines, directly combating the fire. Residents of an adjoining building opened up their homes, so water could be poured through the windows on higher floors. While all these activities were ongoing, the “supporter’s club” stayed on the road, motivating the active participants, offering advice, sobbing for the house owners, discussing and taking pictures.

After about 40 minutes, the government’s firefighters showed up with three trucks. By then, the burning building had already surrendered all its contents to the flames. People were both relieved to see the firefighters, and angry with them for arriving late. Gun-wielding policemen ensured that the anger was not expressed beyond mere words.

The fire was put out, and everyone was relieved because no person died, and it was acknowledged that the fire could easily have spread to other houses. We all congratulated ourselves at the communal effort and team spirit that was displayed, while recognizing the losses suffered by the building’s occupants.

The street now contains the carcass of a once lively building—a stark reminder of what happens when a little flame encounters the Harmattan season.

Harmattan meets fire— tears flow freely.

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