“Y’Allah baax na, wante ngalow bi baaxul,” the woman next to me said as we stood under the bright morning sun watching the thick, black smoke consume an entire compound in a matter of minutes. God is good, but the wind is bad. In the last five days, two family compounds in my town burned to the ground due to high winds that painted the sky an eerie, opaque white and coated everything in a thin layer of dust. Having grown up in Colorado, I am no stranger to fires and other natural disasters. I’ve seen forests burn, entire neighborhoods demolished, and watched from halfway across the world as my hometown was consumed by flash floods earlier this year. However my family and friends have always been fortunate, untouched by these wild acts of nature. Yesterday was my first up-close encounter with how devastating fire can be.
As I sat in the millet stalk shack where my aunt sells breakfast every morning, finishing up my usual fare of a bean sandwich and coffee, we heard shouts coming from nearby, “Saafara, lakk! Smoke! Fire!” Immediately everyone dropped their food and ran outside to see what was happening. Two hundred yards away, bright orange flames were dancing on top of mud huts, where minutes before there had been thatch roofs and calm. By the time I got closer to the scene, the entire compound was up in flames and at least one hundred people had gathered near the house. Men and women with buckets and bowls ran back and forth to water faucets, trying to gather as much as they could to douse the flames. While friends and neighbors desperately tried to put out the fire, the owners of nearby huts – also made largely of millet stalks and thatch – frantically threw water on their homes to try to prevent the destruction from spreading. Through it all the wind was brutal and incessant, making it difficult to stop the flames. Finally after about forty minutes, the fire was put out and the smoke cleared, revealing the charred skeletons of the mud huts.
While I watched in horror, all I could think about was the family who just lost everything in a matter of minutes. When I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. The majority of families in Senegal to not have bank accounts, home insurance or disaster insurance. My family keeps all of their money in small containers or purses scattered throughout the compound. In my community, people make their living farming, and while some of them store their goods in small warehouses around town, many families stockpile their crops in some area of their compound. Instead of investing in stocks and bonds, they invest in livestock, which they usually keep tethered in their compounds. One of the families whose compound burned down this week not only lost all of their money, belongings, and livelihood, but their horse, donkeys and sheep died in the fire, destroying their back-up plan for financial stability.
Since I came to Senegal I’ve seen true poverty, hunger, and disease. But yesterday it really hit home how fragile life here can be. Thankfully no people died in these fires, as they have in the past, but it will take these families years to rebuild what they lost. The one thing these families didn’t lose was the love and support of their community. Within minutes of the first hut catching on fire over one hundred people had gathered to help. They were there comforting the distraught family members, and they will be there for them in the coming months as they slowly put their lives back together. Family is extremely important in Senegal, so I know that while it will take a long time for them to rebuild, they will have their family and friends to lean on, not just here in Malem Hodar, but across the country.
Sometimes it is easy to forget how fragile and fleeting life is, and I often find myself taking my health and my home for granted. But after seeing the flames whipping through the air, bolstered by the merciless wind, devouring everything in their path, I realize that you can’t take anything for granted because it can be gone in an instant. I have a newfound respect for the people here: for their faith, their strength and their tenacity in the wake of disaster. As we enter hot, dry season, inshallah (god willing) my community will not have to go through this again.