Last Sunday, someone started a veld fire on the farm adjacent to ours. Because it was during the day and my house is on the side of a hill, I saw the fire coming, spreading very quickly. The high wind in the trees fuelled the crackling flames devouring many things on the way. I was not immediately worried because I thought the small river that separated our farms would break it. We were safe.
Soon, the sky was filled with plumes of black smoke and the hornbills and eagles flew in frenzied lines towards the fire to feast on insects and small animals confused and trapped by the heat and the smoke. Things were happening so quickly and the fire spreading so fast it was difficult to think clearly.
Then the flames leapt across the small river and the fire was on our side. And in a short time, the fire reached the side of one of my fields, that was when I realised the seriousness of the situation and I panicked. A disaster was brewing in our hands. The cattle! Where would they graze? My mind went haywire.
Because it was on a Sunday, there was no one in the compound. Everyone had taken the time to go to church, visit friends or gone out to drink or fish. Suddenly, there was no time to waste. Together with my two sons, we raced towards the sweeping fire. Because the field at the edge of the plot had lain fallow the previous two seasons, it had high and dry grass and the fire picked phenomenal speed with the wind at its back.
Before we got the raging inferno, we heard agitated voices above the horrible sound of the crackling flames in the direction of the home of a neighbour to the west. We changed direction and headed there. The roof of one of the houses was up in flames. There was nothing to understand.
I had ugly images of the burnt bodies of children from Chishawasha who died recently in similar circumstances. I also heard the emotional voice of the Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Management, Hon Francis Nhema, appealing to the public not to start veld fires as they destroyed life, property and the environment. No matter how this particular fire had started, we would live with the consequences for a long time.
Various accounts would later emerge, some of them conflicting, regarding how the fire had started. One account claimed a plot holder from the neighbouring farm started the fire as he cleared a patch of land to build a chicken coop. Another account claimed small boys trying to smoke out a hare from a burrow had started the fire. A third account claimed the culprits had not yet been identified and apprehended and the police and Forestry Commission were still investigating. Someone had to surely pay for such a heinous action.
There was absolute chaos at the neighbour whose house was on fire. The woman wailed holding the back of her head with her hands. I thought someone, presumably a child, had perished in the fire. Later, when I learned it was only property that had been destroyed in the fire, I was relieved.
The woman continued to wail and then suddenly, she leapt into the air and dashed towards the flaming door, perhaps to try and retrieve a belatedly remembered valuable. I helped the man to hold her back. Then the roof tipped and the rafters crumbled to the ground. Except one that continued to point into the sky, burning furiously like someone condemned at the stakes.
A young man arrived breathlessly and told us Mai Sibanda’s goats had been burned in their pen. That VaMarere was battling the fire in his paddock to save the calves. I quickly looked across the small river at my plot. My entire fallow field, about 10 hectares, was now reduced to ash and the fire was working its way across the maize stalks in the harvested fields.
The cattle were in the pastures behind the hills. The wind howled in the trees and churning smoke covered the sky. The fire seemed possessed. We were plunged in problems of astronomical dimensions. The situation was desperate. Each man was on his own.
I rushed back together with my sons to see if there was anything we could save on our side of the rampaging fire. By now, putting out the fire was out of the question. What remained was to try and save what could be saved. I was worried about many things. I was worried about the safety of the children of farm workers left by their parents in the compound. I was worried about the tractors and the machinery at the workshop. I was worried about the herdboys looking after the cattle behind the hills. I was worried about the calves and their mothers in the pastures. I was worried about where the cattle would go to graze after the fire.
By then, some farm workers had trickled back from Sunday and together, we cut switches from trees to beat back the fire beginning in the harvested parts where it was weakest. We battled with it for several hours until we were sure the compound and the workshop were safe.
As we furiously tried to save the compound and the farm equipment, I did not care about the pastures and where the cattle would go and graze: that was another story another day. And behind where the fire had left, the land was charred, black and barren.
As I sat on the veranda of my house later that evening, the night glowed from the light of the distant fires on the hills to the north and south. Because we had spent most of the time fighting the fire, it would be tomorrow that the full scale of the damage the fire had caused would be known.
Because then, other people like the young man who brought the sad news of Mai Sibanda’s goats and VaMarere’s battle to save his calves, would move around, carrying similar devastating news. It would also be tomorrow during the light of day that we would be able to see the charred wasteland the fire had reduced the land to.
In the meantime, what remained in my mind was the horrible crackling sound of burning grass and the acrid smell of the charred veld hanging in the air and the dilemma of where the cattle would go to graze the following day. I tried not to think about Mai Sibanda’s dead goats or my neighbour’s burnt house because I did not want to feel besieged. Then the anger inside began to rise.
I was angry over many things. I was angry at whoever had started the fire and I wished they would be punished severely for it. I was angry with people who had watched the fire with arms folded until it became uncontrollable.
If my two sons and myself could beat the fire back to save the compound and the farm equipment, they could have easily stopped the fire where it started. I was angry with myself for not racing across the river to take charge of efforts to put out the fire.
Putting out a fire requires a concerted effort from everyone around. If you wait until it reaches you, it might be too late. Fire-breakers are important during the dry season. It does not matter that some rampaging fires can jump over them as happened with the fire that leapt over our small river. Most times, they keep the fires back.
That night, as I sat on the veranda with my mind filled with the jarring sound of burning grass, I wished tomorrow did not come. I was frightened to be confronted with a charred landscape that had been mutilated savagely and the horrible dilemma of where I would take my cattle to graze.