Veld Fires – Hurungwe Feels the Heat

Veld Fires – Hurungwe Feels the Heat

15 September 2011

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Zimbabawe — There is a song by the Nyaminyami Sounds, a Kariba-based musical outfit, which talks about how a raging veld fire needs collective effort to fight down.

In the song (Ndiani Apisa Moto) whose setting is Hurungwe, a villager is tasked to climb up a tall tree and alert others back home to take word to the two neighbouring chiefs, Dendera and Nematombo, so they can organise reinforcement to fight the raging inferno.

In the song the two chiefs are also asked to explain if they have not started the fire themselves.

“Ndianiko apisa moto?

Ndiwe here wapisa moto?

Kwira Mudenga usheedzere vari kumusha


Dendera moto watsva,

Heya hee!

Nematombo moto…

Kwira mudenga

Ushevedzere varikumusha

Kumusasa…” goes part of the song.

Although the late Richard Mapfuwamhandu and Moses Zhakata, who both hailed from Hurungwe, revived this song about two decades ago, the song had since time immemorial been a popular rhythm at traditional dances and other social gatherings in rural Hurungwe.

During those days it was taboo to start a veld fire because spirits would go angry against such transgressions. Chiefs would also be answerable to the spirit medium.

The spirits also expected some collective effort to fight the fire as it would end up destroying both shelter (misasa) and natural resources, especially game and fruits which made the staple diet of that time.

Both Chiefs Dendera and Nematombo today agree that the song was used to give awareness on what should be done when a veld fire breaks out as starting a veld fire was tantamount to murder in those days. They also both agree, that the song should continue to be popular at social gatherings where it can help instill the spirit of intolerance to veld fires among their communities.

Many families in Hurungwe yearly become victims of veld fires due to lack of preparedness, skill to manage the fires and the collective approach spelt out in the Nyaminyami Sounds song. A lot of property and homes have been lost as a result of such inadequacy.

On July 23, this year, Hurungwe suffered yet another misfortune when 18 families in the Matau area lost their homes to a veld fire.

The calamity came barely a year on the heels of another devastating one, which also left 22 families in the same area homeless. Huts, tobacco barns and granaries were completely razed to the ground.

Although the families in both cases later got assistance from Government and non-governmental organisations working in the area, with tents, foodstuffs and blankets among other things, it is crucial that when such disasters occur, right skills taught to communities manage such disasters, should they strike again.

This writer was accompanying a fellow scribe to Magweto caves in Zvimhonja area when he became an eyewitness to the July blaze.

On that day it was so apparent that villagers in most communities lacked the team spirit portrayed in the Nyaminyami Sounds song. Instead of mobilising large quantities of water from the nearby wells and organising reinforcement from several other villagers around, some even had to surrender to the veld fire when it was still about 150m away.

It was complete lack of knowledge to manage such a disaster that people ended up more concerned in emptying their belongings to open spaces, than fighting to bring to a halt the monster advancing into their courtyards.

Most of the people who could have taken part in dousing the inferno ran for safety on to open spaces on the edges of the highway, where they helplessly stood akimbo and gazed at the long tongues of flames approaching and consuming their huts and fowl runs to ashes.

Another funny observation was that there was no meaningful demarcation between the courtyards and the surrounding grasslands, meaning the veld fires took advantage of the tall grass lingering adjacent to the shoulders of the huts.

With the correct dimensions recommended by the Environmental Management Agency of at least 18m-wide fireguards around one’s home, destruction of huts and property due to veld fires can definitely be ruled out unless there is foul play or the fire starts right from within the home itself.

Most of the families affected surely had no meaningful demarcations between their courtyards and the tall grasses nearby. Hurungwe being a high rainfall area, people here must be cognisant of the need to clear or cut the grass short around their homes.

Although in last year’s blaze, no one was arrested nor identified for causing the inferno, the suspected perpetrator for this year’s blaze was identified and arrested by police.

Constance Mudenga (23), the woman who allegedly caused the Matau blaze, is already facing justice before the Karoi magistrates’ court. Mudenga claims she lost control of the fire while she tried to put up a fireguard around her vegetable garden.

The fire burnt down three huts belonging to 19-year-old Speaker Mutaranyika who also happens to be the head of a family of six. The fire later trekked westwards leaving several homes and property destroyed in its wake.

Mudenga was charged with negligence causing malicious damage to property.

A victim from Dinhika Village, Mrs Charity Gobo who lost grain, fertiliser, a bailing box, a scotchcart, DVDs, a television set, bicycles and furniture among other items said she had nowhere to start from as all that she had worked for over the years had been turned to ashes.

“I was assisting my neighbours to put out the fire that was consuming their huts when the bad news about the destruction of my home came my way,” she said as she sobbed.

Commenting on why most people starting veld fires were never brought to book, Chief Superintendent Justin Mandizha said members of the community were reluctant to report veld fires to police despite having seen the perpetrators, unless the veld fire affected them directly.

“Unless the veld fire directly affects them, people simply do not bother reporting such cases to the police. Had it been a veld fire that passed and never destroyed anyone’s property, it could have been difficult to receive such a report,” he said.

“You will find that throughout a particular village one could be an in-law to one family while to the next he could be a niece or a cousin.

Such closely interwoven relationships obviously hinder even the traditional leaders from taking up such matters seriously, since they might end up sending an in-law or a close relative to jail,” he said.

Officiating at a fire fighting ceremony Dixie Farm in August, Environment and Natural Resources Management Minister Cde Francis Nhema implored traditional leaders to be tough on veld fires and impose heavy fines on those who willfully starting veld fires.

He said even when a person has been fined at the magistrates’ court, traditional leaders from the village head up to the level of the chief are still mandated to punish such perpetrators.

Hurungwe Rural District Council chief executive Mr Joram Moyo said there was need for councillors to spread the message on the need to prevent veld fires.

He also encouraged all chiefs in the area who were present in the meeting to emulate Chief Nyamhunga as this was the only way in which the alarming rate of veld fires in the district could be reduced. During the same meeting some councillors said it was astonishing that most veld fires occurring within farm properties secured by standard fireguards were starting right at the centre of the protected area, meaning that some people were waging a serious battle against the idea of fireguards.

Several councillors also complained that although EMA had earlier this year warned that it would take sterner action against all farmers failing to institute appropriate fire prevention measures by the mandatory June 30 deadline, it had failed to follow up on its word.

EMA recommended that fireguards be cleared of all flammable materials, which should have a breadth of at least nine metres on either side of a boundary fence.

Among the major causes of veld fires in Hurungwe district are poachers, careless smokers, panners and travellers mostly along the Harare-Chirundu highway.

The travellers, some of whom create small fires at bus stops to warm themselves as they wait for transport in the morning, leave these fires unextinguished. Later these turn into veld fires when blown away by the wind.

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