Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
Ten years after my 5-month solo-adventure through sub-Saharan Africa, I haven’t reviewed my travel journals once. They’ve been packed away in a box, at first awaiting my return from doing Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, after that my return from humanitarian work in Sudan and Indonesia. But after Indonesia, I packed them away for good while I got married and followed my husband to live in Mexico for two years and raise our twins. These days I find myself anxiously awaiting my return to our house in Denver later this summer to retrieve those journals before heading off to Laos for two years. I guess I was too busy moving on from my previous life that I left no room for nostalgia, at least not for the things I did alone. I put that ‘old’ self into a box along with all the details of the experiences that actually define the core of who I am. Experiences which today, I have a nostalgia to tell those tales and relive those memories for whatever reason – not least my ten-year anniversary celebration. Luckily, I did write one story right after I returned from Africa that recalled details from my journals. Other stories to be told from that adventure will have to wait ’til after July. And now, without further ado, I bring you “Africa Burning”…
Fires were everywhere as we drove along 6,000 kilometers through the remote hills of Western Tanzania in order to get to the hard to reach national parks typically accessible only by flight. Bush camping, fighting tse tse flies and rationing water along the way, we found healthy national parks, extremely poor road conditions and some of the most unforgettable faces of the African people. The biggest impression, however, was of forest fires. I left Africa with a lasting sensation of heat, the smell of smoke and the concern for Africa’s natural resources.
During our hot and dusty long days of driving, we came across miles and miles of forest fires. Some we could see from a distance burning along the ridges of far away hills. Some fires we experienced up close along the roadside searing our truck as we drove through the intense heat. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the fires because the last thing one thinks about when having to drive through an inferno is grabbing a camera. We were too busy wetting handkerchiefs with our drinking water to cover our faces as we drove through the flames. Even after finding some respite from the flames while camping along the banks of Lake Tanganyika, one night the fire came down from the hilltops toward our tents and was broken only by the tiny dirt road separating us from the inferno. Heat, smoke and ash crackled and spun down onto our tents until the early morning hours just before dawn.
One of our trip leaders was a satellite image expert who guided us with his satellite maps through remote areas where road conditions were unknown and road-maps were unavailable. Those satellite images also helped us to see where we might end up in low-lying wet areas at the end of the day so that we could plan to collect firewood before we arrived. He told us of images which showed that most of Africa is burning and I am convinced of it after experiencing the fires throughout our month-long overland expedition.
There is a tall dry grass that is everywhere in Africa, the perfect fuel for the most insignificant flame left behind by locals smoking out beehives to collect honey, or perhaps accidentally spilled over from camp and cooking fire embers. The biggest damage, however, is supposedly by people burning out the underbrush in order to hunt the denizens of rats and rabbits for food, or to have access for cutting down the taller trees to sell as firewood or turn into charcoal. Poachers also use fires to drive game into open arenas for capture. These seem to be the only livelihood resources for people whose crops are dry from a poor rainy season and their families have no food, having been bypassed by most food-aid due to the poor road conditions in the high plateau areas. Repetitive burning of the soil does not allow the earth time to replenish the necessary nutrients and the land becomes useless and infertile. Hillsides are wasted of trees and rich dirt. The rural people end up eating mostly maize meal and cassava, and go hungry.
There will be very few trees in these parts for the next generation to burn, yet there are no alternatives for a viable livelihood. Academics have put forth recommendations to the Tanzanian authorities for seed programs to plant more trees and for irrigation plans to divert water from rivers and streams, but many projects have yet to reach the areas with extensive burning today. In the mean time, Africans go hungry and Africa is burning.
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