Fire those firefighters...or pay them

While we were in Zomba this past weekend there were lots of fires burning. Fires are common in Malawi, because people often burn the fields during the dry season. One person told me this was to help catch
rats for eating (rats on a stick are for sale everywhere here), but it is also probably the easiest way to prepare the fields for farming in the rainy season.

In Zomba, however, there are no fields, just miles and miles of dense mountain pine forest. In the western United States, burning pine forest is cause for parachuting firefighters, chemical retardant dumped from a helicopter, and mass evacuations. In Zomba, it was apparently a different story. Driving up the windy roads, the fires would often be burning on the shoulder, but you just drive through the thick smoke only
to be hailed down be an excited Malawian a hundred meters later. Excited
about the fire? No, he just wants to sell you bucketfuls of strawberries.
This is a common theme from my life in Malawi. Things that would be utterly frightening, exciting, newsworthy, panic-inducing, etc, any where else are just part of the ho-hum here.
We asked Donald, our lodge host about the fires and like many things here, the story was complicated, fascinating and sad. Apparently the forestry department/firefighters in Zomba haven't been paid in 5 years, despite many promises from the government. So last year the firefighters
started burning down the forest in protest.

Last Thursday, Donald had to evacuate his guests (not until after a great dinner of course) because the 50 foot flames were a couple hundred
meters away. He and his staff spent the whole night stomping out burning
ash that was landing all around the lodge. Donald feels bad for these unpaid firefighters, but they almost burned his lodge down - and they certainly burned up a lot of the forest that his guests come to enjoy. It is so strange. We hear about how bad it is to buy charcoal, and burn wood here, because there isn't much forest left, but then you see a mess
like the fires in Zomba.

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