What We’re Born To Do: Lessons From the African Fire Service
Stepping out of the airport into the Nairobian air, it was immediately apparent this was going to be an experience unlike any other. After months of planning and anticipation, I had arrived in country with a group of 17 other men from around the United States, tasked with the arduous prospect of training a large group of firefighters assembled across numerous counties with various degrees of training, resources, and expectations. By the morning we would be standing up in front of well over 100 faces, 9,000 miles away from home, tasked with hosting a fire training in a completely foreign land. The ‘what ifs’ were limitless.
The Academy was set to take place in Murang’a County. Formally of the Central Province of Kenya, Murang’a boasts a population of roughly 900,000 people, and a landscape far different from the bustling metropolis of Nairobi where this journey began.
The trip to Murang’a was only 50 miles, but navigating the deteriorating roadways,
Pedestrian traffic and livestock extended the trip to nearly 3 hours. To see Africa for the first time as a traveler is something to be experienced, but viewing the country through the lens of a firefighter was entirely different. The streets to Murang’a were lined with endless rows of improvised “single family’ residences, erected from old tree branches and discarded corrugated steel. At roughly 8×10 feet, these homes commonly housed upwards of 10 people at any given time. Kitchens and residential heating were often restricted to a simple kerosene or charcoal burner, and residential and municipal water were nearly nonexistent. Behind the vast landscape of improvisational homes lie commercial and municipal buildings. These crumbling structures could be classified as Type II construction at best, though one could never expect any form of fire prevention measures incorporated into them. The air was thick with the smell of smoke, kerosene, and local cuisine as it was prepared by the side of the road. In every direction there were a multitude of fire hazards and life hazards beyond anything, anyone in the states will ever see. My forehead rocked slowly against the bus window as the cab ebbed and flowed against the broken road, and all the while my head was swimming with how to translate this foreign landscape into the language of the fire service that is fluent to me.
The arduous bus ride concluded as we were escorted through the gates surrounding the Murang’a County Fire Station. The firehouse was positioned on the outer perimeter of a municipal compound. To the west were the dorms centered around a courtyard where bunker gear and uniforms hung, drying from clothes lines. The gear was marked with an assortment of familiar insignias representing departments from across the states. Yellow helmets adorned with the University of Wyoming’s ‘Pistol Pete’ felt especially out of place.
Across the courtyard where three European pumpers parked strategically between the dorms and the chow hall, and as we arrived a group of local firefighters quickly gathered at the entryway.
We made our way out of the bus. My legs were heavy and soar. There was a dull ache creeping between my eyes as I adjusted to the glaring sunlight through the open doors. My mind raced as I attempted to break down the proceeding days, but as soon as my feet landed on the firehouse apron, everything fell away.
The familiar aroma of cheap coffee burning on a warmer plate was replaced with a unique blend of black tea and cream as firefighters gathered for afternoon tea outside the mess hall. This was a tradition every bit as sacred as coffee around the firehouse table at home. It all felt so familiar as the first of countless firefighters took my hand and threw their arms around me as they exclaimed through bellowing laughter and joy, in a distinctly Kenyan accent, “Welcome my friend!”. Nine thousand miles from home and suddenly everything was familiar, at no time has the meaning of the ‘brotherhood’ been more tangible than this.
After brief introductions, we were given a tour of the fire station and apparatus. The firefighters shared with us stories and experiences serving as firemen in Murang’a. While touring the fire engines, there were several things that stood out as particularly unique. First, each compartment door was affixed with an old rusted padlock. Second, the cab of each apparatus was enveloped with a steal cage, and the rig was riddled with an array of dents and scratches across the entire vehicle. The firefighters on sight explained to us that they are commonly attacked and stoned while operating at emergency scenes. They painted a grave picture of theft, violence, and distain for the fire service across the county, a stark difference from the implicit respect afforded to firefighters here in the states.
The tour ended as we were directed to the opposite side of the property which housed a cistern strategically placed within the walls and guarded by a perimeter of razor wire atop a 10ft fence. This was one of the only protected water sources in the entire county for fire service operation, and its presence garnered great pride as it significantly increased the efficacy of their department.
When the tour concluded we made our way back to the hotel to rest before the academy began in the morning. I lay awake that night within a mosquito net in absolute awe of the challenges the firefighters here face every day. I was suddenly acutely aware of just how blessed I am to have the resources and conveniences afforded to me by my department back home. When morning came, we loaded into the bus and made our way to Ihura Stadium for the first day of training.
The academy was hosted at a local soccer field just across the road from the firehouse. The field was lined with canvas canopies where classroom sessions would take place, a catering service prepared boiled meats and tea on the far end of the stadium, and centered among all of it was a small tent housing a DJ and PA system. Music and dance are an intricate part of Kenyan culture, and the academy would prove no different as we began every day with an onslaught of music, dance and celebration.
We made our way onto the field where firefighters spread across the landscape exploring the grounds and making introductions. We called the group into formation, and the academy had officially begun.
In groups of ten, the participants lined up with the instructors at the head. We assigned group names, team leaders, and introduced what would become our overall theme for the duration of the training; pride & ownership. We each took our time reviewing what pride and ownership meant for each of us in our respective
departments. In particular, I focused on the importance of taking pride in the small tasks around the firehouse, the idea that pride in the small details translates to pride in the larger picture. At the end of this discussion we turned the floor over to the participants, and we asked only one simple question. This question would redefine my understanding of the ‘brotherhood’ forever; ‘why do you want to be a firefighter’?
Under the hot African sun, the tone of the group instantly changed. Faces once staring back at me with great anticipation suddenly shifted to indignation and confusion. I could almost feel the entire group screaming out “what kind of a stupid question is that’? Then one face came into focus from the crowd as he stepped out of formation. Proudly adorning his Meru County Fire uniform with his high polished patent leather shoes, he held his head high and softly but sternly called back to me…’Sir, it’s what we were born to do”.
I learned one absolute truth in this moment, the language of the fire service is universal. Through all the obstacles, limitations, and hardships, the one defining factor that joins all of us together is the unyielding affirmation that firefighting is more than simply a job, it is a calling.
On the other side of the world I had been faced with a department fighting more operational, political, and administrative challenges than I could have ever imagined, and despite these challenges, every last one of the participants was gleaming with pride for the privilege to wear their counties’ uniform. This passion translated to the drill ground, as I have never worked with a more driven and motivated group of students in my entire life.
No one person exemplified the spirit and determination of the firefighters of Kenya more than Jose Njuki-Imwe Ngunjiri. This is perhaps one of the most inspiring firefighters I will ever encounter. Jose’s journey to the fire service began when he was only 4 months old. Jose was trapped and nearly killed when a fire broke out in his home, and frightened, his nanny left him behind. Though he was rescued by his county’s firefighters, the blaze left him severely burned, permanently disfiguring his left hand significantly limiting its use. Despite this immense tragedy, Jose grew up devoted to the community in which he lived. Over the years he developed a mastery of puppetry and used that skill to educate the community about communicable disease, water treatment, and fire safety. Through all this, he shared with me that for 18 years he “couldn’t understand why they [the firefighters] would risk their lives for someone they didn’t even know” Then one day his son would change the trajectory of his life forever.
As Jose’s son grew old enough to understand what had happened to his father in the fire, his curiosity grew until he ultimately asked to visit the firehouse and meet the men who had saved his father’s life (of course they were all retired by now). So, son in tow, Jose made his way to the firehouse. When they arrived, his son was given the opportunity to
show water through a handline, and in that moment, witnessing the excitement and awe in his sons’ eyes, he knew he was ready to be a firefighter, it was his ‘destiny’. Jose attended his first fire training through Africa Fire Mission in Thika, and ultimately complemented a 6-month fire academy in November of 2018. He proudly serves as a fireman today in Kiambu County.
Instructing Jose was one of the greatest privileges I have ever had in my career as a fireman. He overcame insurmountable odds in pursuit of his calling. Having experienced the devastation that fire can cause, and after losing the use of his left hand, Jose showed up each in every day, under the blistering heat, and committed everything he had to his craft. Every day of the training his laughter, optimism, drive, and willingness to learn were infectious as he carried his classmates through to the finish. Jose exemplifies the spirit and passion of the firefighters in Kenya, and furthermore exemplifies the pride and purpose that I would strive to emulate in my career.
I was humbled when I returned back to the firehouse for the first time following the trip. I stepped through the doors and was greeted by a spotless clean bay housing well over two million dollars of equipment and apparatus. The smell of cheap coffee warming in the kitchen crept into the bay. Laughter echoed through the firehouse as oncoming and off going members greeted each other throughout the station. I headed towards the south end of the firehouse to
retrieve my gear, and as I pulled my helmet from the locker, I reflected on the two new sets of Morning Pride bunkers hung neatly on the rack. My thumb brushed softly against the Norsemen sticker affixed to the back of my lid representing my truck company, and suddenly the pride I had in my station, my department, and my calling morphed into appreciation.
In America, we have a very unique privilege that is easily overlooked, and truth be told it is one I personally have neglected for the majority of my career. As firefighters in the states, we have an assumed respect and admiration from the public we serve, and funding/ resources unlike anywhere.
I thought back to the academy…to Jose
That day I would place my gear in service and set out to serve a community who regularly adorns us with gratitude for the work that we do. I would set out into that community on a brand-new ladder truck, and when I arrived on scene, I would have all of the best tools and equipment to mitigate any emergency that comes my way. In that moment time stood still as I realized in a parallel universe, far beyond the eastern edge of the Atlantic, my brothers were breaking bread around the firehouse table, sipping tea and waiting for the tones to drop. The firefighters of Kenya will answer the call with antiquated and barely operational resources, with mismatched gear from countless different departments, and every single one of them shows more gratitude for the job they’ve been called to do than I have in quite some time. The fire service is not just an occupation of pride, I forgot that long ago. Regardless of where your boots hit the ground, this is a profession that should be measured not only in pride, but gratitude. We should be thankful for each any every day we have the opportunity to hang our coats on the rig and turn out, because whether it’s here in the states, or somewhere thousands of miles across the globe, we are a brotherhood bound by one absolute mission, that this is what God has put us here to do…what we’re born to do.
Authors Note: I want to give a special thanks to Africa Fire Mission, Dave and Nancy Moore and of course Station Pride for making this dream come to life. I could have never done it without you. To learn more about how you can help instruct the firefighters of Africa please visit http://www.africafiremission.org
Whatever Jose does, he does it with excellence and is full of integrity. Proudly associated with this Kenyan – Sonnie Gitonga
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