When a wife drags her husband on a weeklong mission trip, an international effort to salvage African fire departments is not usually what follows.
To call the Mathare Valley a neighborhood is misleading. Sitting on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, it’s densely populated, extremely impoverished, and completely ignored. The official-sounding term for this unofficial community is African Informal Settlement, but most would refer to it as a slum. Almost a century ago in America, it would have been called a shantytown, or Hooverville – a not-so-subtle dig at the president who presided over the Great Depression. No one would imagine any official fire service could reach the narrow and crumbling paths that crisscross Mathare Valley, but from Nairobi – Kenya’s capital – one would expect more.
Africa Fire Mission began after Dave and Nancy Moore visited the city. In 2012, Dave was the chief of the Glendale Fire Department, a neighborhood of Cincinnati, in the U.S.’s midwestern region. Finally convinced after months of refusing Nancy’s suggestion, Dave joined a trip to aid Mathare Valley. While there, Dave saw the state of Nairobi firefighting.
In a city of five million, there were only 156 firefighters on the department staff. The extent of their protective gear was a rain coat and hard hat. Nothing resembling professional gear existed for Nairobi FD. Their hoses were checkered with tape, patching countless holes. The fire department hadn’t hired a recruit class in 25 years. There were two fire engines to the whole city. During the visit, only one of the engines was functional, and it wasn’t uncommon that both engines were out of commission. What’s more, Dave learned that Nairobi’s fire department was not the exception, but rather the rule. Departments across Africa often had just one or two fire trucks, if any, and the functionality of those trucks was always in question.
Such resource shortages were obviously a problem – more so than one might imagine. Should a large fire break out, or multiple fires at once, the one or two trucks available would already be overtaxed. This creates multiple problems. One comes in the form of the overreaction that occurred in Zambia, where 42 trucks were purchased to combat the severe need. However, without the infrastructure needed to distribute those trucks, all 42 are housed – unused – in a single fire house. The largest problem, however, is the culture that settles in around prolonged periods of poor fire-fighting capability. When a fire can’t be reached because the limited trucks and firefighters are preoccupied, the fire burns and burns for the whole neighborhood to see. Over time, this very public spectacle becomes ordinary. Status quo is the term that comes to mind when watching a neighborhood witness another consuming blaze without a trace of alarm or worry on their faces. When fire becomes an accepted part of life, fire prevention becomes less and less important until it’s a societal afterthought, which is exactly where much of Africa is today.
When the Moores returned home, Dave quit his job and started Africa Fire Mission. Without much direction, Dave used available assets to amass contacts and resources, collecting bunker gear anywhere he could find. In a year’s time, he was back in Nairobi, bringing gear and a handful of fellow firefighters to present a one-week training course, called an “academy” within AFM, on various techniques and practices.
AFM has been running for over four years. Six academies have been completed in Africa, and five shipping containers have been sent full of bunker gear, breathing apparatuses, medical supplies, and training materials. Nancy Moore was initially just moral support for the project, but has since come on in a full-time role. Though still a modest organization, AFM has grown to include over 50 members of various roles and commitments. Continued growth is a key element in the organization, as the Moore’s vision continues to increase in scale.
Africa Fire Mission’s origin is in Kenya, but it’s increasing in scope. Three years ago AFM made its way to Zambia, where it has sent equipment and two academies. Thanks to a battalion chief in Maryland, Stacey Daniel, virtually every firefighter in Zambia has been supplied with protective gear. Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia are also on AFM’s radar. If viable, the Moores want to expand the organization into every African country whose firefighting ranks will take them.
AFM’s efforts already involve more than a handful of American firefighters and African fire departments. In Kenya’s Kiambu County – not far from Nairobi – Dave happened to bump into a group of Polish firefighters with similar goals. The Poles were short on gear and the Americans were short on money. A partnership was born after several months of communication and planning. Now, a joint effort has begun to build a permanent site for future academies and training sessions in Kiambu.
As the scale of Africa Fire Mission grows, Dave and Nancy have found themes and larger goals in their work, of which at first, they weren’t aware. In a discussion with Dave, he revealed that AFM’s greatest goal is empowerment in the African firefighting community. Training and equipping Nairobi’s firefighters was an excellent start, and will undoubtedly be the standard whenever AFM enters into a relationship with a new fire department, but it’s merely a means to an end. Enough of Africa has eaten, as a special guest, at the table of “first world” countries; and enough have seen foreign white people come into their homes and communities, showing or providing better ways to live.
With Africa Fire Mission, the Moores do not wish to create another program that offers a cheap, immediate, but short-sighted solution. The only reason AFM has reached this point was through a willingness to build relationships. Whether with American fire departments, the organization spearheading a turnaround in Mathare Valley, a random expedition of Polish firefighters, or the African firefighters themselves, building relationships has been key. These relationships have already made it easier to work toward AFM’s goals, as in the trust quickly earned from various charitable donors who have been jaded by countless scam operations masquerading as African aid organizations. Ideally these relationships will make up a foundation that, one day, won’t need the Moores or AFM in order to continue the trend of flourishing and proficient firefighting forces in African nations. Until that day, however, AFM will remain committed to applying the talents of servant-minded people in this effort, such as Matt.
Matt Flagler – a friend of Dave and Nancy, and a firefighter himself – has been on several AFM trips to Africa, and now plays a role within the organization. On one particular trip, the day of the academy graduation, Matt happened upon a shoe shiner in Machakos Town – roughly 100 kilometers east and slightly south of Nairobi. The shoe shiner was a man named Kevin whose profits were often dependent on the business of a hotel nearby his spot on the sidewalk. Matt sat on Kevin’s bench and conversed with the man while he worked on Matt’s shoes. Shoe shiners in Cincinnati, Matt’s hometown, charge around $10 a shine. Kevin charged the equivalent of half a dollar. Matt was all too aware of the disparity and the accompanying economic – not to mention social – implications. Soon Matt’s internal ordeal wasn’t so private. The surrounding market area took notice of the white man and, Matt, a naturally friendly guy, took to chatting with whoever was curious enough to approach. Word spread amid the Kenyans of the American among them, and Matt had a sublimely unusual afternoon before AFM’s graduation ceremony that evening.
The moral of that story is obscure until Matt revealed that he tipped Kevin once the shoe shiner had finished his work. Tipping is taboo in Kenya, and can be seen as insulting. Matt knew this, but felt so compelled after watching Kevin work doggedly at bringing a bright gleam to his shoes. He was so impressed by their appearance that the 50 shilling charge seemed to cheapen Kevin’s dutiful demeanor. Arguments of value, worth, and etiquette circle endlessly on each other when an American visits an African nation and cultural practices clash over an uneven economic terrain.
Africa Fire Mission is not an organization created to fight against poverty, and has no ethos, strategies, or mission statements that directly address issues of impoverished communities. However, as Dave Moore points out, fires disproportionately affect the impoverished, no matter the country. But to be sure, the difference is vast between the poor of Cincinnati losing their house to a fire and the poor of Mathare Valley. Americans generally have insurance policies on their homes, to say nothing of government safety nets and the general charity of neighbors willing to share homes and donate income. A fire in Mathare Valley – a community whose inhabitants average an income of roughly a dollar a day – results in at least one shanty lying in ruin, and a struggling family with zero financial means to rebuild or relocate. Despite the fact that an American house is exponentially more expensive and complex to build, it is no easier to cobble together the scraps of wood, metal, plastic or whatever else might be available to assemble a meager shelter in Mathare Valley.
To this end, AFM has put together a curriculum geared toward a general populace of impoverished communities such as Mathare Valley. As of this publication, AFM has put this curriculum into use two months ago, turning their firefighting efforts from training and equipping fire officials to educating the valley’s inhabitants. The curriculum focuses on simple, practical issues such as better cooking methods, safer electricity management, and lessons like not leaving fires unattended. While such practices may seem to be common sense in many parts of the world, the unique circumstances of an informal settlement create unexpected obstacles to safety-oriented logic. In pursuing the endeavor of educating for safety, AFM will need to continue building relationships as well as being mindful of the many cultural intricacies involved, not unlike those faced by Matt the day Kevin from Machakos Town shined his shoes.
For more information, go to africafiremission.org
David Moore is the founder, executive director and Chief Fire Officer of Africa Fire Mission.
Caleb Meloy is a freelance journalist.