Sunday, March 6, 2011

Truth in Ashes

Ashes and smoke drift toward me, the acrid smell drawing my attention.

I stand on the soccer pitch at Moleli High School, and watch the soaring flames move closer. The British teachers have mobilized the students with buckets filled with precious water, a line of them soaking the outer edges of the pitch, which in Zimbabwe in late September is mostly dirt anyway.

But the wilderness of trees beyond the field, twisted acacia, monkey fruit, and mopane, provide dried tinder that burns easily, happily feeding the flames.

I step toward the line of improvised firefighters.

“Don’t bother,” says a voice beside me.

Mai Chinogwenya, the head of the math department, stands beside me shaking her head, arms crossed.

“There’s no danger,” she continues.

“How do you know?” I ask.

She looks at me, probably wondering how anyone can be so stupid. Whoever has designed the school layout knows about fire. The dirt-covered sports fields ring the school, providing a natural barrier to flames. The buildings are mostly brick and cement anyway, so any would-be danger comes mostly from smoke.

Mai explains all this to me, then adds, “Besides, the wind’s changing direction. Anyone can see that. They’re wasting water, and their time.”

“They don’t know,” I offer.

She shrugs, too polite and good humoured to point out that they should ask. The brush fire has now reached the far edge of the soccer pitch. We watch the British teachers hit at small pockets of fire with brooms. Their student bucket-brigade moves slowly, clearly less-than-enthusiastic, well-accustomed to fire. Other Zimbabwean teachers cluster together, enjoying the spectacle, saving their energy to help only if it’s necessary. They’re amused, but indulgent of this Western tendency to rush into things, to sometimes miss the big picture and the local wisdom.

In the West (and North), many of us have forgotten things that people who live closer to the earth learn early in life. Like the fact that fire is natural and unavoidable, that it can be managed and lived with, that it can help not only for food and heat but for growth, and that it has a symbolic cleansing power that cultures have recognized for millennia.

Whether in the burnt offerings of the ancient Hebrews or the cremations on the Ganges, humanity recognizes that we have need in our lives to burn away the old to make way for the new. In our modern electronic culture, we can easily forget the basics, that those things that are most dangerous, like fire, like religion, can also be life-giving and essential.

As we enter the season of Lent on this Ash Wednesday, my thoughts return to that day, the ashes swirling, the heat, and the reminder to take it slow. Human life is short, fragile, burnable, but meant to be breathed in deeply, and experienced richly. We are surrounded by wisdom, pain, laughter, joy, loss, love - all the flickering colours of a flame. If we fight the truth that ultimately we too will be reduced to dust, we also fight the truth that we are part of something larger than ourselves, something deep, something necessary, something eternal.


  1. when did this happen? should be a long time ago. Am a Biology teacher and HOD Science at Moleli High School and now there are no more British teachers but mai Chinogwenya is still the Maths HOD. Wish you could help me secure a digital projector to help deliver lessons in this technologically advanced era.

    Even though buildings were out of danger, biodiversity was! My e-mail address:

  2. Thanks for posting! Yes this was a long time ago. Actually the general feeling after the fact was that the fire was good for biodiversity since there hadn't been a burn in so long. It's great to hear from someone who is still there! Greetings to the Chinogwenya family.