Fires of Project Canaan

The following story was written by Heart for Africa volunteer Janet Scott.  Janet and her husband Jere spent several months in Swaziland this summer, with much of that time spent at Project Canaan.

Fires on Project CanaanFire anywhere in the U.S. during the dry season sends sirens blaring with fire trucks racing to the scene.  However, here in Swaziland, winter burning is normally an everyday occurrence.  Jere and I commuted from Ezulwini to Project Canaan every week day, a distance of thirty-four miles, and we never failed to seen at least one fire burning.  One day I took the time to count the number of fires I saw as we were going home and I counted fifteen fires, some close to the roads, others far away toward the hills and mountains.  Depending on the prevailing winds, these burns can cover only the intended area or entire mountainsides.

During the dry winter seasons, the Swazis burn dried grass.  Cattle are given free-range roaming privileges after the maize harvest.  So burning the tall dried grass encourages new growth for the cattle.  Within a week after a burn, there is a light green carpet on the blackened and scorched ground.  Most of these fires are started and left unattended and are so commonplace that no one seems to be concerned.

If your property is in the way of the fire, it is up to you to put out the line of burning grass.  Once while we lived and served at El Shaddai Children’s Home, we witnessed a fire that was started in the morning far down at the bottom of the ravine and by evening it had worked its way up the mountain and was creeping toward a homestead.  In the darkness we could hear the Swazis living there yelling frantically; trying to beat the fire out before it reached their home.  Suppose no one was at home at the time?  Would the fire department send a fire team to put out the fire?  Unfortunately, not in Swaziland.

Fires at Project Canaan are started by the locals for various reasons.  There are 2,500 acres of wild bush land that make up Project Canaan, home to African wild game such as different species of antelope, wild pigs, and even leopards.  By burning the bush, poachers can flush out game; so poaching is one reason for the fires.  Another reason is simply one of intolerance.  Some locals do not want Project Canaan to exist.  They want Heart for Africa to give up and leave, so they keep on starting fires.

Jere and I worked at Project Canaan for six weeks this summer.  Between August 2nd and September 2nd, we saw five fires there, with two more happening during the weekend, when we weren’t there.  The first fire we saw was during a community meeting that was specifically called by the chief of the land, Prince Guduza, brother of King Mswati III.  The meeting was called to make the community aware that the fires being set are detrimental to Swaziland’s future.  Kaleli Mulli and Ian Maxwell discussed the purpose of Project Canaan and the long-term benefits for the people of Swaziland.  Charles Van Wyck, whose Ekaya (cattle) Ranch runs adjacent to Project Canaan and Prince Guduza’s land, told everyone that the setting of fires must stop.  Prince Guduza, a Parliamentary member, and a chief’s elder all repeated the message of the first three speakers.  And while the elder was speaking, Charles excused his presence from the Prince because he had to put out a fire on the mountain.  Then he climbed into his truck, along with Jere and six Heart for Africa men and youth, and dashed off to find the fire, while Kaleli and Ian raced to get the Kenyans and Swazi field hands.

From that very first fire and the subsequent four more that we saw, only one was left to die on its own because the wind took it up the mountain, away from the farm.  The worst fire started at 7:00 AM and was put out by 6:00 PM.  We were working at the containers and Jere, from the container roof, could see the systematic, deliberate spreading of the fire.  We learned the next day that Anthony and Denis (the Kenyan workers) had their hair singed and Anthony’s nose was slightly burned from the heat.

Watching helplessly from afar as these brave men fight the fires, nonstop until the flames are extinguished, using crude tools (tree branches), sometimes with the help of the Van Wyck’s bush pumper tank, hours on end with no replacement crew to take over, makes me so appreciative of these unsung farm heroes.  Please join us in praising these champions and praying for these fires to stop.

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