My team and I had just finished a full day of field work, taking a transect walk through Moyiba’s steep hills and slippery slopes. They snoozed beside me as our bus lurched along through the chaotic traffic, and I sleepily watched the naturally organizing dance of pedestrians, motorcycles, cars and trucks maneuver through the streets around us. Ornately dressed women hovered over their food stalls along the road, carefully tucking mangoes into towering spiral displays. Motorcycles weighed down by whole families zipped through the stalled cars. Tuk tuks and taxis bearing hand painted slogans like “Allah is great” and “God bless my wife” honked incessantly at the jam in front of them. Young hawkers balancing baskets piled high with anything from peanuts to wooden spoons maneuvered around the packed streets, waving at car windows. One boy walked by with a basket of wall clocks and I idly imagined the bizarre circumstance a driver might require one.
Our bus found an opening in the madness and sped ahead, and I heard a gasp rattle from the students at the front. I leaned to the edge of my seat to look out over the downtown landscape ahead of us, which had now traded its bustling energy for one of panic. Women hurriedly packed up their wares. Fathers pushed through crowds, a child in each arm. A towering fire blazed in front of us.
My heart sank as I thought of all the ways this fire would be more dangerous and destructive than what I’d ever witnessed before back home. In the months leading up to our trip to Freetown, we’d drawn out many risk traps to conceptualize what created and abetted risk in Freetown. Complex webs of arrows and circles spreading across notebooks and whiteboards. Though I’d understood the concept, it wasn’t until this moment - gaping at a burning neighborhood - that I really recognized the complexity of disaster prevention.
We would not cross paths with the fire truck for another 20 minutes. Though its sirens were wailing as we passed, the informal traffic system could not easily part for emergency vehicles. When they would arrive to the scene, there would be no fire hydrants, no accessible piped water. Their only solution to stop the fire’s spread would be to break down the houses around it. Though I don’t know the results of the fire we witnessed, a similar fire a day prior in the settlement of Cockle Bay took down fifteen homes before it was successfully snuffed.
With intervention proving such a challenge, it would seem prevention is the best medicine. Unfortunately this is just as wrought with difficulties posed by poor infrastructure provision and energy poverty. After all, how could the fire start? A charcoal fire used for cooking gone out of hand? A tipped candle used for light due to unreliable or inexistent electricity access? Or maybe an electrical surge from a routine power outage.
When the underlying cause of an issue is socio-economic inequality, there are no easy solutions. It is a development professional’s job to support communities in picking apart the risk traps that propagate disasters. Effective change is hard won, but worth it in the culminating moment a fire truck pulls up to a hydrant, or better yet a fire is avoided altogether.