WILDFIRE: A True Story

The following story, just published on Impakter, is based on real events, as reported to me by one of my colleagues in the FAO Evaluation Service. The episode took place some twenty-five years ago, at a time when traveling in Africa was often an adventure with totally unexpected endings.

Like this one.

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DIARY OF A UN OFFICIAL #4: WILDFIRE

May 1990, on the road to Yalinga . A potholed dirt road , plunging straight forward, in the middle of nowhere, between Bangui and Yalinga, a small town lost in the south-east corner of Central Africa. Sheets of fire weave across the low, sunburned hills in long, narrow lines, fed by the yellowed savanna grass. The flames are broken now and then by broad, dried riverbeds and by the road itself. Tall termite mounds like gray sentinels on the wayside, rise above the fire, unscathed.

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In the photo: The road between Bangui and Yalinda –  Photo credit: DFID / Simon Davis

And on that road, like a lonely beetle scuttling through the flames, a beige Land Rover forges ahead, raising a cloud of dust. Two white and blue medallions stuck on the side doors announce that the Land Rover is United Nations property .

Inside, five people, two black, three white. One woman, four men. The driver is African, fat and sweating under his red wool knit cap pushed low on his forehead. Next to him, in the only comfortable passenger seat, the project manager is half-asleep, a contented half-smile hovering on his lips. He has a powdery white beard framing his face in a reverse halo, like Father Christmas. In the back of the car, jostled by the Land Rover’s unforgiving suspension, the rest of the mission members grimly hold onto their hard seats with both hands.

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In the photo: A young man tending his livestock in Bangui, Central African Republic. – Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Of the two men sitting in the back, only the African looks cool, his white shirt is  spotless, his trousers well pressed. He is an important local Government official. His black leather shoes are highly polished, like an elegant clergyman’s. The other man, much younger, is sloppily dressed in patched jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt sticking to his back. Occasionally he pulls out a dirty handkerchief to wipe beads of sweat running down his forehead and unshaven cheeks. He wears the heavy but sensible desert boots dear to all European experts working in Africa.

The woman, unlike her white companions, is as calm and composed as the dignified Government official.

To find out what happens next, read here.

Just in: this story, Wildfire, won an award from the East Texas Writers Guild - According to Roger Middleton, president of the Guild, they received an "overwhelming number of entries from around the world". Each entry was judged by 3 judges on the basis of the criteria: Will the first chapter make me want to read the rest of the book? In fact, this episode is going to be the prologue of my next book, called This Day's Madness featuring the "calm and composed" woman you are meeting here.


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