in case of fire, dial 118


Voices are getting louder. The street buzzes with excitement.


Sparks, flames, smoke.  The second floor balcony of the office building one door down spews thick black smoke.  Sparks from the electrical box jet out of the smoke, the sounds carry clear across the street.  The office of the Délégation de l’enseignement secondaire is on fire.

Ever curious, we file out of the office with our co-workers on this the first work day of the New Year. 

More people descend onto the street from the burning building.  Others run out and then run back in again.

5 minutes have passed. Has anyone called 118 for the fire department?

Traffic stops on the street.  Some people stand in front of the building while others check out the situation from the building’s other balconies.  People continue to go in and out.  A woman is in tears.

10 minutes have passed.  Has anyone called 118 for the fire department?

“We need to call the Délégué!” – the regional ministry official in charge of all things related to secondary education – someone provides as an answer.  Seems no one else has the authority to make the no-cost call to the fire department.

A man runs over.  “I have a fire extinguisher!”  He sets a 3 step ladder to the side of the building – about 15 feet short of the balcony from which thick black smoke billows.  After being ridiculed by the crowd he aborts the attempt – he’s not seen again for a long while.

20 minutes have passed. Has anyone called 118 for the fire department?

An SUV races up the street and stops 200 meters from the flames.  Four men in suits get out.  Aha! – the Departmental Délégué has arrived. The men all rush into the building and exit again moments later.  Some have critical documents in their hands.  The Délégué, meanwhile, rescues his precious landline telephone handset.  A hush of relief is heard and the Délégué finally calls the fire department.

35 minutes have passed.  Has anyone called the electric company to shut off the power? 

The fire truck arrives.  A half dozen firefighters from the Corps national des sapeurs pompiers jump out wearing matching dark blue mechanic-style overalls and spit-shined silver motorcycle helmets complete with meltable plastic face shields. One of them calls out as he gets things ready: “did anyone call the electric company?”  Obviously not, but they proceed anyways.

Hoses are unrolled.  Impressed, we notice a female fire fighter.  A ponytail hangs halfway down her back from below her helmet – nice synthetic braids of highly flammable extensions.  Into the building they go.  They check things out, lean over from the second and third-floor balconies, and rest their heads centimetres from the electrical wires that are mimicking New Year eve’s fireworks.

45 minutes have passed.  Has anyone shut off the power?

Two Toyota pick-up trucks arrive.  It’s the Equipes spéciales d’intervention rapides de Maroua – the police’s special forces.  Officers jump out of the tailgates.  They put out orange traffic cones and motion to people to stand back.

We retreat to the front steps of our office, far from the unarmed police officer, away from the crowd, and well away from the perilous power lines.

The fire hoses fill with water.  A hissing sound whizzes out as the flames are doused.  The smoke subsides.  The fire is probably out.

After 10 minutes, the fire department packs up its gear.  The Délégué and senior staff inspect the damage.  They go inside.  Steam still rolls off the balcony.

After 5 minutes a courier service truck arrives, manoeuvres around the fire truck, and parks just outside the front door.  They start unloading packages.  MTA guarantees on-time delivery.

60 minutes have passed.  What now?

The electrical company truck arrives.  A woman suits up and starts making her way up the pole.  Apparently, she does ALL of the electrical work on the poles in Maroua.  She climbs with cleats and only a rope harness as safety gear.  Within minutes the grid is restored and she clears out.

Reporters are on the scene.  Taking pictures, getting comments.  The crowd gets bored. People begin walking away.  Entertainment over.

We stay on the front steps of the office.  We watch, telling jokes about how many “files” – many housed 2 floors up and on the other side of the building – will be reported destroyed. Perhaps the recently delivered packages were consumed as well?  Our colleagues are full of bad corruption humour.  We hope this is not to be, but can’t help to speculate nonetheless.  We’ve started to get jaded.  We know it’s wrong to be so faithless.  We laugh that off too.

15 minutes later and the electrical company returns.  It parks in front of our office.  The pole-climbing woman’s colleague walks over and greets us warmly.  He points to the electrical box we had shut off when the fire first started.  He wants to check that our power was restored properly. 

Smiling impishly, he advises,  “if it goes boom, run!”

No sparks. Phew, no need to call 118 again.

~ by Caroline Spira on January 4, 2010.

One Response to “in case of fire, dial 118”

  1. Hello you two and Happy New Year! It’s great reading about your adventures, and helps to remind me that life in “our” world is very different, and much of it we take for granted. Enjoyed the “fire” story.

    Caroline, I want to sponsor a project, so let me know how I do that. Before I leave this website I’ll check to see if there are instructions here – knowing you there are!

    We are having a horrendous winter – 20 inches of snow in the last ten days. So am staying in a lot, and trying to be productive. We’ll see.

    Miss you, and think of you often.

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