High Noon

Saturday, 20 March 2010

The scorching heat of March took its toll on our villagers’ crops yesterday mid-noon. A day-old burned clearing that was thought to have died down already simmered back to life and came in swirls of flame as they gobbled up remaining grasses and tree stumps, and insidiously crawled through the rows of fruit trees and vegetable crops tended by about ten affected families.

When I got to the place on the west end of our project site upon emergency call from a field staff, I saw our women and children frantically pulling back the 140-meter plastic irrigation tubes on the rows before the flames could engulf them, challenged by the thick smoke blustering in their direction. A couple of them were collecting water from the irrigation pipes into plastic containers and running towards the encroaching flames, while some children tried hard to do their bit by thrashing the flames with plucked branches.

Right there and then I joined the fight, hoisted up the seams of my pants, grabbed one of the jugs into which one of the mothers poured water from the pipes- but because of her adrenalin-driven frenzy she would miss the jug and channel the water onto the ground, and sallied forth into the cloud of smoke and raging fire.

For a bit of time we thought we were succeeding in putting the fire out when only smoke was visibly left wafting away from the burned area; but the intermittent gust of wind would enliven the embers and reconstitute into a fiery monster. Fearing that the situation may turn for the worse, I called the other staff to drive fast to where it was happening to augment our force.

Where were the menfolk of these families? All of them were outside the village at the time to sell labor in the nearby sugarcane company or another developing plantation of a favored investor. As a demographic truism in a rural village, the men are mostly off to any place where they could get more income for the sustenance of their families. And the women and children are the all-too-familiar fixtures left in the village. So whenever a situation occurs in the village these folks are left to their own devices.

Fortunately, our field incident was contained more so because of the cooperation of the wind. It stopped fanning the flames altogether after maybe seeing how anxious the poor people were getting, content in the knowledge that humans can never be equal to nature’s rage.

Koh Kong, Cambodia

 

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