Learning the Lesson of 1666, By ‘Tope Fasua
…I believe strongly that we will only start our process of real, sustainable development by investing in our public services and bringing dignity to work in social services. We must show we care for ourselves and that human lives are precious to us. Second; we must know how to use our disasters to cause permanent change and create the world we would like to live in.
The other day I walked into my family watching “Chicago Fire”, a ‘series’ on DSTV built around firemen. In that edition, some of the firemen were on some sort of court martial for endangering the lives of some of their colleagues while trying to control a fire incident. The U.S. firemen have their own courts which review every response (perhaps this is standard practice even here, I hope). I wondered though why they have to bother so much about the conduct of firemen, in the heat of the job, who were themselves putting their lives on the line so that others may live. But that is how proper systems function. Standards, innovation, and a penchant for excellence are what good systems are built upon.
I also wondered about the work that firemen do. I voiced out to my wife that I think they sit idle most of the time, as fires are thankfully few and far between. But there they were, proudly performing a job that had been deliberately organised by their governments over time, which is well-funded and sustainable. From the movie, I could see why an average American child will aspire to a career in the fire service. If you were not enthralled by the altruism of saving children and the vulnerable from fires, you will be taken in by their beautiful uniforms, or how organised they are, or the sense of danger that firemen face when deployed to perform their duties, or the adrenalin rush that comes from being called to an incidence, getting dressed in a second and sliding down poles to race through traffic in your truck. We have also seen series built around police work, or movies and documentaries around social work, that reaffirm the dignity of labour and life, and attract young ones to those noble professions, in which people find great fulfilment. It cannot be all about money all the time.
What are the lessons here? In the year 1666, 70 per cent of all the buildings in London burnt down in a single fire incidence. Then, London was not as large as it has now become, but imagine 70 per cent of the people in town immediately becoming homeless and without property overnight? Those were medieval times, but still 13,200 houses were destroyed, as well as 87 churches, the Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral, among other monuments. Anyone familiar with London today will see that the city was then concentrated around what is today known simply or rather tritely, in the usual understated British manner, as ‘The City’, which is mostly occupied by the financial sector today (the areas around Liverpool Street, Bank, St. Paul’s, Farringdon, Barbican, Monument, Cannon Street, Fenchurch Street, up to London Bridge). That fire incidence taught them a hard lesson in the Western world and influenced the way a lot of things evolved. It also marked the beginning of the concept of a Fire Brigade. In those days, buildings were made of timber and thatched roof, covered in a highly flammable substance called ‘pitch’. Buildings were also tightly packed together, with little regard for planning. The thatched roofs of buildings touched. Many parts of Nigeria are still like that today; even in the urban areas.
So, at least the idea of having a team of people, solely devoted to fighting fires and helping to save lives and property is at least 354 years old. The fire cost London about £10 million… Hmm hmm. Looks small right? Until you consider that the City of London’s annual income at that time was £12,000. Observers even saw King Charles II helping to fight the fire, and the navy had to blow up houses that were in the path of the fire, to prevent the fire spreading south, beyond the London Bridge. This fire raged between September 2 and 6, 1666 and almost the entire city had to be rebuilt from scratch.
The first lesson from this is that: the Western world which was forced by circumstances to put a Fire Brigade in place, has continued to invest in such an intervention almost four centuries later. They came to Africa and, even while looting via two crimes called slavery and colonialism, invested in the same idea on our behalf. I will briefly review how well we have done with what they left us with. It must be noted, however, that no matter the criticism we levy against Westerners, and the crimes committed against our ancestors, they often try to redeem themselves by reaching some sort of elite consensus over issues that ensure the sustainability of society. I doubt if we would be as generous over people who we conquered in war. But that is debatable. Lesson two: that social services such as firefighters are a great investment which self-respecting nations must keep and sustain at great costs. Lesson three: that there is dignity in labour, and life is not all about personal rat races, but sometimes a people must think about collective dignity in keeping their collective spaces sane and safe. Lesson four: we must never waste a disaster. We must learn from every incidence and ensure they don’t repeat themselves.
Somehow, I know our space must, and will, be transformed whether we like it or not. Just as London and the West in general, got transformed as a result of some painful lessons, even if we ignore all the lessons that life, and our carelessness, throws at us, at some point we will be so left behind in our ways that it will be obvious that we cannot manage this space…
Nigeria, well, Nigeria, never manages anything well. We know what the situation is with our fire service. If we cannot maintain a sane police force that secures the people, or provide sustainable electricity for our people, someone will ask, ‘so what about fire service?’ The situation is that the service remains ill-equipped, and some will allege that the little allocation that goes there gets consumed by our usual corruption. Of recent, the big dilemma faced by our fire service is that its personnel gets beaten up and their trucks burnt, for showing up late to fire incidences, or showing up only to complain that there is no water or whatever else is needed to quench fires. I have watched as this service has become more and more despondent. Our hunter-gatherer leaders, at every level, who, like Dino Melaye has shown us, are busy stealing us blind in order to buy properties everywhere and revel in all sorts of luxury, cannot be bothered to invest in such long-term intangibles as a fire service.
And so today, some of the images that come to mind with regard to firefighting include that of people hauling pure water sachets from the ground to the second floor of a burning building in Enugu. Or the image of the lonely security man on a roof, trying to quench a raging inferno, with billowing black smoke around Mandilas in Lagos Island. Another interesting image is that of the Kaduna deputy governor, as she lumbered with a bucket of water to help quench fire in a public school hostel, while her security men guarded her on both sides with guns and other hangers on would rather take pictures or record her video than help with quenching the fire.
Somehow, I know our space must, and will, be transformed whether we like it or not. Just as London and the West in general, got transformed as a result of some painful lessons, even if we ignore all the lessons that life, and our carelessness, throws at us, at some point we will be so left behind in our ways that it will be obvious that we cannot manage this space and we will be open for another takeover by people who know how to maximise what we have – or at least bring our spaces up to speed with what obtains in the rest of the world. We are however doing this ourselves. We must also learn to use every disaster, no matter where they stem from. The coronavirus is creeping around the world today, almost as depicted in the movies. We hope it does not make a landfall here in a big way. Where do we start from? As a nation with the highest incidence of open defecation – meaning we have no respect for hygiene in many of our ghettos; where do we start from? We can only pray it blows over and is not as deadly as they say it is.
I will close by pointing attention to other disasters that have shaped the world. London – and by extension most of Europe – had just gone through the Great Plague in 1665. The plague killed 25 per cent of the population – 100,000 people – in 18 months. That was the last episode of the rat-transmitted bubonic plague, which also mirrored influenza, like the ongoing coronavirus. Granted that we are lucky in these parts for the fact that we cook things thoroughly and we have good Sun to help us out (and yes our ancestors did get some of the chemistry right by knowing what roots and barks to administer) but we can’t be said to have learnt enough and developed antidotes and vaccines to many of the ailments that killed our people over time. A number of them were confined to the realm of the spiritual (like small pox, which Yorubas call Sopona), until the white man arrived. We need to understand how to document and how to methodically find solutions to our issues.
Things have happened in this world. I recall reading about the 1611 famine in Virginia, when food was so scarce that husbands and wives would wait for who dozes off first, kill them, preserve and eat them for the next number of days, and dead bodies were exhumed to be eaten just for people to stay alive. When we complain about the treatment from the white man today, we must understand what he too has been through.
When I did a simple Google search, I was alarmed at the frequency of these disasters – especially markets burning down with so many losses to traders. It is apparent that something needs be done in the area of education, prevention, and standards.
I will list some of the fire incidences that have happened in Nigeria since January this year and a few in 2019. When I did a simple Google search, I was alarmed at the frequency of these disasters – especially markets burning down with so many losses to traders. It is apparent that something needs be done in the area of education, prevention, and standards.
February 13, 2020 – A store in Obasanjo’s house, Abeokuta.
January 26, 2020 – Fire in Balogun Market, Lagos. 11 houses burnt down
February 11, 2020 – A large market at Atakumosa Local Government.
February 13, 2020 – The Mile 12 market, Lagos.
January 11, 2020 – Awada Spare Parts Market, Obosi, Anambra State.
February 6, 2020 – 70 shops at Yan Katako market, Kano.
February 16, 2020 – Apongbon/Balogun Market, Lagos (again).
January 20, 2020 – Kofa Ruwa Yan-Rodi Market, Kano.
February 2, 2020 – 1,000 shops at Ebonyi State Kpiri-Kpiri market.
January 27, 2020 – Sabo Market, Sagamu.
In 2019, some of the incidents were at Ochanja Market (Upper Iweka Road Onitsha) in October of that year; Ekiosa Market, Benin City in December; and Otowodo Market, Ughelli, Delta State, in November. Others include fire losses (of lives and properties) in Kano, Kugbo – Abuja. Tejuoso – Lagos, Nguru Market, Yobe State, Kara Market, Lagos State, Makurdi’s biggest market, and Maiduguri’s GSM Market.
I wish to pass two lessons with this article. First is that I believe strongly that we will only start our process of real, sustainable development by investing in our public services and bringing dignity to work in social services. We must show we care for ourselves and that human lives are precious to us. Second; we must know how to use our disasters to cause permanent change and create the world we would like to live in.