When disaster strikes, it strikes mercilessly, stripping the country naked. It lays bare the rot in our disaster mitigation structures. The brouhaha that surrounds every catastrophe dies as quick as it begins. The usual blame game and no one willing to take responsibility for their failures, is something akin to Kenyans. Year in year out, people lose their lives in unfortunate incidents and others out of carelessness and ignorance.
Is it that Kenyans don’t learn or are we just adventurous in a foolish way? How is it that we have a greater urge to run towards danger than run away from it? Maybe it’s just a sick sense of humour. The kind of humour that makes you want to drink urine and not tea. The kind of humour that would make you gnash on bones and throw away meat. A stupid kind of humour.
If you want to identity a Kenyan, or anyone with blood relation: wait until an oil tanker overturns. Kenyans value free fuel more than their own lives. Cases of tankers blowing into flames killing hundreds of people siphoning fuel and leaving others with permanent scars is still no deterrent, any time, any day. Sinai tragedy, Sidindi, Sachangwaan etcetera, are just few examples. Of these, I can only talk of the Sidindi case.
Now Sidindi is my village, for your information…
On 13th June, 1998 at around 5 p.m; things took a drastic turn. The usual calm village was disturbed and scared. The wrath of the gods had fallen on us, what we had done to deserve this no one could tell…
I was in Primary five,and I had just gotten home from school. On my way home. I had heard some news, news about an overturned oil tanker somewhere along the highway, a few metres past the shopping centre. I met a dozen people on bicycles and others on foot, all rushing to the direction. All headed for the godsend commodity, others probably just going to watch, watch the strong men battle it out for the ‘gold’.
The urge to run with them and see for myself was very strong. I watched helplessly as some kids ran too, others inviting me to come along. I started on but stopped, I thought of the beating I would get from mother. I wasn’t ready for any of that pain. I stood there watching, feeling so sorry for myself. If only I had the ‘freedom’! Time was flying, so I decided to walk home, at times stopping on my tracks and watching the people go, others already coming back with jericans full of the free commodity. A look of triumph and pride clearly showing on their faces.
I got home feeling a little dejected. Mum was home with my other siblings. Seated on the verandah of the main house facing the gate. They were talking, discussing the overturned tanker. Funny enough, none of them had gone to the scene, but suprisingly, they were so informed of what was going on, how they knew was above my imagination. But I gathered mother had managed to pick up scattered information from the market, and was now feeding it home. She narrated it as though she saw how it all happened … I sat next to her and listened after I changed from my school uniform.
Wailing and screaming emanating from the highway interrupted our sitting! Something wasn’t right! Mother took a wrapper and fastened it around her waist and headed for the gate, ordering us to stay behind as she hurried out through the gate towards the highway to find out what was going on. It was some minutes to 7:00 p. m! The screaming got louder and then there was hooting from vehicles, I guessed a car might have run over someone in the melee. Not long, mum came back half-running-half-walking look of terror in her eyes as if she had met with Osama Bin Laden’s ghost. To see mum in this state meant something terrible had happened. My stomach rambled, my heart started pounding real hard, my palms and sole felt damp – all this happened in split seconds.
She informed us that the overturned tanker had burst into flames. One of the boys, who was allegedly drunk, had struck a matchstick because he had been denied chance to siphon fuel…
What followed was a scene I had always only watched in movies!
As mum was announcing what she had heard, she stopped in mid sentence. I thought she was trying to picture what had just happened. Her gaze was transfixed on the grass-thatched roof like it was something strange, like she had never seen it before. On a keen look into her eyes, I noticed they were sparkling and saw something like flames on her eyeballs. She wasn’t talking. Out of curiosity, I decided to stand up and check out what she was staring on the roof.
What I saw, was enough to send the bravest of men motionless or run like terrified kids. Mum wasn’t staring at nothingness! She was looking beyond … it appeared as if the sun had decided to down in the east … the roof, black smoke and yellow-red flames. It was so close. The world had finally come to an end as has always been prophesied ( during the time of Noah, I brought flood but in your times I will bring a consuming fire). The idea of burning to death had never crossed my mind but now it was more real, I pictured myself screaming and finally life getting out of me in a consuming fire. All these thoughts were crossing my mind so fast.
Something shook me from the daze and I shouted “Fire!”.
There was no wasting time, I ran towards the gate and my other siblings followed behind, my plan was to run towards the nearest lake or river and dip myself when it got so close. It was the only sure way of avoiding the fire. Maybe God never thought as wise as I did.
When we got past the gate onto the small feeder road that passed through our gate, connecting the inner village to the main tarmac road, we met dozens of families fleeing too, women with their little ones strapped onto their backs, carrying bags on their heads. It was clear no one was ready to face death. We joined them and we now formed a big group. Night had now fallen, but due to the flames it wasn’t so dark. We were headed to the inner village, since there was an electricity line along the highway and the prospective of it blowing up into flames made us try as much to keep away from the highway as possible.
A group joined as at some junction on a feeder road that connected to the shopping centre, they informed as that the centre was already up in flames. This didn’t sound good at all, we were slow and we had to triple if not double our strides… The group had now grown larger, sixty in a quick count. As children were quiet, just tagging along. Me and my siblings made sure we never lost sight of one another.
We walked further inside, places I had never wandered to. My legs felt sore but that was not enough to make me stop. The possibility of burning to ashes was not pleasing at all. We got information that lots of people had burned to death and this made it even scarier. When I looked back towards the direction of my home, it seemed as though it had already been burnt to the ground. What had happened to my mother? Was she alive? Had she managed to escape the fire?
As this thoughts engulfed me, I looked at my siblings and a stream of tear ran through my cheeks. I harboured the idea of walking back home – was there any home? I wanted to go back and check on mother. But what if I burned to death too? What benefit would it bring? I won’t be of any help to my siblings dead!
After walking some distance, I looked back but the flame wasn’t visible any more. Maybe we had gone so far, we seemed to have had walked for eternity. Soon we came into contact with a group that was heading back to where we were coming from. According to them, they had received information that the fire hadn’t been spreading at all and the flame was just at the scene, they confirmed that a good number of those who siphoning fuel had perished. The fire as they said, had already subsided … this explained why I couldn’t see the light from the flame.
Convinced, we walked back in a more larger group with a sigh of relief. The past hours had been so tormenting. I now had hope of seeing my mother. Father had been away in Busia.
When we finally got home, it was around ten. My legs hurting and I felt so hungry. Mum wasn’t around but came in after a while. She said she was worried about us, but she had a more disturbed look. Something was wrong somewhere. It’s then that’s she informed us that twin brothers from the next homestead ad perished in the inferno. Her other friend had also lost her three sons in the tragedy. The village was in grief-striken. Stripped of its sons prematurely and without warning.
By next day morning, the people who had died so far had risen to almost forty and scores of others left nursing serious burns. Lifelong scars that will tell the story. The village wasn’t the same.
The tragedy put Sidindi on the map, even the then President, Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi, knew about my village.
Sadly, this tanker disasters keep happening but nobody learns, how sad. Maybe the government out to insist on spill-proof tankers as a measure of reducing this fire disasters and the hazard this spillages posses to the environment.
Posted by Mr. Jagweng