Mathare is one of the oldest slums in Nairobi — home to over half a million people who live in a sea of mud-and-tin shanties, tightly packed into just 2 square miles. Survival is a daily struggle, set against a backdrop of poverty, disease, anarchy and violence, social complexities, and a lack of basic amenities, like sanitation, clean water, electricity and passable roads.
It is hard to imagine what would happen if a fire were to break out here — which is precisely what 20 firefighters and EMTs from the United States considered last November while touring the slum as part of their debriefing with Africa Fire Mission, a nonprofit organization that trains, empowers, supports and encourages fire departments in developing countries.
Among the firefighters was Michael Heller — an active member of the East Hampton Fire Department and a professional photographer whose work regularly appears in the Express News Group publications. He soaked in the atmosphere and conditions, noting the sewers running next to the shacks, the air heavy with the smell of burning and human waste.
“It gave us a sense of, ‘This is what the firefighters are having to deal with,’” he said, adding, “We were educated on what the odds are — and what they’re really dealing with when they try to go to a fire in these situations.”
Mathare is just one of about 200 different slums in Nairobi, where over half of its 5 million people live. And in 2012, the entire city had just two working fire engines, one ladder truck, 156 firefighters and three fire stations to protect it.
Over the course of 12 days, the group of visiting Americans immersed themselves in Kenyan life, helping to educate — and, in Heller’s case, photograph — the 200 students who traveled there, from across the country, to attend their training symposium.
And 7,300 miles from home, Heller tapped into the heart of this community, just as he did when he joined the East Hampton Fire Department over three decades ago.
The Making Of A Firefighter
In 1989, Heller was two years out of photography school — and had spent 1988 shooting headshots for the New York Police Department Photo Unit — when he decided to move to the East End, where he is a third generation East Hampton resident. Outside of his ancestral ties, he had no real roots of his own, which changed when he asked to join the fire department, first, as its photographer.
“They made me a provisional member of the fire police company — Co. #6 — so I basically just responded to calls and went to trainings with them, and took pictures,” he said. “I just kind of got bitten by the bug.”
Within that year, he attended fire school and joined Hook & Ladder Co. #1, while still shooting photos — merging both of his worlds and gaining a deeper sense of belonging, which he may not have recognized at the time, he said.
“I felt like I wanted to be part of a group, a team,” he said, adding, “It’s been a huge part of my life. I tell people there is no faster way to become part of a community, to go right to the heart of the community, than by joining the fire department.”
Apart from the drama and excitement that comes with fighting a fire, Heller’s involvement opened a number of unexpected doors, he said — among them covering assignments for National Fire & Rescue Magazine. They sent him to the Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, spring break in Panama City Beach, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, as well as international travel to England and the Czech Republic.
And in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Heller assisted with rescue efforts on the ground in New York while documenting the devastation.
“I went to all these places and saw all these things that, really, I would never have been able to do if I hadn’t been a firefighter,” he said.
It was only this past spring that Heller learned about Africa Fire Mission through “The Secret List” — a newsletter that shares information about nationwide firefighter injuries or deaths, as well as items of general interest — and it immediately piqued his curiosity. Within a month, he had applied to attend as a photographer and, with minimal fundraising, paid most of the $3,400 fee himself.
Then, he got to work collecting equipment donations, which largely came from the Bridgehampton and Amagansett Fire Departments. They gave him sets of old or outdated turnout gear — including coats, pants, boots and helmets — that he packed into two 50-pound bags to bring to Kenya, shipping any remaining sets to Africa Fire Mission’s headquarters in Illinois.
On November 12, Heller made his way to the terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York with the donations — not to mention his own 50-pound bag, carry-on luggage and a personal item — and boarded his first eight-hour flight to Paris, and then another eight-hour leg to Kenya following a two-hour layover, where the full team finally met.
When they touched down in Kenya, nearly 24 hours after Heller left New York, he boarded a bus that took him to their hotel in central Nairobi — a ride that was a frenetic shock to the system.
“It’s crowded, the traffic laws are basically nill, there are a lot of motorcycles and buses and cars,” Heller said. “Kenya has only been independent since the mid-’60s, so before that, they were under British rule. Everyone drives on the left, there’s roundabouts and stuff.
“As far as the city’s infrastructure, they’re starting new,” he continued. “They’re trying to develop their own way and there’s not a lot of money. And like with several other third-world countries, there’s graft and greed and it’s rugged — I’ll put it that way.”
Fire Safety: Educating A Nation
The next day, the team visited the headquarters of Mission of Hope International — of which Africa Fire Mission is one of their partners — for a debriefing that brought the team to Mathare, where they walked through the Mathare Valley portion of the slum to get up close with the living conditions. The group of firefighters from the United States included two wildland firefighters, two medical health experts, and several with medical training, Heller reported, which offered a well-rounded approach to the complex issues that Kenya faces when it comes to fire safety.
“As kids in the United States here, we learn about stop, drop and roll, and ‘Firemen are good and they help to put the fire out,’ and, ‘This is how to not start a fire,’” Heller said. “They have very, very little, if any, of that in Nairobi, in Africa. That’s what Mission of Hope is trying to do; they’re trying to educate on fire safety, on how not to burn your place down with your stove.”
While touring the makeshift homes, the team gained a better understanding of what the Nairobi fire stations are up against, too, Heller said, starting with a baseline distrust of firefighters.
“Unfortunately, as in other parts of the world, if you have a very poor population, they view the government as the enemy,” he explained. “What would happen is, they would have these fires in these slums, there wasn’t that much fire service and there isn’t that much water, so it would take a while for the firetruck to get there.
“And when the firetruck did get there, people would be pissed off because the truck wasn’t there sooner,” he continued, “and then they would get out to fight the fire and they would get rocks thrown at them, or they’d get beat up.”
With more context to grasp — “That was very eye-opening and educational,” Heller said — the second day kicked off with a visit to a fire station in Nairobi to meet the firefighters and assess their equipment, much of which was lying around broken and gathering dust, he said.
“Part of what we’re learning is you can’t say, ‘Oh, here’s a firetruck and here’s money.’ You can’t just say, ‘Here’s equipment,’ because the equipment will break down and they don’t have the parts to replace it, or they don’t know how to repair it,” Heller said. “They know their needs better than we do. They know what they’re dealing with and they know what their problems are and the ways to solve it — and we’re just there to help them figure out ways to do that.”
The following day, the training symposium officially began at the Enterprise Road Substation fire station — “Nairobi’s equivalent of an FBI training center,” Heller said, “which was really nothing more than some concrete buildings and classroom space and a couple fields.”
Once they set up the space, the firefighters distributed the donated turnout gear. Heller watched as the Bridgehampton Fire Department jackets — their yellow insignia, “BHFD,” printed across the backs, setting them apart from the rest — found new homes. The Amagansett Fire Department mostly donated tan pants that, as it turned out, looked very similar to the others, Heller noted, making it harder to tell them apart.
The next six days revolved around hands-on training, from basic medical response and firefighting to emergency vehicle operations. The students also participated in a mass casualty incident drill, where they pretended there was a roof collapse and a fire, Heller said.
“It’s all using the equipment that they have there, which is all European. We had to learn those trucks, the way they’re configured, and teach these guys the best way to do the thing they need to do with that equipment, which was in various states,” he said. “Some of the problems we ran into, especially with the tactical teams, was that they had been trained by the British, or the British had handed down training, and they had some techniques that we thought were ridiculous and we had to untrain them.”
Each day was challenging and unexpectedly exhausting — “It was harder than I thought it was gonna be,” Heller said, recalling his schedule. He woke every morning at 5:30 a.m., ate breakfast at 6 a.m., boarded the bus to the training center an hour later, and wouldn’t return to the hotel until about 5 p.m. After that, he ate dinner, attended a debriefing at 8 p.m. and, by 9 p.m., he was in bed — ready to start over the next day.
“It was long hours and you’re out in the hot sun,” he said. “It was still rewarding. It just wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.”
On the last day, Africa Fire Mission hosted a competition between the stations to extinguish a car fire and assist the victims next to it — and they kept it as accurate as possible by not establishing a “fire scene,” a common practice in the United States that is typically managed and controlled by fire police.
“They were telling us, if someone is injured, say, in a car accident and they’re lying on the sidewalk, the first thing someone will do is come up and they’ll steal their shoes,” Heller said. “So they had people doing that, coming up and stealing their shoes, and running around and screaming and getting in the guys’ faces, ‘Put the fire out, put the fire out!’ They had actors running around doing that to make it realistic.”
The contest, which awarded the winner a trophy, came after a closing ceremony the day before. The firefighters from the United States, donning their Class A uniforms, lined up as every single Kenyan firefighter who attended the symposium walked up to them, shook their hands and offered words of gratitude.
“To me, that was the most heartwarming thing,” Heller said.
An Enduring Mission
Heller spent the last two days of his trip on safari in the Masai Mara, a large national game reserve along the southern border of Kenya that is contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I didn’t want to just see the city, I wanted to see what the country was really like.”
During his stay, Heller saw no shortages of animals — lions and cheetahs, black rhinoceros and hippopotamus, African elephants and buffalo, birds, gazelle, zebras, hyenas, and giraffes — both from a Jeep tour and a hot air balloon ride at dawn, which landed in the middle of the Mara with a champagne breakfast waiting. He also visited a traditional Masai village, where he learned about their culture and gained a real appreciation for their way of life.
“That was fascinating. Meeting the Masai was really cool,” he said. “There were opportunities for us to just walk with them and talk with them, and we would ask each other about our lives and how we lived. They were very, very friendly, soft-spoken, kind people.”
After another pair of eight-hour flights — this time from Nairobi to Amsterdam to New York — Heller arrived back home in East Hampton on Thanksgiving Eve with about 1,500 photos from the Masai Mara and a shade under 4,200 frames from the symposium, along with countless memories.
During a debriefing, he was told to expect feigned interest in his trip, he recalled. “They said, ‘You’re gonna go back to the States and you’re gonna feel moved and like you experienced something special and, really, basically no one else is gonna care,’” he said. “‘You can try to explain what it’s like, but they’re not gonna get it.’”
A couple of firefighters on the team said they have already experienced that, as well as a shift in their own perspectives, Heller reported. “They were disgusted when they got back,” he said, “that people were whining about this and that, and I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t even know.’”
The juxtaposition between the extreme wealth and “the amount of wasted money that is out here” versus the Kenyan fire stations scraping by with old equipment is not lost on Heller, he said. And while he does not plan to return to Africa next year — “That was a real workout, mental, physical and monetary,” he said — he will keep up with Africa Fire Mission’s work, cheering them on from afar.
“It’s a good feeling to have done this,” he said, adding, “We were told the progress we’re making is incremental. You can’t see it from year to year, but if you compare five years ago to now, then yes, they’ve come forward and it’s not a wasted effort. But the changes are slow and coming.”
As published in the Southampton Press