No longer than one minute had I lain on the sofa when the smoke reached my nostrils. Ignoring it, I tried to refocus on the task at hand: a nano-nap, Sarah… you’re trying to take a nano-nap.
Only 10 minutes remained before our girls would be home from their evening study hall. Only 10 minutes remained before I would hear my name on 24 tongues, repeating greetings and questions and requests for hugs and problems to solve and smiles to reciprocate and unfinished homework to help with.
Only 10 minutes. Ignore the smell. Keep your eyes closed. Rest.
But something wasn't quite right. It wasn’t the smell of burning rubbish (the smell that seems to always be lingering in the air). Or the smell of dinners being cooked on open fires. It smelled big. And as I listened to the wind gusting outside our window, the smell was becoming stronger.
Bolting up from the sofa, I tried to remember the last day it had rained. The fact that I couldn’t immediately recall told me exactly what I needed to know: everything was very dry outside. Perfect kindling.
Gabriel looked at me and I could see the same thoughts running through his mind. Together we walked out to the verandah, my throat catching as I looked out across the hills and saw a hazy red glow consuming the dark evening. We stood for a moment, hypnotized like moths to a light as orange flames licked the crest of a hill, leaping into the sky and dancing in the gusty evening’s wind.
The fire was at a safe distance and did not pose a threat in its current state. But we both knew from living in the Blue Ridge Mountains that it only takes one ember or firebrand carried on the wind to spread fire up to 20 kilometers per hour. Strong winds also provide fresh oxygen to wildfires, and can shift the advancement and course of a fire within minutes.
We stood there for some time, assessing the flames and trying to figure out exactly how far away they were. Most likely, it was a depleted sugar cane field purposefully being burned, a common farming practice here. But to us, it didn’t matter if someone was monitoring the fire or not. With the evening’s strong winds, it could easily get out of hand and place the school in its path.
Noting an increase in the height of the flames, we decided we needed to be ready if something did go awry and the burning acres got out of hand. Taking utmost precaution, we decided to ready our go-bags.
Go-bags are recommended for expats, especially those living in regions prevalent to unrest or natural disasters. While Uganda hasn’t experienced high levels of terrorist activity since 2010, we were encouraged by other expats in East Africa (those with a lifetime of knowledge abroad) to take the bag seriously.
Most go-bags include only the most basic items — a change of clothes, medicine, cash in a few currencies — things that would keep you comfortable, hydrated and fed in the event of a disaster or forced evacuation. As its name implies, it’s a bag that needs to be ready to go in any situation. You can try to predict what you will need it for, but you’ll never know until the time comes. It could be to escape an imminent terrorist attack, or a mandatory evacuation, or a natural disaster.
The problem was, despite having every intention of preparing go-bags, we didn’t actually have ours ready to go. Acknowledging this large oversight, we decided that, even if the fire did not come any closer, the situation presented the perfect opportunity for an, eh… fire drill.
We waited until the girls returned home, watching them scurry along with their hands pinned to their sides, attempting to hold down their skirts against the wind. Gabriel asked them to go into their rooms and count off, to ensure everyone was home. Assured they were all accounted for, he told them to stay inside and to pray for rain.
Their prayers could be heard through their closed doors — sweet voices from a multitude of languages mingling together. I knew I needed to get my go-bag ready (that’s the point of a drill, right?) but I couldn’t help but linger a moment longer, sending my own prayers heavenward. As the fire continued to rage, I prayed for the flames to stay under control, for the winds to stop, the rains to come and for the school to remain safe. I prayed for the neighboring homes and gardens, knowing those in the village adjacent to the sugar cane field could not afford to lose their precious crops or few belongings.
Suddenly, the lights flickered and the electricity was cut. Knowing I could not waste any more time, I flew inside, threw open my closet doors and used a flashlight to illuminate my clothes. Then I froze, unsure how to proceed.
Four months ago (when I started packing for our move overseas), I thought narrowing down my wardrobe was difficult. But then, I was able to bring nearly half of my clothes (which was really a quarter of my clothes, as it was half of the summer half). How I was I supposed to narrow down what remained of my wardrobe to only one pair of pants and two shirts? One scarf?
I pondered how many layers of my favorite clothing items could I wear on my body, in attempt to take more with me? But the 83ºF evening outside told me not many. Trying to remain practical, I passed over my favorite pair of jeans and opted for my khaki quick dry pants. I shimmied out of the dress I was wearing — another favorite, but not nearly practical enough to wear — and into a second pair of pants, pulling the first tank top I could grab over my head. I tied a scarf around my neck — I didn’t bother to even look to see which one I pulled from the closet, as they’re all favorites. I just prayed that when the electricity came back on and I could see properly, the scarf would somewhat match the tank top on my body and the second shirt stuffed in my go-bag.
Into the bag's remaining space went two pairs of socks, two pairs of undies, my laptop, iPad, phone, corresponding chargers, headlamp + backup headlamp, pocket knives, portable solar panel, travel sized soap, first aid kit and bible.
I felt a bit pretentious stuffing my bible into the bag, feeling a little too much like a religious braggart, or a flaunting pharisee. I contemplated leaving it behind, and multiple times it was actually removed from the bag, only to be returned. Because while I do believe its words are sacred, it is physically just a book that can be replaced.
But the problem was… it was an anniversary gift from Gabriel and as hard as I try to not be sentimental about some things, I can’t help myself sometimes. Thinking of the inscription on the inside cover noting the anniversary, I couldn’t leave it behind. Into the bag it went.
After making the final decision that the bible was going, I assessed what room I had left. There’s just enough space. I glanced over my shoulder to see if Gabriel was nearby. Then I tossed my foundation into the bag, along with my mascara. I told myself that the foundation was SPF 15, which was practical since I didn’t have room for a bottle of sunscreen. I ignored the fact that I came up empty when searching for an excuse to bring the mascara.
Satisfied I had what I needed to survive, I walked through the rooms of our home, looking for anything I felt I could not live without. I glanced at our family photo albums, unable to stop the painful image of them going up in flames from entering my head. On the shelves of our bookcase were the few sentimental decorations we brought with us — some from our wedding and others that have journeyed with us across the globe.
A white bag tucked into the back corner of the bathroom shelf caught my eye. An entire year’s worth of my medicine. I couldn’t carry it, 1) because of its sheer bulk. And 2) because I couldn’t forfeit that much weight. I grabbed enough for two more weeks’ time and left the rest, telling myself I would find a Ugandan alternative, even if I had to go across the entire country in search of it.
From the kitchen I grabbed four individual servings of almond butter (the ones in the small plastic pouches), for emergency snacks. My last bag of Sour Patch Kids stared back at me, begging to come. I hesitated, reaching for them. But there was no room. One of the most precious edible items to me here (the one even Gabriel knows not to touch) was left behind on its shelf.
With absolutely no room left in my bag, I removed myself from the house in effort to fight the temptation to swap out items. I had already taken much too long for the drill, and my bag was much too heavy. If it had not been a drill, I would have sorely failed.
The flames from the sugar cane field continued to heighten as I stood on the verandah. The girls continued to sing and pray. We watched and we waited, fighting the urge to be afraid and reminding ourselves the fire was still at a safe distance. It had not moved closer to campus, but it had not died down, either.
Just like the smoke, I smelled it before I heard it — the first raindrops. The skies opened and flooded us with mercy. Our girls poured out of their rooms, shouting and screaming for joy as the rain pounded the ground. Lightning flashed across the sky and thunder boomed, but it could not drown out the sound of their joy.
I have never been so happy to see rain.
Gabriel came to me and wrapped his arms around me. We prayed, thanking God for letting the fire drill be just that — a drill. We thanked Him for protecting the school, for protecting us, for giving us perspective on what is important (we can always use a reminder that our materials are just that: materials), for showing our girls that He hears our prayers and He answers them.
Our girls understand how nature can destroy lives — to some, what may seem like a wildfire a mile away is another’s world turning to ash. If a family’s hut and garden burn down, what do they have left? How do they survive?
The rains stopped the fire and it did not come any closer. But the evening (a night now several weeks in the past) was a very real reminder, not that we must always be prepared (that is impossible!), but to evaluate our most basic needs versus our wants. Because nothing on this earth lasts forever.
We thought we were making sacrifices when we moved to Uganda, but we still have far more here than we physically need. If all of our worldly possessions had to fit in one go-bag, what would we choose to pack?
If you could only have one bag, what would you pack?