Much can be said about fire. Often, it is seen as a ravaging menace, spewing destruction in its wake and wreaking havoc for those affected. But fire has always been a vital part of humankind’s existence and survival. Fire is also binary, balancing adding quality to life, and sorrow, in equal measure. Death and disaster are a part of life’s cycles. As the African American author, James Baldwin, wrote in his seminal book “The Fire Next Time” published in 1963, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.”
Mitigating tragedy, and taming one’s environment, however, has always been a human tendency. Millennia of experience, incidents, and education have helped evolve how humankind handles, controls, and prevents tragedy from natural occurrences. These mitigations tell us an enormous amount a people, and a nation.
The first known written building code was enacted in 1758 B.C. by King Hammurabi, founder of the Babylonian Empire. Literally chiseled into stone, the harsh penalties of the code established that people who are designing and building for others are accountable for the quality of their work. Though the code provided no guidance on how to build, it stated, “If a builder has built a house for a man and his work is not strong, and if the house he has built falls in and kills the householder, that builder shall be slain.” Such penalties surely inhibited innovation, but they kept most builders honest without licensing, detailed codes or permits.
Since then, we as a species have used tragic natural occurrences as lightning rods to decrease the likelihood of such occurrences being as tragic in terms of the loss of life and property.
In 64 A.D., Rome – then the world’s largest urban settlement – burnt. A fire broke out among the shops lining the Circus Maximus, Rome’s mammoth chariot stadium. In a city of two million, there was nothing unusual destructive fires, but this was no ordinary fire. The flames raged for six days before coming under control; then the fire reignited and burned for another three. When the smoke cleared, ten of Rome’s fourteen districts were in ruin. Two thirds of Rome had been destroyed. Knowing that narrow streets, tall buildings, combustible building materials, and common walled buildings contributed to the fire’s destruction, a new Urban Plan was created, mandating wider streets, placing restrictions on the height of houses, eliminating common walls of buildings, and requiring homes to be constructed with fire resistant material such as stone instead of wood.
In 1666, a devastating fire swept through London. At the time, the city was crowded, with buildings tightly spaced. Sanitation was unheard of, and raw sewage flowed through open drains with people dumping their refuse from balcony windows into the streets below. Filth and disease were everywhere. Fires were also common. With timber framing as the prevalent means of construction, the fire of 1666 is believed to have started in a bakery and received little attention until it entered a group of warehouses where animal fat, oil, and alcohol were being stored. These highly flammable materials intensified the fire, destroying over 15,000 buildings, approximately two-thirds of the city. After the fire, Parliament labored for two years over the writing of the “London Building Act”, which setup building regulations for the City of London.
The City of Chicago had about 60,000 buildings at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Uncontrolled development was booming, and combustible construction was prevalent, with about half of the building being built of wood. The fire raged in the City for two days before being extinguished, having destroyed 17,000 buildings, taken 250 lives, and displacing hundreds of thousands. The financial ruin to the insurance industry left numerous companies in bankruptcy, with the remaining companies threatening to leave unless better building regulations were enacted. There was still resistance to tightening controls on construction; however, by 1875 ordinances had been enacted regulating building construction and fire prevention.
The desire to have buildings independently fight fire in the absence of human intervention led to innovations like the automatic sprinkler system. This was first patented in Abington, Massachusetts in 1872. In 1890, a new a glass disk sprinkler head, still in use today, was developed. Working in concert with a suitable water supply, the system is a network of hydraulically designed piping installed in a structure, generally overhead, to which automatic sprinklers are connected in a systematic pattern. The system is usually activated by heat from a fire and discharges water over the fire area.
In many ways, urban conditions in Uganda aren’t vastly dissimilar to several of those faced in Rome, London, and Chicago before their respective fires. So why is it that after hundreds of years of effective mitigations against fire destruction, we are still losing irreplaceable building heritage from fire, and what does the fire that destroyed Makerere’s main administration building on September 19th, 2020, tell us about the state of the country?
In the United States, the “rules” concerning the required life safety features for buildings are covered in building and fire codes, first enacted in the early 1900’s. Building codes control and integrate fire safe design and fire prevention into the construction of the building and systems that are installed. Fire codes dictate fire prevention on an on-going basis beyond the period of initial design and construction.
It is useful to understand the relationship between building codes and fire codes. According to Wikipedia the purpose of building codes is to “provide minimum standards for safety, health, and general welfare, including structural integrity, mechanical integrity (including sanitation, water supply, light, and ventilation), means of egress, fire prevention and control, and energy conservation.” Building codes, for example, dictate the number, location, and design of egress/exits from a building.
Fire codes deal with on-going concerns, “aimed primarily at preventing fires, ensuring that necessary training and equipment will be on hand, and that the original – and modified – design basis of the building, including the basic plan set out by the architect, is not compromised. The fire code also addresses inspection and maintenance requirements of various fire protection equipment to maintain optimal active fire protection and passive fire protection measures.” Fire Codes, for example, are concerned with making sure the exits are not blocked and doors are not locked.
Building codes and fire codes are frequently enacted into law at local and national levels, and noncompliance adopted within a jurisdiction can result in legal action.
While building codes and fire codes specify the minimum requirements, standards establish the engineering or technical requirements and provide the “how to” for achieving compliance with the minimum requirements. Generally, the codes tell you what you must do, and the standards tell you how to do it.
Which leads one to ask: how does Makerere University, a hallowed institution older than the Republic itself, complete with a School of Architecture that trains the country’s future builders, and leadership that includes a trained architect at the helm, fail to retrofit its principal capital asset – and one of the country’s most iconic heritage buildings – with the most basic fire prevention and protection measures that have been in use around the world for over a century?
The painful loss of Muzibu Azaala Mpanga in 2010, the centerpiece of the early 19th Century Kasubi Tombs, and burial site of four Kings of Buganda, was a national wake up call to the urgency of effective disaster mitigation, particularly in regards to our built heritage. Although a shadow of its former self, Makerere University is perhaps the Uganda’s sole remaining institution that still reverberates a sense of excellence, pride, and prestige far beyond the country’s borders. No other African academic institution has nurtured an alumnus that has had as much impact on the continent. The main administration building, The Ivory Tower, was completed in 1941, and was one of the few buildings completed by the Colonial government during the Second World War. To see it engulfed in flames, more than a decade after the loss at Kasubi, is as damaging to the country’s national psyche and it is an indication of a national dream deferred.
Poignant was a video clip shared over social media of a broken down old fire engine truck, literally from the last century, sputtering and being tinkered back to life with by frustrated firefighters as smoke continued to rise above the shouldering remains of the administration building in the background. This stirring juxtaposition speaks of how regardless of the immediate cause of the fire, the real culprit is what consistency continues to plague Uganda.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster. Losses and deaths in disasters are complex problems that can be solved by adopting socio-technical perspective to improve current disaster management systems. In many cases throughout history, we have learnt from our tragedies, and used them as a means of rethinking how we can co-exist with our natural and built environments to mitigate potential loss of life and damage to environments. Around the world, these lessons have helped build and strengthen both institutions and the professions that lead the charge in protecting and enhancing our quality of life. But this happens neither in a vacuum nor under direction by authoritarian governments. By and large, these adaptations are forged by robust civil society, and led and maintained by a country’s independent academic, professional, legislative, and judicial institutions within an accountable, democratic framework.
So why do these losses from natural occurrences continue to occur in Uganda despite the tremendous advancements in disaster management science, weather forecasting systems, increased sophistication of human-built environments, and other technological developments worldwide?
Uganda, for most of its post-independence era, has been governed by a confluence of party and army. Buttressed by the latter, each arm is virtually indistinguishable from the other with no institution being more important or consequential than the military. This has been made evident with the repeated use of the military to violently storm the halls of Makerere University, the Parliament, the Judiciary, to eliminate any real or imagined competition to the ruling party’s hold on government, another feature of Uganda’s post-independence politics. The result has been the birth of a completely self-serving, unaccountable, hallowed out system at each phase of Uganda’s post 1966 political development, where even from within, lessons aren’t learnt and adverse incidences consistently repeat themselves. With egregious malaise and institutional rot running amok, it is a system that has failed to recognize that Makerere’s recent fire is analogous to the nation on fire.
Bloated from patronage, and left virtually unchecked for decades, the basic nature of the state has not changed as the various regimes that have governed Uganda have reproduced gluttonous political systems, reactive and suspicious of independent thought, callous and seemingly espousing that the only thing in the country worth preserving is incumbency. When it comes to quelling dissent, these regimes have spared no expense and displayed their coercive power with the most sophisticated requisite machinery appearing almost instantly. A stark contrast for when it comes to the need for resources that actually serve the nation.
It is strong, independent, non-ideological and professionally competent institutions that build thriving and inclusive nations. But with the gun as the primary governance and resolution tool, Uganda is all but certain to remain amongst countries hinged to the absence of lessons learnt from the tragedies of natural occurrences. It was only due to luck that there were no losses in life from last Sunday’s fire. But will we be as fortunately next time? Without a doubt, there will be the next deadly fire, building collapse, landslide in Eastern Uganda, heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding, pandemic, and possibly earthquake. Will the lives of Ugandans, and those of the country’s built and natural environments, be sheltered from risk, or will we see increased unnecessary losses and untold suffering from our own failures?
Our best hope is to start to tirelessly work against the likely possibility of the latter because, as James Baldwin concluded in The Fire Next Time, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
The views expressed in this article [Opinion] are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Africa Tembelea’s editorial stance.
Mukasa is an architect, artist, and Pan Africanist.