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A view from Africa of Australia burning

  • 14 November 2019


As fires obliterated large swathes of Australia this week, I was largely oblivious to the news — though tenuously connected to events as I travelled through oven-hot, tinder-dry national parks in Southern Africa. Largely without internet connection, it was only when I reached the airport in Johannesburg en route home that the extent of the catastrophe became apparent to me. 

Apart from the stories about the devastating loss of life and property and the shameful barbs fired by politicians, there were some things that struck closer to home: a message from my sister saying the school at which she is assistant principal had been closed due to fire danger; a note from my son saying there'd been reports of fires one street down from our own in a part of Sydney which borders a national park; and news from my daughter that the suburb separated from her own by a narrow swatch of bushland had been bombed with fire retardant. 

It brought back memories of our arrival in Australia as immigrants on New Year's Day 2002. There was no picturesque vista of the city to be spied from the plane windows as we descended into Sydney; instead, the landscape was engulfed in a pall of smoke. Parts of the city were burning; indeed, residents of the very suburb bombed with retardant this week were being evacuated from their homes just as we were breathing in our new home's acrid, furnace-hot air.

It seems a lifetime ago now, long before Kevin Rudd tabled the world's first carbon tax, long before Tony Abbot and the LNP scrapped it; and a lifetime before we would find ourselves led by a government happy to fiddle the books, as it were, so as to further enrich the wealthy even as Australia burned.  

This news resonated, too, with the thoughts I'd had just that morning as I travelled from Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi to the country's capital city, Lilongwe, where I would begin the long journey home. The road from the Shire River — where a driver had picked me up — leads through villages fanning out from the main settlement of Liwonde. Tiny mud-brick houses and their outhouses are marooned in oceans of red soil tilled into gentle waves; the villagers are planting wheat before the rains (hopefully) come. Thatch-roofed mud structures house the chickens and goats at night so that wild animals can't eat them. Crackling