KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Security guard Jérôme Nsala broke the silence of an October night when he sounded the alarm: A fire had broken out in the Kisangani clothes shop where he worked, and a huge column of smoke was rising.
It was 11:30 p.m. The few passersby stopped to help; one neighbor ran back and forth with buckets of sand and water. But the efforts were futile. When owner Isaac Musafiri arrived, the store had turned to ashes. “There was nothing I could save,” he says.
A firetruck, which could have saved his business, never arrived — because Kisangani, a city of 1.37 million people, hasn’t had one for more than a decade.
A crowd burned the city’s last firetruck during a protest against insecurity in 2012, when the M23 armed group captured the city of Goma. Provincial authorities purchased another one in 2019, but it came with missing parts and remains inoperable. It’s parked at Kisangani’s City Hall.
Deputy mayor Eugénie Wandadi blames previous administrations for the failed purchase and adds that the provincial and national governments need to step in.
Matheus Kanga, the assistant to the governor of Tshopo province, of which Kisangani is the capital, says steps have been taken to provide firetrucks to Kisangani before the end of this year.
Until then, residents must fight fires with ineffective, makeshift methods.
The city recorded 20 destructive fires in 2022, says Blaise Mitangala, head of the city’s Housing Division.
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
Civil society organization Nouvelle Dynamique de la Societé Civile is one of the few pressure groups raising awareness about the issue. “The situation keeps getting worse. People are desperate, and no one knows who is going to be next,” says the organization’s president in Tshopo, Jordan Saidi. “We ask the authorities to provide the city with a fire engine.”
Musafiri says the cause of his shop’s fire was never identified. “The security guard thinks it might have been an electrical fire, but my store had no power at the time. I’m having a hard time explaining what happened,” he says.
The unstable power grid, which causes periodic electrical failures, is an old problem in Kisangani.
In November 2021, what was likely an electrical fire destroyed a warehouse used by several retailers, leaving many of them destitute. “I lost everything back in 2021, a total of 3 million U.S. dollars’ worth of goods. I don’t know how I am supposed to go on and overcome this. I am still in shock,” says Bambara Jules, one of the retailers.
Some Kisangani residents, like Kavira Mugeni, a housewife and mother of six, have also lost their homes. She describes the incident as the most awful experience of her life. “The heat from the fire woke us up. It was really hot inside, and I had to find a way to get my children out. I praise the Lord, who saved us and helped us to escape uninjured,” she says. “But we lost everything to the fire, the house included.”