September 27, 2011


I want to write about charcoal. Little sooty pieces of magic. This is my second time writing of them, here's the first:
Today I met with Luke. I told him his name reminded me of Star Wars but he didn't get the reference. He saw my bicycling to my school, twice, and decided to meet me at my home, to see this white man in the middle of the African landscape. Luke is a charcoal dealer, he works on pieces of land converting the forest into dark pieces of energy and drives them, bundled, to Lusaka. He invited me to see the process and offered me a bag of charcoal, as I was beginning to question the nature of deforestation and burning fresh logs in my cooking shelter, splayed to resemble an asterisks, with bricks situated to hold up cooking pots.
Whether I am doing the forest justice, romantically reducing my distance to nature, or saving myself the inconvenience of locating a dealer with charcoal and carrying the load on my bicycle, I do not know. But I do know, and am discovering, that if you reduce daily life to its essentials - water, food, energy, cohabitation - you find both a phenomenon and a story.

The forest is being converted into energy. Or, according to the second law of thermodynamics, it was already and always energy. I'm usually anxious when my supply of charcoal is low. I buy them stuffed in reused meal bags; it is not enough for the charcoal seller to fill them, they are overfilled, with a netting of sticks and string improvised to contain the product. It is usually sold by the main road, which I'm near to, but always in different locations. Sometimes I know the source, the area of the forest cleared, but I can't find who to buy it from, and often I can find the dealer but not the charcoal. The local economy is very informal. When the charcoal and its seller occupy the same space, I make an offer. If I don't know the dealer I usually pay more, but often they will deliver the bag, as it far from pleasant to ride home with a heavy and oddly shaped package on the back.

And when I have it, it's only the beginning. Its uses are many: a small piece can be used for writing, given the need. Mostly it is potential energy to be burnt, the start of a journey which ends with a hot meal. But how to set it aflame? The techniques are nearly limitless. During dry season, I can use almost anything, piled on top and lit. Everything burns. But when the dew or rain coats the ground, or a strong wind prevails (to the firestarter, nature's obscene gesture), more advanced rituals demand performance. Soaking a piece of charcoal in paraffin (lighting fuel and paint thinner which is sold in two delightful colors: blue and not blue). The fluid is spread over the whole group of charcoal, dousing them in a flammable mist. Additional products which make this process easier can be purchased, but only in stores far from here. Another technique is obtaining "family fire" - the borrowing of coals from a neighbor, whose fire is perpetually lit, like the candle in a Catholic Church, except as an offering to another deity, the god who reigns over heat and the hunger of an extended family. There is also: burning plastic in defiance of one's health and concern for the environment (man's obscene gesture to nature); removing the uninteresting pages from books and magazines, I recommend Ray Bradbury; eating peanut butter sandwiches or last nights cold and uncomfortable remnants.

So I have made up for not being a boy scout, and can light a fire under almost any condition with almost any object (save for myself, I've found I only scald, not burn). But it turns out the satisfaction of setting things ablaze wanes quickly, and the exceptional becomes routine, mundane, even an annoyance. So I burn the last that I have, and go off into the bush seeking more.

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