A huge cloud of black smoke cast a long shadow over Niamey on the afternoon of May 27, 2009. The big, central market was on fire. The market is like a open-air bazaar confined to a vast walled-in spot in the center of Niamey. Here's a picture of the black cloud from across the Niger river.

The immense fire burned all afternoon from 2 p.m. until about 7 p.m. At 5, I happened to be traveling in the center of town via taxi. I hopped off the taxi and took a walk up near the market to see the conflagration. Though traffic was obviously being blocked, people could walk quite close to the market where a cordon of police was keeping everybody away. I could still see big, black plumes of smoke rising up out of the center of the market, though I couldn't see the flames. Just then, the wind shifted as a storm started moving in from the northeast, and it made the flames go back in the direction from which they had come. The contrary winds made it difficult to control the blaze.

Many shops crowded into the center aisle of the market were completely destroyed. The government news service said over 100 shops were totally obliterated. Hundreds more were damaged. But thanks to the work of many firemen and police, many hundreds more were spared much damage. Still, the loss of goods and income is incalculable. Pray for these poor people. They have suffered much. What caused the fire? I heard by the grapevine that it was an electrical short circuit. This is not the first time this market has burned. Back in 1982 (before I arrived in Niger), the market completely burned to the ground. Other markets in Niamey have suffered fires during our time in Niger. One even experienced a flood!

Fire can be so destructive. But it can be beneficial when under control. In that case it gives heat and light to those who are around. That's why there are two words in French for "fire:" "incendie" for the out-of-control, destructive fire; and "feu" for the under-control, beneficial fire. I want to be a fire like the latter, lighting the path for those who are around and bring beneficial heat to the world.

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