Observers

Over the past 40 years, thousands of homes have burned down in mysterious fires in Guinea’s Fouta-Djalon region. This unexplained phenomenon has caused widespread fear among residents, many of whom believe that evil spirits are to blame. It turns out that there has been research into the cause of these fires… but our Observers say that the public has been left in the dark.

Since early September, about 30 homes, most of them huts, have gone up in flames in Gonkou District, which is not far from the town of Labé. Mobile phone footage of the fires show families watching as their homes are reduced to ashes in broad daylight. In some of the videos, the blaze is ripping through the inside of the home. In other cases, the straw roof is alight.


Alpha Ousmane Aob Bah, a journalist for the website Africa Guinée, recently travelled to Gonkou to report on the fires. He reached out to our team about this strange phenomenon:
 
Those who have lost their homes have no choice but to sleep outside, even though it is winter here. The authorities offer them no support. And some of these people lost not just their homes and belongings, but also the crops that they were growing next to their huts.

Alpha Ousmane Aob Bah took these photos in early September in the Gonkou District while reporting on the fires for Africa Guinée. He shared these photos with the France 24 Observers.
 

'There’s a hysteria among the population. People say that the fires were caused by invisible spirits'

Quite a few young people from Gonkou have taken to social media to post about these mysterious fires and the distress and fear that they are causing their relatives. Mamadou Bobo Bah, who is the president of a Gonkou youth group in Conakry, has been posting about the fires with the hopes that someone in government will take notice and be forced to act.
 
These mysterious fires have been going on for a long time in Fouta, and, in the past three weeks, they’ve reached Gonkou District. People tell us that a fire will suddenly break out in the middle of the afternoon in one home and, soon, another home is on fire as well. They have no idea what could set off these fires – they certainly haven’t seen anyone suspicious enter the village. This uncertainty has led to a kind of hysteria. Some locals make sacrifices to God, believing that it is his will. Others say that the culprits are invisible spirits and that if you talk about them too much then it could make it all worse or maybe even make them come after you.

The people living in this area are very poor and there isn’t a single water tank in the district. Very often, children are sent to draw water from a well to throw on the fire.

On Thursday, September 19, the governor of Labé went to Gonkou where he promised that investigations into these mysterious fires would be carried out.


These photos show some of the homes that caught fire in Gonkou as well as the visit by the governor and his delegation on September 19. (Photos sent to the Observers by Mamadou Bobo Bah).
 
Our team contacted Commander Mohamed Lamine Diakité, who is in charge of the fire brigade in Labé. Diakité says it is difficult for his team to fight these fires as they don’t have the means to travel to these remote villages and they don’t have a water tank.

"We should be going to these locations to find out what caused these fires and raise awareness about fire safety, but our unit isn’t operational,” he said.

It’s hard to know when these mysterious fires began. People started taking note of them in 1978 after a fire in Hafia, a sub-prefecture of Labé.

Since then, the authorities have recorded nearly 5,000 fires with roughly 27,000 residents affected. In the past 10 years, several studies into the cause of these fires have been carried out, but none have come to a conclusion.


The 2015 study that might have the answers

In January 2015, after a new series of mysterious fires, two French firefighters came to investigate what was going on at the request of the Guinean president. For three weeks, they studied the sites where these fires had taken place and analysed the materials present in the homes that had caught on fire.

In an 88-page report including photos, graphics, diagrams and chemical analysis, the two French researchers eliminated the supernatural as the cause of these fires. Instead, the results of their observations on the ground and subsequent analysis carried out in a lab at the University of Poitiers pointed to two factors: that the fires were the result of combustion within the huts’ thatch roofs and the spontaneous combustion of a certain material used in traditional clothing.

The report stated that if the villagers covered their roofs with straw that was still moist, then it would ferment. This reaction would release heat, which could cause the thatch roof to ignite.

The second cause, according to the French experts, was a kind of varnish used on traditional costumes. This layer contains what they referred to as flammable dust particles, which were especially liable to combust if the clothes were moist and tightly packed into suitcases.

The report recommends that villagers should make sure that the thatch is completely dried out before putting it onto the roof and that clothes should be properly dried and then stored in rooms with some kind of ventilation.

'The public was never informed about the conclusions of this report'

The problem is that the conclusions of this report, which was handed over to Guinean authorities in September 2015, were never shared with the public. Officials made no subsequent effort to raise awareness about fire safety and best practice.

Idrissa Sampiring Diallo, the head of the regional bureau for news site Guinée Matin, says only a few officials and a handful of journalists saw the report:
 

I was born in 1974 and I grew up amid the hysteria about these mysterious fires. In 2015, I was in the region when the French experts came to research the problem and I was there when they handed over the report.

The problem is that the information was never transmitted to the public! The number of fires continued to increase and people continued to say that there was no explanation for this phenomenon. A few media outlets talked about the report. But the information was never translated into the local language and no community radio station or local radio shows had access to it. I’m not even sure if local officials knew about this report. In Guinea, lots of documents just end up being put away in a drawer forever.
 

The post (written in French) by Facebook user Iva Le Roi calls for help, saying, “My village Gonkou has been ravaged by a mysterious fire. Some family members are sleeping outside.”

Call for funds

Safioulaye Bah, who serves as the regional prefect in Labé, told the France 24 Observers team that investigations were underway to improve the understanding of the causes of these fires. He said that he didn’t know about the study carried about by the two French experts because he was not yet prefect in 2015. However, he did say that he didn’t think there was anything supernatural about these fires.

He thinks that there are other local practices that could also pose fire risks.

"Many locals spread cow dung on the ground around their homes. However, we know that when cow dung ferments, it releases methane gas.”

He also put forward the theory that some fires might have been set intentionally: “There are family conflicts, especially when a plot of land is being sold, for example.”

Bah said that, during the governor’s visit to Gonkou on September 19, a report was written about the fires that will be handed over to government officials. The report called for funds to help the victims of these fires and also to organise campaigns about fire safety and domestic fire hazards.

The French Embassy in Guinea, which helped bring over the two French experts back in 2015, claims that “campaigns to raise awareness were carried out” without specifying when or where these campaigns took place or how many people took part.

According to the Embassy’s Adviser for Civil Defence, there is no need to carry out more research into the fires because “the conclusions will be the same” [as the 2015 report]. He did say that the Guinean government should relaunch campaigns to raise awareness about fire safety and do a better job sharing the conclusions from the report.

Article written by Maëva Poulet (@maevaplt).