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Bringing fire education to Africa

Though it is not common for women in Africa to be firefighters, many do serve on the medical teams. Someday they aspire to also be firefighters like Karin Anderson, who is a firefighter and EMT in Kensington. (Contributed)1 / 3
Karin Anderson of Farwell and Bjorn Ringdahl of Fergus Falls teach a medical skills class during their time serving with Africa Fire Mission in Machakos County, a part of Kenya. (Contributed)2 / 3
Kensington firefighter and EMT Karin Anderson poses with her class at the end of the fire academy in Kenya. The Africa Fire Mission was founded in 2012 as a way to improve the area’s public safety services. (Contributed)3 / 3

The African city of Nairobi is home to approximately 4.5 million people, yet has only four to six fire trucks to service the entire area. In comparison, Alexandria has a population of approximately 13,000, but has 12 fire trucks.

This equipment obstacle, among others, was one of the reasons Karin Anderson, a Kensington firefighter and EMT, chose to travel to Africa in November to help educate the emergency personnel there as part of the organization Africa Fire Mission.


Africa Fire Mission serves to improve the public safety services available in Africa, and was founded in 2012. Last year, Anderson met the founder of the organization, and he encouraged her to participate in the upcoming trip. Though hesitant at first, she ultimately decided to take part.

"What we did was we conducted a fire academy," Anderson said. "Before, they had never had one in Kenya. We had three classes — leadership, fire prevention and emergency medical class. Me and my friend Bjorn (Ringdahl) from Ringdahl Ambulance in Fergus Falls taught the EMS class."

The EMS class included 50 students, both men and women. Anderson says one of the most important things to take note of while teaching was the language barrier.

"They can speak English," Anderson said. "But that's their second language. Their first language is Swahili, which they speak much more fluently. ... We had to make sure they were getting it, mostly through facial expression."

Because education is difficult to obtain in Kenya, it's what emergency personnel wish for the most. So, when Anderson and her team presented the opportunity, they were more than excited to learn.

"What was really cool was when we brought out the CPR mannequins, and all the stuff for hands-on, like for burns and bandaging," Anderson said. "They were like little kids in a candy store. Here we complain when we have to train. But they were so thrilled that somebody was bringing them training and that they had these mannequins to actually practice on."

Before leaving for Africa, three local companies — Alex Air Apparatus, Fire Safety USA and Great Plains Fire — donated things like paper, pens and backpacks for Anderson to bring with her. She says she was shocked that such simple materials were so coveted.

"That's what they wanted the most," she said. "I ran out and had no more to give them. I could have brought another suitcase over."


While in Kenya, Anderson observed many differences between the United States and Africa, the largest being the treatment of firefighters.

"The firefighters are not heroes over there," she said. "They're not even looked up on. They're looked down on. If they come to a fire and they run out of water, which they do because there's no water towers like there are here, they get in the trucks to leave and people think they're abandoning them and they throw rocks at them."

In Kenya, emergency vehicles also have a difficult time navigating roadways and reaching their destination quickly.

"They've got to get through an entire city and people don't move over for fire trucks and ambulances," Anderson said. "You either go around in the ditch or don't get through at all. People are not educated about things like that. I don't think they really know how to go about moving over when there's really nowhere to move over to."

On the flip side, there were aspects of Kenyan culture that Anderson says appealed to her more than U.S. culture.

"They were like, 'Don't be in a hurry, you're on Kenya time, just slow down,'" she said. "You did learn pretty quick that you're not getting through traffic in an hour, you're not getting out of the grocery store in 10 minutes."

Additionally, the people of Kenya were kind and grateful.

"You walk into any business and they're immediately welcoming you," Anderson said. "At first, I couldn't figure out why they were saying, 'You're welcome, you're welcome,' when I hadn't said thank you yet, but what they were saying is, 'You are welcome. You're welcome here.'"

Anderson says leaving was difficult, but that come next year, it is likely she will return and may even spend some extra time in the area.

"It was hard to leave the academy," she said. "I got a lot of gifts given to me from the Kenyans and a lot of people wondering when I'm coming back. ... They're talking about having medical clinics in the slums, where they bring over EMTs and nurses and treat patients in the slums. It's not set for sure, but I might go and help with that."

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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