The cycle repeats itself as Cyclone IDAI hits Mozambique. In 2001, as the Limpopo river overflowed, it brought the Mozambican Gaza province to the world map. Pictures of people seeking refuge on top of the palm trees did the rounds.
When I first went to Mozambique in 2004, the floods were still visible everywhere. The roads in Xai-Xai were just starting to be rebuilt, the city church still showed a watermark higher than I could reach on its wall. From the school that was my temporary home, Sister Isabel showed me the distant palm tree where the famous picture was made. Truth or myth? Hard to know – but it certainly looked like the only place to hide in such a plain and vast valley. The stories were vivid about the time when the population sought refuge in the high terrain where the school was. The drive to get food for everyone. The need for clean water amidst so much water.
And there I was 3 years later. In my own concept of time scale, I would have believed it if only a few months had passed from the floods in light of the state of the city. The pace of recovery was slow. Families were just about covering their hut ‘windows’ (or holes in the straw wall) with fabric that was barely any protection. Some had started finding the metal plates that are used as roofs and were gathering as many as they could so eventually, they could have a roof. 3 years later.
In 2013, the picture is back, but this time, it is not a distant story. We had been in operations for 9 years then, and all our intervention areas were starting to be flooded. This time, our own ALG families were seeking refuge on a palm tree. It still gives me the shivers to write this more than 5 years on. Then and there we had no hesitation. As a small organisation, a decision to move could be done quickly and so we did.
We had volunteers at the Youth Centre CPRE and they were the first ones to be sieged by the water (and the local population). In a valiant effort, our Local Partner brought supplies from Maputo, where he luckily was spending a few days and found the means to cross the road-that-became-river within 24 hours of the hit. Through human trains or improvised boats, the desire to help the community was stronger than ever before.
As the floods spread, our own local coordinator Hilario spent 3 days on the roof of his house wounded, seeking shelter where it did not exist. Originally from Chokwe, his family was there and we were struggling to keep contact as electricity problems prevented him from charging his phone. He used it sparingly but made sure he brought news to the world that would wake us all up to the strength of the waters.
And it kept spreading. Our Santa Luisa School was badly hit. All school rooms were flooded, it was hard to trace the families. All their crops were wiped out. Hunger was threatening everywhere. These were remote places that at the time google maps did not find. Try and spot Manjangue on the map. Google maps only recently started showing it.
We seem to always be on the edge of the Limpopo river so the calls for help also spread to Xai-Xai. The school started again being home to requests for help as the populations feared it was all going to be wiped out again.
We were quick to enter crisis mode, even though admittedly we never had one before. We launched an emergency appeal in Portugal and the UK and were truly overwhelmed by the aid that poured in, especially in Portugal, as people were faced with daily coverage of what was going on. Many had family or friends there, many were born there. Everyone wanting to help and knowing they wanted to do so in a way that they could trust.
Our first batch of help was for food and supplies relief. Basic items like infant powder milk. For once we required no budgeting and disbursed funds with green light for our local partners to proceed with immediate execution. It was a leap of faith we were willing to make because we knew we were aligned with our goals to alleviate the suffering of those that tend to get most hit natural disasters of the sort – the poor.
As international aid started arriving – we shifted our focus to recovery. It was time to look at our families and partners and see what we could do to rebuild or repair the damages. They needed to do nothing less than rebuild their lives. We did infrastructure support quicker than before, and even the construction workers that are always slow to show up were there when we needed them. We looked at providing seeds for families to re-launch their crops. But we knew it would take time.
On a very special partner request and taking one of our biggest steps ever, we took on a daily feeding program in the SLM school, feeding a meal a day to the >600 kids in the affected area. In time, that program moved from emergency to a school feeding program and a scale that we had not anticipated. But we stayed true to our mission, responding to the needs of the local populations.
Now, cyclone IDAI hit the northern provinces and the rain is adding to its damage. The next few days are uncertain but the first week was already devastating. News reporting says 90pct of Beira has been destroyed. This is a proper city with half a million people. As roads fall and electricity is down, it is still early days to evaluate the permanent damage. But it is certainly immense.
We entered crisis mode. While we re-assured our supporters that our children were safe, we could no longer use those words without feeling anxious. We knew in Beira they were not OUR children. But we also knew that does not matter when disaster hits.
We woke up on Tuesday to a personal ask from our local coordinator. Pained by the suffering of his fellow northern people facing the cyclone, he asked whether we would do something. Hilario pleaded to us and made it all so easy. All of us had spent the night before checking the news and keeping our hands tight with the fact that we do not have operations in Beira, so it is hard to make a case for help. But Hilario made the case for us to buy water, the item in greatest need, and send some there.
It was 8 am. By 9 am we had approved it and by 10 am we had made the bank disbursement. By 11 he had sourced 6000 litres of water for next day delivery. We felt it was a small gesture but we could do nothing less than that. 1000£ can take you a long way.
The rains are not even over and the winds are moving South. Thus, I have the fear and belief that the worst is yet to come. In the North, the survivors are now facing hunger and disease will sneak upon them without much they can do amidst contaminated water and debris. Furthermore, as the dams are open, the perils will move South. And, at the end, who knows what the wind will do.
This was a challenging time for us as an organization and for me as a leader. Our hearts are typically quick to speak and interfere in sound decision making. We chose to stay the course while we could continue to use the argument that our children were safe therefore there was nothing for us to do. But it is extremely difficult to be present on the ground and do nothing in the face of such a disaster.
At the core of our mission is the belief that grass-root embedded local organisations are the best to provide the most immediate relief. We are not a grant-making organisation and we are in reality very hands on. But we had no hands in Beira – no helicopters or boats. Perhaps it makes us think about whether we need more partnerships with similar organisations in other regions. Or maybe it makes us ponder whether we should expand to where help is needed. It is a trial of judgement, strategic vision and lots of emotions.
There is more to come, I know that. The question will be, what will it be and how will we respond.
Photo Credits: CNN