Last March, one of the worst cyclones ever to hit Africa devastated large parts of Mozambique, leaving many thousands without food or shelter. Trained VSO volunteers got to work, providing food to many of those most in need.
With recovery efforts still ongoing, we hear from those rebuilding their lives, a year after Cyclone Idai:
"I was so afraid for my children"
Suzana Capitao was at home in Chimoio with her five children when the storm hit on 14th March 2019. She’d never seen anything like it.
“The cyclone came at night when people were sleeping. It was very strong and very frightening. I could not stand it. I was so afraid for my children, I was crying for them. There was no one who could help us.”
“I went with my children to seek refuge in the school yard. We had nothing to eat. All of our food was swept away by the storm.”
Cyclone Idai forced 100,000 people from their homes and killed at least 700 people across the three affected countries, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Suzana was in one of the worst-affected areas, the Macate district, Manica province of Mozambique, which was hit by a wave of destruction.
“We lost many of our neighbours to the cyclone,” remembers Suzana. “The wind blew all the roofs away, and all the walls were destroyed. Almost nothing was left standing.
“Our whole lives, everything, was washed away by the water. All of our crops were destroyed too.”
Suzana feared for the future, wondering how to feed her five children.
VSO issued a call for help, with an incredible response: 180 tonnes of food assistance could be distributed to more than 13,000 people. This was enough to feed each person for one month.
Such a swift response was only made possible because there were already many volunteers on the ground, trained in resilience through funding from DFID and EUAV. A total of 750 volunteers had been trained across the country.
“When we received the food aid from VSO we were very happy. It came as such a relief,” said Suzana.
One of the trained volunteers, Pity Estajo, from cyclone-struck Chimoio, helped to distribute the aid: “We were there to meet the needs of these people. We saw handing out food as our first priority. I helped to register people, take complaints and ask people how they were feeling.”
Pity and other volunteers helped ensure food aid was reaching those most in need, and recorded any complaints around how food was distributed, giving those affected by the cyclone a way to raise concerns with VSO staff and volunteers.
Reflecting back, Pity can see how far-reaching the effects of the cyclone will be.
“People spent their whole lives building up what Cyclone Idai took in two days,” says Pity. “These areas need us volunteers to help the people affected, so they can rebuild their lives.”
“When the cyclone came, my greatest fear was being left behind”
Nineteen-year-old Faife Mufundisse remembers the night the cyclone arrived. His disability meant he was in particular danger.
“My greatest fear was how to run away like everybody else was doing. I thought the walls of my house would crumble on top of me and I would be buried underneath. But then, I thought if I left the house, the floods would sweep me away.”
Faife eventually escaped with the help of his brother, and now he’s looking to the future.
“I have tried to rebuild my home, but this is just a makeshift house. I used dilapidated materials to build it so I at least have somewhere to stay while I attend school.”
Ultimately, Faife acknowledges this might not be the last disaster to reach Chimoio.
“We look forward to continued support even if we meet another tragedy like this one.”
The increasing threat of climate change means disasters like Cyclone Idai are getting ever more likely - and it’s the poorest who are hardest hit by such events.
Clodagh Byrne, lead resilience adviser for VSO, says, “We know that climate-related disasters are going to become more frequent and severe, with a warming planet and damage to the ecosystems on which our communities depend.”
This makes it vital that we don’t just respond to disasters, but make sure communities are prepared before they occur.
“Some organisations will just deal with symptoms, but at VSO we are trying to understand the human, social, environmental, economic, and physical issues that make communities vulnerable.” says Clodagh.
In the coming months, volunteers in Mozambique will run sessions to help vulnerable communities understand the risks they are facing, including examining which areas are most in danger, such as low-lying areas prone to flooding.
Volunteers have been sharing their knowledge around disaster preparedness with the wider community, enabling the identification of people most at risk, such as pregnant women, those who are less mobile and people with disabilities. This makes sure no one gets left behind or forgotten.
“In the future, by introducing early warning systems, we will be better prepared for future emergencies. We will be informed well ahead of the disaster, and it won’t have the same impact that Cyclone Idai had,” says Faife.
Suzana, meanwhile, is still haunted by that night.
“Each time I see the weather change, I grow afraid. In my whole lifetime I’ve never seen anything like this.”
But if disaster strikes again, the hope is that people like Suzana will at least be better prepared this time.
Community volunteers have been helping her gain a better understanding of what to do if another major weather event hits Chimoio again: “Volunteers have taught us how to be resilient and they continue to educate us on how to anticipate emergencies like Cyclone Idai.”
Education volunteer opportunities in Mozambique
Cyclone Idai destroyed half a million hectares of crops. In these affected areas in Mozambique, food and income insecurity is already an issue, and many earn a living from agriculture. We are supporting the most marginalised – including women and girls, people with disabilities and the elderly – in cyclone-hit Manica province so they can develop the skills they need to either find employment or start up their own business.
If you’re interested in empowering young women, and have a background in education, you can be part of this new Mozambique-based project helping girls to learn and earn.
We want to thank the volunteers and supporters who have given us hope this year, despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.
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