Politics of Poverty

What I learned from Cyclone Idai and Kenneth survivors in Mozambique

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mozambique cyclone idai and kenneth survivors Masada Assani, 32, stands in what used to be her family's house after Cyclone Kenneth in Macomia, Mozambique. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

How a notebook full of hopes and fears transformed into concrete actions to improve peoples’ lives.

Clothes. Clean water. Soap. Tents. Buckets. Blankets. Cooking utensils. Menstrual supplies. Shoes. Latrines. Bathing facilities. Flashlights. Medical treatment. Mosquito nets. Food. Schools. Livelihoods.

The afternoon sun in Mozambique is beating down, and I’m wondering HOW thousands of cyclone survivors will get access to these items that they need. As I stand in a camp for displaced families about four hours from the city of Beira, the magnitude of Cyclone Idai’s damage is starting to sink in.

From April to June of this year, I joined Oxfam’s Cyclone Idai and Kenneth response to document what survivors needed and understand what changes needed to be made. It was the experience I treasure most about my time in Mozambique—and from which I draw the greatest inspiration.

The front lines of climate change

Cyclone Idai made landfall in Beira, a major seaport for commerce on the Indian Ocean, over the night of March 13-14. As people slept, 170 km per hour winds destroyed and battered buildings, infrastructure, and homes in the city. The cyclone made its way inland, ruining crops, roads, and bridges. Thousands of homes were no longer habitable, if they weren’t leveled.

Less than six weeks after Idai, Cyclone Kenneth struck Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado. At 225 km per hour, Kenneth’s winds registered as the strongest cyclone to hit the continent of Africa in recorded history. Before Kenneth hit, government and humanitarian agencies were already scrambling to respond to rising demands and dangers—including a cholera outbreak.

Fears quickly started to mount: there simply weren’t enough resources to meet the needs of affected communities.

What survivors told us

When I visited IDP camps in Dondo, Nhamatanda and Guara Guara, people were eager to talk to us about overcrowding, their desire to make a living, and the absence of any information about what would happen to them.

Many said they lacked ‘everything’. We heard this often from survivors, including Marcuos Paulo do Amaral from Oxfam partner organization CECOHAS. In April he told us, “In the Zambezia region we still have many communities without access to humanitarian aid, completely isolated and left behind. Survivors need virtually everything—food, water, shelter, sanitation and hygiene systems, and health care.”

We also asked what should change. Almost everyone suggested rebuilding or repairing houses with concrete walls and tiled or zinc roofs so they could better withstand extreme weather and keep people safe. In rural and low-lying areas, communities called for improved early warning systems via radio, text messages, megaphones, TV, and the like with more advance notice to give people time to seek safe shelter when serious storms are coming.

cyclone survivors sit under a tent in mozambique
Widows Irena Nugera, Rosalina Herman, and Teresa Adam said they want to go back to their village to rebuild their houses and start growing crops again. “We still have our land so if they give us a tent we can live there and rebuild our lives.” Photo: Vincent Best/Oxfam Novib

Survivors also said that rescue equipment, such as motorboats and fuel, as well as food, clean water, and water purification supplies should be pre-positioned so they’re within reach when crisis hits. Many said they had no say in where they would be living, no input on the services they wanted or would receive, and were not asked where they wanted to go when they left the camp. These are the kinds of decisions that can push people towards inequality and poverty or place them on the road to recovery.

One day I sat next to an elderly woman who was disabled. She had been in the camp for almost a month, evacuated from the roof of her house. In the chaos, she lost one of her crutches and the remaining one was damaged and unstable. This meant she was reliant on a neighbor to help her walk and navigate the small latrines. Since she couldn’t stand in line, she missed food and non-food item distributions in the camp.

She was only able to eat when her neighbors shared their rations.

What we heard survivors say

I wrote furiously in my notebook so I could share these comments with Oxfam program teams so they could adjust their work in response. We came up with recommendations with our friends at CARE and Save the Children. They include:

  • Building trust with affected communities is important. Humanitarians must engage survivors continuously so they can shape response activities so issues they face and deem most important are addressed. They know what they need and what solutions will work for them.
  • Officials should proactively engage women and girls in all phases of humanitarian response and development efforts given they are most at risk of being left behind due to gender inequalities. The government of Mozambique should ensure their safety and basic needs, including food, clean water and sanitation, and health care. International donors should also meet—and exceed—the $5 million assessed target for gender-focused program investments so women and girls can re-build their lives.
  • It is estimated that 2 million people are in jeopardy of missing meals between October 2019 and April 2020. With a food insecurity crisis fast approaching, the government should promote seed multiplication initiatives and provide agricultural tools to farmers so they can prepare for upcoming planting seasons and recover their livelihoods. Given crop losses, international food assistance through at least April 2020 is critical for saving lives and fighting malnutrition. Long-term, flexible financing should also be available to help local communities prepare for sudden-onset hazards.

Toward the end of my visit, a little boy came over to me. When we asked what living there was like and what he didn’t have but wanted, he told us his top priority was having a book and pencil. They were for his exercises—so he could keep studying because there were no schools in the camp.

He showed us a small toy made out of wires. He broke out in a huge smile, excitedly telling us about how he made it and his other wire animal creations. His creativity and bright spirit, in such a challenging environment, reminded me of a small plant, growing in a sidewalk crack.

Even in the most inhospitable places, there’s beauty.

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