Mozambique’s unlikely humanitarians

In the crisis in Mozambique following Cyclone Idai immediate aid to villagers has been organised through unexpected networks.

Ibrahim Ishmail, 52, has been the foreman of a mango farm in Matarara in Mozambique’s Dombe district for more than a decade. Managing a massive farm with the nearest town more than an hour’s drive away on a gravel road, Ishmail has had to learn to adapt to his circumstances and use whatever resources are available to him.

Like Ishmail, the people of Matarara – who live along the mighty Lucite River, one of the most consistently flowing rivers in Mozambique – have had to learn to live with floods when the rain comes, the most recent of which arrived in January.

Despite warnings of the impending arrival of Cyclone Idai, the people of Mozambique could not have prepared for the devastating floods it would cause once it made landfall in the coastal city of Beira on 15 March.

Ishmail remembers the heavy rain. But looking back, he could not have guessed that the Lucite River would become a raging monster, breaking its banks and flooding villages and crops in the area.

“The storm started around 3am [on Friday morning]. It was just increasing and increasing. The next day, the river was getting full and people started suffering,” Ishmail said.

As the river level rose, it devastated the villages of Mudala, Chebue, Pambanisa and Manhama, all near the river banks. Many of the men and women living in these villages worked as labourers on the mango farm. They are people Ishmail had known for years.

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31 March 2019: Ibrahim Ishmail, the foreman of a mango farm in Matarara, made a raft out of cold storage panels like those pictured behind him to rescue about 20 people who were stuck in trees.

Rescue by raft

Ishmail and farm manager Gilles van de Waal, 56, knew they had to act quickly to help people as the water rose past flood levels that had not been reached in decades. Using the ingenuity they’d cultivated to survive on the farm, Ishmail and Van de Waal made a raft out of four polystyrene panels from the farm’s cold storage room.

Using a bamboo stick and the float, Ishmail made his way across the raging river to rescue people out of trees. He and other men took turns to rescue more than 20 people in this way until a boat arrived to take over.

“We did this in the situation to help people. We’ve taken people to the hospital, we’ve given them food and water … If there’s a problem, we come together as a community to try and help,” Ishmail said, standing among spare polystyrene panels behind the farmhouse.

Van de Waal said it was his duty to help his neighbours. “I know these people. You have to help each other when there are problems.”

As the rain stopped and the river level subsided, Van de Waal and the owners of the farm realised the situation was more dire than they had expected. Mike Scott, 66, a thickset man with a raspy voice who lives in Hoedspruit in Limpopo made his way to the farm, which his family owns, as soon as he could.

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31 March 2019: (From left) Gilles van de Waal and Mike Scott check aid packages that are about to be airlifted to those affected by Cyclone Idai.

Central command

“Gilles phoned me on the Sunday morning [two days after the cyclone made landfall in Mozambique] and said it was bad. I immediately knew I had to get out there and help. We had to coordinate from a central point,” Scott said.

Scott reached out to as many people as possible to ask for donations. When Scott arrived at the farm in Matarara, he found other South African farmers from the area helping out.

“Our main priority was immediately making sure people were safe,” he said.

When Scott’s family bought the farm in the early 2000s, they had an ecologist point out the 200-year flood level to them. “The flooded river was 10m above that. At some points where the river broke the banks and spilled into flood plains, the river was 6km wide.”

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31 March 2019: A man carries a shelter to be distributed near Matarara.

The farmers soon realised that the immediate needs in the area were food supplies, medical supplies and mosquito nets. One of the farmers managed to make contact with the aid organisations in Beira and soon a few of them arrived and declared themselves “satisfied” with the work the farmers were doing to help people in Matarara.

Aid organisations such as the World Food Programme started delivering food and other necessary supplies to Scott’s farm and, with the help of a helicopter from Mercy Air, they began providing aid to the surrounding villages.

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31 March 2019: People in Grudja village waiting for help in the form of aid packages.

Seeds and supplies

Scott and another farmer led the operations from the farmhouse, with aid workers and medical personnel from different organisations camping out in front of the farmhouse. They held briefings every night to update each other and the bigger humanitarian project in Beira on their progress.

Scott said they distributed more than 100 tonnes of food and other supplies to the 1 465 families who were living in Mudala, Chebue, Pambanisa and Manhama. Every day the group of farmers, with the help of the Mercy Air helicopter, were delivering up to 20 tonnes of supplies to 8 177 people.

“We will keep on doing what we are doing. We’ve got a plan,” he told local Dombe administrator Rosa Bia Luis, who visited Scott’s farm on Sunday 31 March to be briefed on their work. “Our plan is to make sure these people have food. We’ll continue doing that.”

“We will keep on trying. But what we will also need for the farmers of Mozambique is to start a seed programme,” he said. Scott said that if local farmers could be supplied with a range of seeds as soon as possible, many of them could start planting in early April and some crops would be ready by June.

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31 March 2019: South African farmer Mike Scott briefing Dombe administrator Rosa Bia Luis about their aid operations in the area.

Health concerns

During an evening briefing session following the arrival of a new medical team, fellow South African farmer Kobus Botha – who worked for a non-governmental organisation during the Rwandan genocide and had helped out during previous floods in Mozambique – said the biggest health concern for the displaced villagers was malaria.

He said many of the villagers initially had foot injuries from walking barefoot through water and thick mud, often cutting their feet on debris such as pieces of zinc.

“But right now, our biggest concern is malaria. About 60% to 70% of the people we are seeing now have malaria. Mosquito nets were supposed to arrive on Saturday, but they’re not here yet,” Botha said late on Sunday night, with the cargo still not having arrived by Monday morning.

“We must do what’s necessary. The thing with a flood, you have to react immediately. You can’t assess and take your time. When the cyclone hit, I offered my help and when the floods came a day later, I phoned Gilles … I came with a few sacks of things to help,” he said.

Botha, with his experience in flood and crisis situations, said “our little operation” was able to immediately help people. “With these big organisations, the food goes into warehouses when people need it immediately … Just from donations from farmers on our WhatsApp group, we bought a lot of pots and pans and food to help the people.”

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31 March 2019: South African farmer Kobus Botha, who is experienced in flood and crisis situations, briefing volunteers and aid workers at the farm in Matarara.

‘Massive responsibility’

Scott said the responsibility of ensuring thousands of people were getting food and medical care weighed heavily on the farmers. “It is extremely intense. It is a massive responsibility,” he said.

“But there’s no help from anyone else other than ourselves … Those big guys [aid organisations] take a lifetime to get going. The reason we’ve been so successful was that we were not accountable to anyone. Ordinary people worked in life-threatening circumstances and they did an unbelievable job.”

Scott was hopeful that the warehouse full of aid supplies on his farm could be delivered by the end of the week, which would allow the farmers to return to their lives and resume their business.

“We would have dropped off enough food to feed the people for three weeks. After that, the government can take over,” he said.

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31 March 2019: Farm manager Gilles van de Waal in a warehouse being used to store aid packages.
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