The reports coming out of Mocambique were scarce and varied. For those in the know, if the Limpopo floods its banks in South Africa, then it surely will flood the lowlands of Mocambique.
Vague verbal rumours from residents of a resort near Xai Xai filtered through to me in Swaziland of bad floods in Chokwe, the water levels were higher than in 2000, that Xai Xai and surrounds were on red alert, but in the main there was a careless silence from news agencies. I watched reports on floods in Queensland, fires in Franschoek, snowstorms in Britain and all the while our neighbours were drowning in a sea of muddy water.
After a worrying four days I heard the road was open, with restrictions, and I could return to my base in Chizavane, some 40 kilometres north of Xai Xai. I set off from Swaziland early in the morning not knowing what delays might await me along the way. Maputo was its usual busily chaotic self, needing concentration and patience. Thereafter the EN1 was eerily quiet.
It took me a while to figure out what was different. As I drove through a small hamlet a young lady suddenly jumped out of the shelter of a shop and tried to wave me down. Not something that happens too often on this road. That is when I realised that there were no mini buses. There were also no buses and no trucks. The further north I went the quieter the road became.
Once I passed Manhica, the eeriness deepened because now there were no people. Pools of water blinked in the intermittent sunlight along the side of the road, stretching outwards on both sides. As I got to the cane fields of Chinavane, I began to see the first actual evidence of floods. Roads alongside cane fields were canals, the brick making kilns were covered with tarps, there was hardly a person in sight. At one point I passed a small group of women wading down a road with bundles on their heads, probably making for higher ground.
The contrast when I reached the town of Macia was shocking. People milled around in what seemed like their thousands. The noise was intense, the activity frenetic. I later found out that rural communities had been evacuated to this town. Apparently many of the Chokwe residents were taking shelter here. Once on the other side of the town, however, the emptiness continued.
Finally I reached Chicumbane, the last village before Xai Xai on the bank of the Limpopo floodplain. Here were the first real signs that there was a problem: a military helicopter parked near the football field, two big groups standing listening to the soldiers, a couple of large trucks with huge equipment loaded on them. I knew the point at the edge of the town at which I would see the extent of the floods. In a way the scene matched the picture I had in my head, although the reality was far more overwhelming than I expected.
I stopped the car and got out to ingest the magnitude of the flooded plain before me. I have never seen so much water. There was no evidence of any landmark, just electricity pylons standing out of the saturating brown swamp that stretched as far as the eye could see. On the road over the floodplain were two military Bailey bridges, and the few vehicles there were patiently awaited their turn to go over the raised humps of metal.
I passed groups of people on the side of the road, discussing whatever displaced persons discuss. Others were in boats, with bundles of possessions in them. A number of cows were grazing in calm bovine fashion on the edge of the road. I saw a truck half submerged parked next to what must have been the owner’s home. I wondered why he had not heeded the warnings to move.
Xai Xai was like a ghost town. The only places open for business were the petrol stations, and one restaurant. As I reached the tributary that runs through the centre of the city, I saw a number of people standing looking into what is normally a bed of reeds, now a substantial river. As I crossed, a movement caught my eye and I saw a man wading thigh deep down a street that borders the river.
The scene changed dramatically once more when I reached the higher ground of the city. The same mass of urgent humanity that I had seen in Macia, though not quite as intense in number. Until I reached the outskirts of the city that is. A well-known landmark on the edge of Xai Xai, especially to travellers north in this vast land, is a filling station and stop called Petromac.
I stared in amazement at the scene before me. It seemed that every shop in town had erected a stall alongside the road from this point on, and the throngs of people around them were seething and vibrant. The mini buses had established their station on the right, and business, it seemed, was booming. It was an amazing atmosphere, where people who are used to adapting to the vagaries of their land, were getting on with their lives without, it seemed, any resentment or anger. It was almost like a carnival, and I wanted to get out and be a part of it and drink from the positive energy of these remarkable men, women and children.
As I travelled the last 40 kilometres to where I turn off at Chizavane, I wondered at the strength and resilience of these Mocambicans. All I had seen along this six-hour journey, was communities dealing with a problem they had dealt with many times before in a mature and logical manner. There was no wailing, no standing on the side of the road begging, there was just a getting on with the business of living.
Back at The Beach as we call it, a neighbour tells how he watched a man being swept downstream, hanging onto the tail of his cow. In his desperation to save his animal he couldn’t heed the calls of those on the banks to let go and swim to the bank. No one knows if either of them made it to safety. There are reports of the river at Chokwe being 11 metres higher than normal, some 10 kilometres in width. The mind grapples with the vision of this, and the impact on humans, animals and land.
The months to come will be hard. Already there are fears of cholera and dysentery outbreaks. As I neared the bridge over the Limpopo, I smelt from the higher ground that was emerging from the receding water, the unmistakable aroma of rotting flesh. Chokwe, hardest hit by the floods, is a major vegetable producing area of Gaza province, so fresh produce will be hard to come by. The repairs to roads, bridges and homes are set to be in the billions.
The world is silent. Are we bored with floods in Mocambique? Are there too many natural disasters in this world of ours, that another just dulls the senses?
I am indignant, because this is a generous nation. I remember when Cyclone Damoina hit way back in the early eighties, out of Swaziland and South Africa, Mocambique was the most devastated. Yet the government of that day sent a donation of cement to Swaziland to help it rebuild its infrastructure. I am humbled each week when the man who works as my guard comes back to work bearing gifts of cassava, sweet potatoes, pawpaws whatever, but it is always way more than I need. They are always willing to lend a hand when needed.
It is as well that the citizens of Mocambique have t resilience developed over many decades of hardship to overlook the lack of generosity of others towards them and to weather the storms that frequently overflow them.
Even as the rains continue, they do not cry and wail for someone to come to their rescue. They do not blame their government and the world at large for what they are going through. They get up as soon as the rain stops and they start doing what needs to be done to get everything running again as soon as possible.
There is a lesson to be learnt from these people on the eastern side of southern Africa. It is a lesson of humanity, of the value of a positive attitude, with no sense of or demand for entitlement, only of living each day to the best of your collective ability.