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I phone my sister in Beira. Each time I call, the ringing seems to continue for longer and longer. Each time she picks up, the relief is the same. I tell her how my son is doing, how tired I am. She tells me about the updated death toll, the lack of electricity, how people are standing in lines for food and water for hours.
“People are still being found on the shore.”
When speaking to my sister on the phone, it’s statements like this that drive home the sobering reality of Tropical Cyclone Idai’s impact. My sister took time off work to volunteer as a relief worker in Mozambique. When we speak, her voice is heavy with what she’s seen. It’s a heaviness that is familiar to those of us who have experienced grief, or who have borne witness to it.
“In the days I’ve been here, grief has settled over Beira in a thick blanket of reddish-brown mud,” she tells me over a bad line, late last night. “It’s still warm here. It’s like the sun doesn’t know what’s going on on the ground.”
“There are rumours in the news of a cholera outbreak,” I say.
“That’s the thing about the cyclone; it’s not over when it’s over,” she sighs. The cyclone destroyed access to clean water; the dregs of dirty water left behind are undrinkable. No clean water means no sanitation, which means an almost explosive spread of disease. The vaccination campaign planned for next week cannot come quickly enough, and the defeat lurking in my sister’s voice when she tells me that there have already been a few confirmed cases in the area, is almost enough to break my spirit.
We end our call the usual way: love to my boy, stay safe, see you soon.
African spirits have had to suffer a lot of pain. But through all of the desolation, there is always something that continuously arises out of African soil, even out of the mud of the storm. As Africans, we are marked by our resilience; we have unbridled power when we connect with each other and support each other as a community. There are areas of Mozambique near Beira that have been cut off from the city, because of the flooding, yet there are boatmen who fight the currents to reach the people stranded there and bring them to safety.
In the next phone call I have with my sister, I will remind her of this before hanging up: in times of catastrophe, the true character of a place and its people is revealed. This is the true character of Africa: in the face of what is being called one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southern hemisphere, we rise with our grief and support each other, carry each other, and ferry each other across storm-tossed currents.
August Maluka is the mobilisation officer at Greenpeace Africa. His sister lives in Mozambique.