Cyclone Idai survivors burnt church pews to keep warm

Cyclone Idai Zimbabwe
Pic: Getty Images

By Godfrey Marawanyika and Brian Latham

On March 15, the earth shook so violently in Ngangu that people thought an earthquake had struck. It turned out to be thousands of tons of rock plowing through the eastern Zimbabwean village as rains and floods caused the surrounding hills to collapse.

“It sounded like a hundred trains were in the house,” said Loice Seremani, a mother of two. “Pots were falling from their shelves and no matter how hard I shouted, my children could not hear me and I could not hear their screams.”

Ngangu, the broader Chimanimani district and the southern parts of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands region would eventually receive 750 millimeters (30 inches) of rain in 48 hours because of Tropical Cyclone Idai. That’s about the same amount that the country’s capital, Harare, gets in a year. The landslides in Ngangu and in Kopa, an urban settlement in the adjacent Rusitu Valley, killed at least 344 people, though no one knows how many more bodies lie buried beneath the rock.

Reverend Burned Pews to Warm Cyclone Idai Survivors a Month On
The remnants of a destroyed bridge passage in Ngangu.Photographer: Brian Latham/Bloomberg

Idai affected more than 3 million people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe and will cost the southern African nations more than $2 billion to repair the damage, the World Bank said this month. At least 1.6 million children need urgent help with healthcare, nutrition and sanitation a month after the cyclone devastated parts of the countries, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Thousands of people are suffering with cholera and malaria.

The devastation comes as Zimbabweans face an economic crisis and shortages of bread, fuel and foreign currency. Gross domestic product will contract this year for the first time since the era of hyperinflation, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Relief Effort

Econet Wireless Zimbabwe Ltd., the nation’s biggest mobile-network operator, is coordinating relief efforts from a farm owned by Tanganda Tea Co. in Chimanimani. That’s the worst-hit district and was a rich coffee- and tea-growing area before government-backed invasions of commercial farm land.

The company has erected large tents — guarded by the military — containing food, bedding and donations. It won’t say how much it’s spent on aid, which includes scores of new tractors, 10,000 wheel barrows, thousands of liters of aviation fuel and as much as $100,000 a day keeping as many as six helicopters in the air, spokesman Lovemore Nyatsine said. It plans to build 300 homes for widows and the elderly.

Reverend Burned Pews to Warm Cyclone Idai Survivors a Month On
Econet’s Silver Streams relief center in Chimanimani.Photographer: Brian Latham/Bloomberg

Econet has hired scores of heavy trucks to ship in food and supplies in addition to the six helicopters. Outside each distribution point, rows of shiny New Holland SA tractors are lined up, their seats still wrapped in plastic.

Ordinary Zimbabweans have responded to the crisis in their thousands, donating truck loads of food, blankets, mattresses and medical supplies and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars. By default, Econet’s Nyatsine ended up coordinating much of the relief effort, leaning heavily on the army and air force.

He gets testy when people say he’s been heroic. “It’s not about us, it’s about the survivors and victims,” Nyatsine said.

Some areas remain cut off because bridges have yet to be repaired and a few roads are still blocked by landslides. Most, though, are open, with makeshift bridges across rivers. Local government, the areas’ disaster committees and businesses had bulldozers on the ground the day after Cyclone Idai hit.

Burning Pews

In a Methodist church in Ngangu, Reverend Steven Chitiyo said they burned the church pews to keep survivors warm.

Reverend Burned Pews to Warm Cyclone Idai Survivors a Month On
Reverand Steven Chitiyo.Photographer: Brian Latham/Bloomberg

“Just 15 meters (49 feet) from this church, everything was obliterated,” he said. “Rocks are all that remain, but the human spirit doesn’t die. We will recover.”

A short walk from Chitiyo’s parish, half a house remains. The rest, along with two vehicles, was crushed. The cars had carried a family to Ngangu for wedding preparations. The bride, groom, in-laws and siblings all died the night the mountain fell.

At St. John’s Roman Catholic church in Ngangu, the dead and survivors were housed side by side.

“We had to make hard choices here,” said Talkmore Maziya, an elder at the parish. “We moved the dead into the church by the pulpit. There were 42 bodies in there. The living were also sheltering inside, and we had to take blankets we’d given to children and make a curtain because we thought it’s better they’re cold than seeing the bodies, many mutilated, being brought inside.”

The community decided to leave the dead still beneath the rocks “to rest there in peace,” Maziya said “It wouldn’t be right to disturb them further.”