Picking up the pieces – Life after Cyclone Idai

pretty chavango
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By Pretty Chavango

The rainy season is beckoning. For most people in Zimbabwe, especially farmers this is a welcome development as it signals the start of the 2023-24 agricultural farming season. However, the rainy season in Chimanimani is a trigger of panic, as it brings back the horrors of death and trauma for survivors of cyclone Idai which claimed hundreds of lives, leaving behind a trail of broken homes, shattered dreams and no source of livelihood.

“Whenever it starts to rain, I get heart palpitations,’’ says 36-year-old Chipo Geredza, ‘’even if I am sleeping, once I hear raindrops, immediately, I wake up and sit on my bed until it dies down. It has been four years now, but I still get flashbacks of that fateful day, and living in this cracked house which often leaks does not make moving on any easier.”

Zimbabwe is among the Southern African countries that were severely hit by Cyclone Idai, resulting in the loss of lives, while affecting thousands in various ways. There are still many who are still unaccounted for even today.

A lot of organisations, both local and international, churches and in some cases individuals joined hands with the government in responding to the crisis through various donations in both cash and kind. 

However, four years later, the victims and survivors are still picking up the pieces, dealing with post-trauma, and displacement, and their future remains uncertain.

Susan Chimutashu, a 42-year-old female Cyclone Idai survivor, who still lives among the ruins of her former home, recounts how she lost all her children to the cyclone and how it has been difficult to heal while staying among the rabbles of the tragedy.

“I thought by now the government would have relocated us as promised. Whenever I go outside to sunbathe I am constantly reminded of how my son was washed away. If I turn to my right I see where my daughter used to play. It’s an unending trauma, which is made worse by the fact that we are living in poverty, our farmland was destroyed and we only wish to be relocated.”

Takemore Mufuya who hails from Chimanimani’s Veremu Village in Ward 21, recounts how she lost her baby while trying to go to a higher ground. She and her baby were swept away and got separated in the process.

It has been four years, and she has not found her baby or heard anything, or found any trace. With eyes full of tears, Takemore is urging for psycho-social support for survivors like her who never got to bury their loved ones or find out what happened to them.

The memories continue to haunt them, day and night.

Women who used to survive through cross-border trading, bringing clothes from Mozambique say they have no money to continue trade, as they lost everything to the cyclone. Even those who survived by selling bananas they no longer have sources of income as the trees were swept away as well.

While social welfare has chipped in by sending some of the children to school, the support has only helped deal with one problem, as the families are still burdened by a lack of proper housing, sanitation, food and even clothing. This lack of adequate support is leading some of the survivors to engage in prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse as a way of coping with the mental strain.

Women like Mary Chirwa and Hida Mukosha whose children were swept away whilst they were trying to take them to safety say the cyclone brought out a lot of gendered aspects where some men made it out safely because they were physically stronger, while some women shouldered the burden of trying to escape with their children on their backs.

Even for the survivors, the burden of getting food on the table has significantly fallen hard on women especially those who were widowed, by the cyclone and left to fend for their immediate and extended families whose parents were washed away.

Centre for Natural Resource Governance Director Farai Maguwu says survivors of Cyclone Idai are now afraid of any weather phenomenon.

“There is that trauma that survivors of the cyclone have faced for the past four years and might even face for the rest of their lives. What is needed is psycho-social support which is coordinated by the government.

“There are organisations that have done psycho-social work in Chimanimani, but just operated at a village level… but there are tens of thousands of people that were affected. Any such work needs to be coordinated by the central government, as they know the map of Chimanimani better and the reach of Cyclone Idai and would know which areas have been assisted and which have not been assisted,” said Maguwu.

Zimbabweans from all walks of life came together in an amazing show of solidarity for

survivors of the cyclone, despite their efforts there seems to be no proper disaster strategy to

properly resettle survivors and allow them to rebuild their lives.

Four years later survivors are still battling with post-traumatic disorder after having seen piles of dead bodies and for some whose loved ones were swept away into Mozambique, there will never be closure.

Research on the ‘ Lived Experiences of Adolescents under Climatic Change: Case of Chimanimani, Zimbabwe during and Post-Cyclone Idai’ by Chigevenga Rosemary Department of Psychology, Great Zimbabwe University and Grizzah Briges Counselling Psychology, Zimbabwe Airforce showed that children and adolescents are more likely to have physical

and mental health development problems when they get exposed to violence or trauma after the disaster.

“Experiencing multiple stressors in the recovery period such as parents changing or losing jobs, moving to a new home or school or the death or illness in the family may hinder development in all dimensions … children and adolescents who are members of marginalised or underserved groups, living in temporary housing or unsuitable housing are particularly vulnerable because such social context amplify the chance that they will experience the risk factors mentioned above. Exposure to multiple potential life-threatening disaster events like seeing trees fall, being injured or witnessing someone being hunted also brings with it physical and mental health development problems in adolescence.

The study added that the amount of exposure to the disaster is highly related to

the risk of mental health conditions such as depression, PostTraumatic Stress Disorder 

anxiety and in some situations prolonged grief. 

The researchers confirmed that the interviewed adolescent survivors of Cyclone Idai showed depression and its related symptoms leaving them vulnerable to prolonged psychological distress and behavioural changes related to their experience of trauma.

Reports by the  United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have confirmed the anticipation of a strong El Niño event occurring between October 2023 and March 2024. This event is expected to have adverse effects on rainfall from, potentially resulting in a drought.

The government has been urged to put in place safety nets that ensure communities in low lying areas are well protected and if possible evacuated to safety ; setting up of social and

child protection systems that are sensitive to disaster situations and offer psychological support during and post disaster as well as have a reserved fund set aside to cushion survivors in such unfortunate events.

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