Sibhula, Zimbabwe – Musa Ndlovu, 97, Sehelo Msebele, 35, and Siphiwenkosi Ndlovu, 20, are standing at the bank of a fast-flowing river. The three women are preparing to return home after a day spent grinding maize.
But since heavy rainfall triggered by Tropical Storm Dineo, which left a trail of destruction across parts of southern Africa, damaged the bridge that crossed the Hovi River, that has meant wading and swimming through the river’s brown water.
For the women live in the village of Sibhula, a remote settlement that is home to 1,000 people, 550km south-west of the capital, Harare, and which for more than three weeks has been trapped by two flooded rivers that run parallel to it; the Hovi and the Maleme.
Malamulela Ncube, 17, steps forward as one of the women balances a sack of ground maize on his shoulder. He wades through the river to return the sack to their village.
He will do the same thing with the three remaining sacks.
As he places the fourth on his shoulder, the three women follow his lead, hiking up their skirts and dipping their shoeless feet into the river. One by one, they wade in. Joining hands, they move in a curved line that pushes against the current. At times they fall backwards into the water, but they get up again and keep on moving until they reach the other side.
Driven by desperation, the villagers must gamble with the waters, swimming against the rapid currents, to go in search of food, medicine and other basic necessities.
The army has airdropped two flood relief consignments into Sibhula which included maize grain – but the villagers must cross the river to reach the grinding mill.
A perilous crossing
The three women have each ground 20kg of maize, the country’s staple, into mealie meal. Sebele hopes to feed her family of five for up to two weeks on the cornmeal by carefully rationing it into two meals a day – porridge in the morning and sadza, a thicker, doughy version eaten as a main meal.
But once the two weeks are up, Sebele and Ndlovu say they are willing to cross the river again if the bridge has not been fixed.
“People are crying with this water, they don’t know what to do,” says Ndlovu. “The hospital and the granding mill are on the other side of the river.
“We’ll have nothing to eat [if we do not cross],” the 97-year-old adds. “It’s dangerous to cross the water like this, but there’s nothing we can do, we need to survive.”
She is aware of the risk she is taking. But, like Sebele, she feels it’s riskier not to cross.
The flooding of the rivers has also affected the community’s livelihood as many depend on subsistence farming and vending to make a living. For close to a month, Sebele, who normally sells her vegetables in Makwe Business Centre, the adjacent rural settlement on the ‘mainland’, has been unable to make a living.
“The flooding of these rivers has really disabled us because we can’t do anything; we can’t work and our children cannot go to school,” she says.
“Last year we could not harvest much because there was a drought, but now we have too much water …. We could not eat because there was no rain, but now we’ve lost a lot because of these rains. I can’t earn anything like this.”
The local authorities routinely caution against crossing flooded rivers, but the district administrator, Judge Dube, says little can be done to stop people from taking the risk. While efforts to deliver more food and medical supplies are underway, Dube says plans are moving slowly as the emergency services, the Civil Protection Unit (CPU), are still to conduct a full assessment of Sibhula.
A more lasting solution, he points out, may lay in the building of temporary bridges.
“We expect the military will be deployed so they can start putting up temporary bridges, but we don’t know when that will be because the resources are still being mobilised,” he says.
Across Zimbabwe more than 70 bridges have been damaged by floods and in some areas, pockets of people have been marooned, cut off by overflowing rivers. Thus far, more than 250 people have died during this rainy season and thousands more have been left homeless.
Last month, the government declared the floods a national disaster. It is seeking donor assistance in raising close to $200m to repair the destroyed infrastructure, including roads and bridges, but has so far only raised $35m of the required amount.
‘We were not ready’
Although the government is working in partnership with local and international humanitarian agencies to mobilise a flood response, the United Nations has called for more to be done as “huge gaps remain” in providing lifesaving assistance to those affected.
UN Resident Coordinator, Bishow Parajuli, told Al Jazeera that there has been a positive response from international donors, such as the African Development Bank, which is currently conducting an assessment of the damaged infrastructure.
Other partners such as the United States, Britain, Japan and China have promised to scale up their response, he says, but emergency funding is limited.
“We had two previous years of drought, but given the changing weather patterns we were expecting floods this year so we were a little prepared, but we didn’t know where they would be or the level of destruction that would come with it,” Parajuli explains.
“We are appealing for more support and we’ve received a promising response, but we are also aware there are limited emergency resources and on a global scale there are serious situations in other countries as well such as South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria where there’s famine in some places.”
Parajuli adds that despite the promise of a good harvest next month, the UN agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), would continue to provide food aid so people would not “finish their food too quickly”.
Last year, a devastating drought left up to four million people in need of assistance, according to the WFP, but this season’s heavy rainfall has meant that in some areas crops have been washed away or are waterlogged.
‘I don’t know where to begin’
In Sipepa, a hamlet in Tsholotsho District in the country’s far west, the flooding of the Gwaai River, caused by the downgraded Cyclone Dineo, destroyed crops, livestock and displaced hundreds of people.
Gladys Ngwenya, 70, lost her entire crop, livestock and furniture to the floods. She is currently living in the Sipepa Flood Victims Camp, which was set up by government district administrators with the support of international aid agencies in the grounds of Sipepa Rural Hospital to accommodate up to 900 people. She says she is thankful that she and her two grandchildren were airlifted to safety by the airforce, but she still worries about starting over once the government relocates them to a new area.
“We are given food to eat here, and they [emergency officials] have said they will help us when we leave, but I don’t know how; right now we have nothing. All my chickens and the maize I’d planted were taken by the water and now I don’t even know where to begin,” she says.
Andrew Gabela, the camp co-ordinator, explains that although Tsholotsho is generally a flood-prone district, the authorities were not prepared for the storm.
But the situation is now under control, he says, and the district authorities are making plans to eventually relocate people to a safer, less flood-prone area.
“We were overwhelmed when this happened, we were not ready at all. We hadn’t expected so much damage. But with the help of donors, we’ve started making plans to relocate them,” Gabela says. “But for this period these people will be here until their new homes have been built.
“They will need something to start over, but we’ll cross that bridge later, it’s one among many challenges we’re trying to deal with.”
At the camp, Ngwenya shares a large tent with dozens of other women and children. Although NGOs have been quick in their response, the communal site lacks adequate sanitation facilities, blankets and sanitary supplies for women.
For now, the villagers live in uncertainty about what the future holds. Much like the country itself, they can only hope that they will be able to rebuild their lives after losing so much.
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