Fieldset
Flowers in dark water: Recovering from Cyclone Idai

MSF medical coordinator Ana reflects on the stories of those who survived Cyclone Idai, and on the memories of those who were lost

Nothing symbolises the destruction caused by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique more than the trees. Fallen, broken, leafless, they are vivid testimony to the fast winds and water that made even mighty century-old plants topple to the ground lifeless.

During the flooding, trees were also unexpected life-rafts.

And people in both rural and urban areas took refuge in their branches as the waters rose beyond their roofs, waiting for a rescue that sometimes never came.

After swimming desperately in newly formed rivers where once there were homes and farms, people told me in disappointment that survival was not linked to one’s goodness or courage, but rather to the cruel randomness of the tree branch one managed to hold onto.

A life buried by the rain

Looking past the trees, smaller details tell other stories.

Someone crouches down to unearth something essential that is invisible to my eyes: tired hands dig out family portraits, a T-shirt, someone’s favourite mirror. Memories of a life buried by the rain.

The stagnant, flooded pond near Lamego is witness to the mothers who used to reprimand their children for skipping school to swim in the river. The mothers who, in the end, drowned, as their small sons and daughters – made excellent swimmers by practice – managed to reach safety, but were too tiny to save their parents.

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Maria Pedro, who survived Cyclone Idai, standing in what’s left of her house
Maria Pedro, who survived Cyclone Idai, standing in what’s left of her house

In the sea of mud that some of the rural areas became, I am confused by the numbers of people walking around in circles looking down at the ground. It becomes clear as someone crouches down to unearth something essential that is invisible to my eyes: tired hands dig out family portraits, a T-shirt, someone’s favourite mirror. Memories of a life buried by the rain.

Solemn dignity

Walking on the road to Nhampoca health centre, I am stopped by two elderly men:

“Can the doctor come and see something with us?”

I take my medical supplies out of my backpack, ready to see a patient in need, but as I reach the river bed I am surprised by the solemnity of a group of men gathered in a circle around someone, or something, blocking my view.

The community health worker touches my arm softly and says that there is no longer a mother.

As I gently push them aside, I see in the mud individual details that tell the story: a woman’s once-colourful dress, now brownish and dull; her limp hands discoloured by the swamp water.

“I am too late. We are too late. I am sorry, I can’t help,” I blurt out.

They nod in silence. They just wanted her to have the dignity of being seen. I say I will tell people about this, even if I don’t know what I mean by that. I will tell others.

Vulnerable to malaria

People make a line for the MSF mobile clinic in the small, rural village of Nhatiquiriqui.

As the community health worker brings patients to our small medical area – we sit on empty rice bags as no one has chairs anymore – patient after patient is diagnosed with malaria. More than half of them are children under the age of five.

[ Read next: Grit and determination - The race to reach survivors after Cyclone Idai ]

The floods destroyed homes but also took away people’s belongings – mosquito nets and clothes – making them even more vulnerable to the mosquitoes that now breed freely in the newly formed lakes of floodwater.

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An MSF nurse talks to patients at an MSF mobile clinic following the cyclone
An MSF nurse talks to patients at an MSF mobile clinic following the cyclone

One girl, looking much older than her nine years, sits next to me with her two younger brothers. All have malaria, so I ask for her mother, to explain to her the treatment and preventive measures.

The community health worker touches my arm softly and says that there is no longer a mother.

“There are more like this,” he says.

The village will take time to recover.

Salvation

The emergency phase may be finished but as the waters begin to recede. But the trees continue to tell stories.

“That’s where I held on for four days,” says one elderly man in Nhampoca.

“This tree saved my family’s lives.”

Big aquatic plants are beginning to grow. And, for the first time in the dark water, I see flowers.

For Chipendo, a nurse in the local health centre, salvation came not from a fancy helicopter operation, but from the courage of local fishermen who used a tree trunk as an improvised canoe and came to his rescue, risking their own lives in the strong currents. He had spent two days without food, holding onto a branch.

He asked not to be taken home, but directly to the health centre – there was work to be done and patients to be seen.

In the dark water

In the end, it was the land and its people that suffered, lost, comforted and rebuilt.

As the crops begin to sprout shyly from the ground again in Nhampoca, I think of all the stories of courage, strength, resilience and selflessness that I have heard from those who survived the cyclone. But, also of the memory of those who were lost while fighting for their lives.

At this vulnerable and fragile moment of recovery, as Mozambicans begin to piece together lives, families, houses, I walk along a dirt road coming back from the health centre and take one last look at the stagnant floodwater.

Big aquatic plants are beginning to grow. And, for the first time in the dark water, I see flowers.

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