The rainy season has been very late in coming to Baraka; the national staff told us to expect the start around September to October, but other than a brief shower every couple of weeks, there was nothing.
That was until a couple of weeks into January. The rains started in earnest, with frequent thunderstorms, and significant rain almost every day. It brought some relief from the heat, especially at night.
One Wednesday we saw particularly heavy rainfall.
I was in the hospital pharmacy when it started. Within an hour water started pouring into the pharmacy and the newly opened neonatology ward next door as the drainage channels filled up and overflowed.
The pharmacy staff took off their shoes and socks and went outside to assess the danger. The area outside the pharmacy was completely flooded, water was pouring under and around the metal gates of the hospital compound.
They called for cleaners to help – some arrived and tried to clear the drainage channels which had become blocked – but the speed with which water was both falling and gushing in from outside the hospital compound made the attempts futile.
Within minutes, the pharmacy was ankle deep in dirty, silty water, and still it flowed. Help came from the logistical team, joined by many of the medical team, and national staff.
Dr Thierry, an HIV doctor, wielding a bucket
They piled up sand and filled up sandbags, protecting the entrances of the pharmacy and neonatology. Once safe from further water entry, they were able to start bailing out the water, before the levels rose high enough to damage the pharmacy fridge (used for vaccines and temperature sensitive medicines) or medical items.
Luckily, it is standard practice to keep everything raised off the floor, on pallets, in order to protect from damp. Water levels rose close to the top of the pallets. Without the sand and bailing, the damage to the pharmacy could have been considerable.
Outside the hospital it was mayhem, with water gushing down from the mountains to the lake. The road was a raging torrent, we had to stop the car on the way back to the base for about half an hour to wait for the rain to ease and the water level to drop. We watched people trying to cross what is usually a road, the water came up above their waists, and most were knocked off their feet by the current.
When the kids came out of the school opposite, our driver shouted at them not to try crossing, they would have been swept away.
The roads between mountains and lake had all become rivers, while the roads running parallel to the lake were relatively unscathed. The hospital problem became apparent – it lies in between the mountains and the lake, in the way of all the water draining from the mountains and the upper reaches of Baraka.
Back at the hospital, the logisticians had to break the lock on the metal gates to the football stadium next door, which were acting as a dam and stopping the water from flowing away to the lake, diverting it instead into the hospital compound. Once that was done, the gates opened allowing free drainage, then the rain stopped, and the situation eased.
According to the national staff, this intensity of rain happens only once or twice a year. The consequences may well get worse as trees are cleared from the mountains in order to plant manioc. The draining water brings down the topsoil, rivers draining into Lake Tanganyika are already showing signs of silting up.
We learned later that over 60 houses and many latrines in Baraka town were destroyed in the flooding.
We were lucky that the pharmacy and Neonatology only needed a good clean up to get rid of the dirty black sediment left behind and no other damage was sustained.