Grit and determination: One day in the race to reach people after Cyclone Idai

When a natural disaster strikes, the days and weeks that follow are key in the race to save lives. Dr Elizabeth Irungu describes a day in the life of the emergency response team as they attempt to reach communities cut off by Cyclone Idai…

On a hot Saturday, on 23rd of March 2019 we set off for an assessment and exploration of Copper Area, Chimanimani, a region which had been made inaccessible by the damage to roads and infrastructure caused by Cyclone Idai.

We were specifically aiming for Ngorima clinic, and were determined to reach our destination and establish the needs of the area, which had been hard hit.

Our feet were steady and our teeth locked with grit and determination to access Ngorima clinic, despite the horrific sight before us

On the way we passed Mafumise high school where we saw a vehicle, a Toyota Noah people carrier that was stuck in the mud. To our right-hand side we saw havoc wrecked by this vicious lady Cyclone Idai; several big trees had fallen and destroyed the school compound’s fence.

We proceeded cautiously, wary of whatever may lie ahead.

A perilous drive

The terrain was tough, alternating between huge boulders and sections that were mud-filled and slippery.

Along one steep curve with an inclined gradient and a lot of mud, our 4x4 vehicle slipped in the mud and perilously veered to the right on the dangerous bend. All of us inside were mute, with a myriad of thoughts racing through our minds, but none had the courage to utter a word.

The river had swollen beyond its banks and swept away the infrastructure. Houses, shops and cars were destroyed.

The driver managed to control the vehicle and carefully maneuver us down the slippery, mud-filled road. When we finally got to the rocky terrain, one of the Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) doctors, Dr Mukumbi inquisitively asked “Eliza are you there?” and the whole team burst out in laughter. It was a good icebreaker after a tense time.

We finally arrived at Copper. The driver parked the vehicle  and we all embarked on foot in the scorching sun.

Soldiering on

Our feet were steady and our teeth locked with grit and determination to access Ngorima clinic despite the horrific sight before us. The landscape was strewn with large boulders everywhere and there was the loud gush of River Nyahode: her banks were swollen from the heavy downpour of Cyclone Idai.

The confluence of the three rivers Nyahode, Rusitu and Chipita was a source of terror to the residents of Copper.  

The river had swollen beyond its banks and swept away the existing infrastructure. Houses, shops and cars were destroyed.


A member of the MSF team crosses the swollen river on the make-shift bridge
Crossing the river

We looked at the terrain in shock, taking in the sight of huge boulders strewn all over. The sense of tragedy and misery was almost palpable in the air.

We soldiered on without relenting, Ngorima clinic was our goal and we intended to reach Canaan (the proverbial Promised Land).

The concrete bridge had been destroyed for the first eighty meters or so and logs had been laid down to create a temporary pathway. The first footbridge was made from huge logs and tiny planks nailed horizontally as the steps. For the first five meters or so the metallic traction wires were only on the left side then later on both sides for the remaining ninety meters.

Slow but sure…

We decided to let the sure-footed residents of Copper proceed first as they were more familiar with this terrain.

We closely observed their movements, noting every safe landing and areas that had become loose. I looked at the roaring river current below and huge boulders and swore to myself I must make it to and fro and remain calm.

Looking at the bridge I felt my stomach knot a thousand times and sweat trickle down my back. This made the skyline walk at Mutaradzi Falls in Nyanga seem like a walk in the park. I braced myself, taking deep breaths to calm my nerves.

The heroic story of a family of six rescued by neighbors made me proud of the humanity of this community

I let Dr Mukumbi in his great wisdom and experience proceed ahead of me as I followed closely behind, slow but sure. My sturdy all-weather hiking boots gave me some slight reassurance that all would be well.

We slowly crossed and finally we made it to dry land. We went on steadily and came across three streams that were tributaries of River Nyahode. I was lucky I could walk through the water in my boots, I was least worried about getting my socks and jeans wet.

We followed the advice of the villagers and finally made it through the murky waters.

When we got to the other settlement we saw the destruction of houses, shops and huge land excavations. In the far distance the terrain was rocky, filled with huge boulders.

We came across a second footbridge roughly seventy meters long and we crossed using the same tactics, slow but sure. 

At the clinic

We maneuvered through the huge boulders and close to Ngorima clinic saw a maroon saloon vehicle that had overturned and was still stuck among the boulders.

At last we got to Ngorima clinic, where we met a pleasant Sister who was in charge.

We were able to do an assessment and establish what the clinic needed as well as the surrounding satellite sites.

We also met other villagers who told us their experiences during the cyclone.

They told us horror stories of an entire family swept away and of some recovered bodies and others missing.

A heroic story of a family of six rescued by neighbors who pulled them via a rope from the rooftop of their house made me proud of the humanity of this community.

A story of two girls who incurred burns and were unable to access the clinic for four days was very sad.

As I entered my bed that night I remembered vividly the day’s events... 

Patients with chronic conditions had run out of medicines and the clinic was running low on stocks.

A woman was reported to have developed eclampsia, a condition that causes seizures in pregnant women. She began having seizures as the team were preparing her referral to hospital. The nurses acted swiftly and administered magnesium sulfate and convulsions stopped. They saved the mother’s life but unfortunately the baby succumbed. This was a huge blow to the mother of three girls who was hoping for a boy this time, as per her husband’s preference.

One epileptic patient had only a few tablets of phenobarbitone remaining and our arrival with anticonvulsants was a huge relief to the sister in charge.


We finished our assessment and hurriedly left as the heavy cumulo-nimbus clouds were threatening to burst.

I walked as quickly as my thin legs could carry me and struggled to catch up with the two fit gentlemen I had embarked on this excursion with.

After crossing the second footbridge the heavy downpour began and we thought it prudent to proceed as we were not sure if the rain would stop.

We finally got to Copper soaking wet but at least we had filled some gaps as per the Ngorima clinic needs.

We set off for the trip back and finally arrived in Chipinge after helpingthree vehicles which had got stuck.

As I entered my bed that night I remembered vividly the day’s events and hoped such a natural disaster would never occur again in this country.

I was also grateful for all the individuals and organizations that all showed an overwhelming response to aid in this crisis.


Top image shows an MSF team walking on foot to access a village cut off by damage caused by Cylone idai in Chimanimani. You can donate to MSF's work in emergencies around the world here.