"The clock is ticking": The race to save lives after Cyclone Idai (Part 1)

Dr Marthe Frieden was in Manicaland, Zimbabwe, working on an MSF diabetes project when Cyclone Idai hit, causing devastating flooding and deadly landslides. As the team work to reach as many people as possible, she shares the first instalment of her diary...

An MSF team walk on foot to access a village cut off by damage caused by Cylone idai in Chimanimani.

Nyamavhuvhu - the month of wind. That’s what the month of August – the windiest month before the first rains – has long been called in Shona, one of the local languages here in Zimbabwe. 

Mhepo iri kuvhuvhuta! – “The wind is blowing!”

Yet this year, winds of more than 200 kilometres an hour swept down from the mountains on the night of 15 March. After a long dry period, the winds heralded the arrival of an immense cyclone, which dumped kilo-tonnes of water on Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province.

Until that night, our project in Chipinge had, mbichana mbichana (slowly, slowly) been developing a medical model for treating patients who arrived in clinics with multiple diseases, building bridges between infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis (TB) and non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, asthma and epilepsy. 

Entire families and homes disappeared under the seething mud and rock

Our biggest headache was the economic strife in Zimbabwe and the related issue of unreliable supplies of unaffordable medications. We were progressing at a quiet pace, occasionally interrupted by an outbreak of malaria, or diarrheal disease.

Then Idai arrived, knocking down trees and turning placid streams into wild torrents. 

Bridges and essential roads crumbled before it, as did houses and animal shelters.  

Landslides began raging down the mountains, lifting up rocks and rushing them downhill – “like a roaring trucks with no brakes”, in the words of one Chimanimani resident. Entire families and homes disappeared under the seething mud and rock, and when the earth stopped moving what was left was a mass grave.    

Day 1 (Saturday 16 March):

I attended an urgent meeting called by a civic body, at which a sense of desperation and helplessness grows as the extent of the damage became clear, along with the realization that the devastated areas are now cut off from the world.

We know that we have to work in emergency mode now, and our leadership style goes from participative to direct instruction. We swap our casual football T-shirts for official MSF T-shirts, cut short the traditional flow of salutations and get straight to the point. 

Day 2 (Sunday 17 March):

The MSF team leaves Mutare with the aim of dropping off medical supplies at Mutambara hospital in Chimanimani District.

After a day of muddling through a labyrinth of collapsed bridges and roads blocked by land and rockslides, we realize that neither the two roads nor the secondary dirt roads into the district are accessible. The district is completely cut off. So we start considering how to change our approach. 

Day 3 (Monday 18 March):

Contact is established with the Zimbabwean army and permission is given to erect three tents as part of a stabilisation centre for survivors at a strategic point overlooking the affected area in Chimanimani, now known as ‘Skyline’. A request is made to the army to help deliver much-needed supplies to cut-off hospitals.

Members of the local community gather in groups to discuss strategies to save lives of friends and family members trapped in the Chimanimani valley. They express frustration at the pace of relief efforts.

Meanwhile, the rains continue to pour down and mist turns into fog, keeping the helicopters grounded. Dozens of deaths have already been reported, and missing persons reports are flooding in.

The clock is ticking.


Read part two of Marthe's diary here.