The Sunday Mail
Garikai Mazara in Chimanimani
A year may mean a lot of things: it can be one long year or one short one.
Yesterday, it was cloudless and full of sunshine in Chimanimani, a sharp contrast to the thunder that rumbled across the country’s eastern-most district this time last year, the smell of death almost in every corner.
Sixty-year-old Doreen Hove, who woke up to the unenviable task of digging up her Grade 6 grandchild from the rubble of her house, could not have summed it better: “We have been telling the same story for the past year and every time someone asks me what it was like, it is painful to be reliving the horror over and over again.
“Maybe because you were not here, because you did not experience what we went through, you might not understand. The scars are still painful and very much with us. The more you keep on asking me, the more the memories, painful memories, keep flashing back.”
Whilst the rest of the country — and the world — was sleeping on March 14 last year, Chimanimani and Chipinge were undergoing a traumatic experience that might take more than a lifetime to forget.
Cyclone Idai, probably the most savage tropical cyclone to hit the Southern Hemisphere, was making its landfall. Whereas the Chimanimani residents have different accounts of what caused the cyclone, from the bizarre one involving a male mermaid looking for its partner, to the supernatural which ties in with traditional healer Ndunge’s death, to the more scientific explanations, they are all united in recounting the “three days in hell”.
“The rains started on Thursday, heavy rains throughout the day and these continued on Friday. We thought at some point the rains would slow down and dissipate,” recounted Lazarus Mauka, a councillor in Zimunda, some 50km away from Ngangu, the epicentre of the cyclone.
Then on Friday night — the accounts vary as to what time the downpour started — some saying it was 8pm, others 9pm or 10pm, but they all agree that it was “like a bucket of cold water was being poured from heaven” for close to two hours.
“And not just a bucket of water, the rain was accompanied by some noise we could not comprehend. It was like several heavy vehicles were driving towards the town and this was accompanied by flashes of lightning. The noise and flashes must have been the stones moving and hitting against each other in the mountains,” remembered Gogo Hove.
But for Mauka, the cyclone still has several unexplained phenomena: “Remember it had been raining Thursday and Friday, two whole days of non-stop rains but when the stones were moving, it was like fresh earth was moving, and dust was all over the place.
“I remember very well seeing dust rising in the mountains, and this was at night. We all woke up to see what was happening, no one could sleep that Friday night.”
As much as the residents are united in saying this was a disaster whose scale they had never anticipated, they are also united that the scars the cyclone left, the emotional scars, might take a lifetime to heal. Or may never heal.
Recounted a social welfare officer: “For five days we were cut off from the outside world and we were on our own. There was no power, no communication and we were inaccessible as the roads had been cut off. We were left to our own whims.
“On the fifth day we decided to bury our dead, we had been holding them in the hope that relatives would come and reclaim the bodies or take them away for decent burials. But then the situation was getting worse, bodies were rotting before us.
“We buried 43 people on the fifth day. We started digging the graves in the morning, the initial plan being to dig the graves first and then bury later but when we noticed that time was against us, we split ourselves into two groups, one digging graves and the other burying.
“We started off with makeshift coffins but then realised that we were going nowhere slowly, then we buried them all the same.”
Though there was an outpouring of support, probably the first time Zimbabweans have been so united in a cause, from providing emergency relief food, clothes, medicine to several other items to lighten the impact of the cyclone, the grief today is still written all over Chimanimani.
Added the social welfare officer: “We have almost every non-governmental organisation that is operating in Zimbabwe present here in Chimanimani at the moment. But there are scars that they will not be able to heal. The trauma was so much, even time will not be able to heal.”
The World Food Programme, one of the first to complement Government efforts to feed the disaster-struck people in the wake of Cyclone Idai, flew in an MI8 helicopter from Uganda to airlift food into Chimanimani.
Timothy Mupfuri, the chairman of Abboratum transit camp which holds 59 households, remembered the food aid deliveries like it was done yesterday.
“The helicopters would fly in with food hanging from its belly and remember the first help we got from the outside was after nine days and people were hungry, really hungry.
“Before even the helicopters landed, people were cutting the food from the bellies and helping themselves. It was chaotic, dog-eat-dog kind of scenario and the elderly, children and disabled were the most disadvantaged. But as the days progressed, as more food came in, the situation normalised. Order was finally restored.”