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Claire Mawisa’s Beira Diary

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31 March 2019
The poorest of the poor lost the very little that they had in the violent winds and rain of Idai. Many did not have an answer to my question of what their next move would be. The situation felt hopeless. 
Moz 3

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Claire Mawisa (@clairemawisa) is a South African television presenter, model and radio personality best known for being an SABC1 continuity presenter (1999-2001), as well as for co-hosting the SABC1 music variety show One, from 2002-2003. After many years working in radio and television, and opening her own business, Claire joined the Carte Blanche team in 2015.


Claire Mawisa recently visited the city of Beira in Mozambique to witness the absolute devastation brought by Cyclone Idai earlier in March. With about 90% of the city having been destroyed, government and NGOs are working tirelessly to locate and provide for survivors, and prevent further disaster as more flooding and cholera outbreaks threaten the city.

 

Wednesday 20 March 2019 – Day 6 after Cyclone Idai

At 10AM I got a call from Nombuso, the Carte Blanche production co-ordinator. It was a short, yet very surprising chat. Usually she calls to check my availability to go on a shoot and this time, she asked whether I was available to go to Mozambique… TOMORROW! Immediate brain freeze. The words, “uhm…yeah.. okay?” came out my mouth and before I could gather my thoughts and ask a question, Nombuso had already disappeared from the other side of the line.

All I knew was that Cyclone Idai had hit the east coast of southern Africa 6 days prior, and that I would be part of the team going to cover the aftermath in Beira. I could suddenly feel my heart beating in my chest, and immediately sent a friend a WhatsApp message saying that I was going to Mozambique the next day. They asked how I felt about it, and I told them the truth: I was anxious.

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Thursday 21 March 2019 – Day 7 After Cyclone Idai

It would only be a two-woman team travelling to Beira; myself and Carte Blanche producer Stenette Grosskopf. Flights were confirmed for the afternoon but, since all telecoms were still down in Beira, we could not book any accommodation. So, we packed sleeping bags in the event that we would have to camp out at the airport. We had heard from contacts already in Mozambique that most international rescue organisations and media were staying at the airport since it was the only place that had Wi-Fi.

We landed at dusk and were immediately hit by the unbearable heat and humidity. The airport was packed with people, it was dark and extremely chaotic. Anxiety was immediately replaced by adrenalin. Stenette and I decided we would try our luck with finding accommodation in town and, if we couldn’t find a hotel that was open, we would return to sleep at the airport. We both don’t speak any Portuguese, so we really hit the jackpot when, by chance, we were ushered into a cab that had an English-speaking cab driver who had a calming, gentle energy about him. Antonio was his name, and he said he would take us to the hotels that he knew were still operating since most had closed due to too much damage they sustained during the cyclone. On arrival at Hotel VIP in Beira town, the gentlemen at front desk were reluctant to give us a room since they didn’t have water and were running off a generator for only a few hours a day.  After convincing them that we didn’t need water or electricity, they made a concession and gave us a room. Before saying goodbye to Antonio, we arranged and agreed that he would be our driver and interpreter for the duration of our stay in Beira.

As we settled in our room, Stenette and I felt a rush of accomplishment and couldn’t resist giving each other a high five before ‘lights out’.

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Friday 22 March 2019 – Day 8 After Cyclone Idai

Antonio met us at 7am sharp and our first stop was to visit the schools in the area that had become shelters for those who had lost their homes during the storm. At the first school we were told that approximately 250 indigent locals had found shelter there, but most had already left for the day to look for water and food. Mothers were washing their toddlers and others were either cleaning or cooking food that had been dropped off by local aid organisations. It struck me that there seemed to be some order that had been established, and that just after a few days, they had already found their rhythm at this temporary accommodation.

It was a completely different story at the second school we went to. Outside, there was a long and noisy group made up of mostly women, impatiently queuing with their containers to collect as much water as their arms could carry from a water tank placed there by local government. Once inside, there was a hive of activity; toddlers crying while others played, young women sweeping water out of rooms and passageways, some were washing clothes in buckets, the older women were cooking over open fires inside the building and men were moving and stacking desks and other school furniture. In all of this commotion, I would regularly spot different individuals, sitting alone, with blank expressions on their face, staring into the distance, as if wondering how it had it all come to this.

It was 9AM, and even though it had been raining intermittently, the stifling heat caused rivers of sweat to run down my back and the oppressive humidity made the air thick.

Antonio, our faithful driver and translator, was visibly touched by the stories he was hearing and interpreting for us. Even though he experienced Idai first-hand, he shared that he was grateful that he had not suffered as much as the people we were coming across. He was one of the very lucky few. 

Antonio took us to an informal settlement near the beach called Praia Nova. Brick structures and homes built from concrete blocks were razed to the ground. Water had not subsided yet from the walkways between the houses and shacks because it had rained every single day after Idai. The poorest of the poor lost the very little that they had in the violent winds and rain of Idai. Many did not have an answer to my question of what their next move would be. The situation felt hopeless. 

We decided to visit tourist spots and see how businesses in those areas had been affected. The many trendy beachfront restaurants had been obliterated. Being exposed on the beach, they faced the full thrust of the cyclone so it was not only the wind and rain that they didn’t have protection from, it was ocean as well. Entire roofs were missing off of hotels, schools, the university and many factories in the industrial area. The more we explored, the more destruction we saw.

I know the job we were tasked with for Carte Blanche was to assess the situation on the ground and find out how the relief effort was going. We had to document what we saw and get the first-hand account from those that experienced Cyclone Idai. But there was no way we could do that without it deeply affecting us, and having the subsequent reflections on what we had experienced. At the end of the day I was depleted, and so was Stenette. We weren’t just physically exhausted from having to be out and about in the sweltering heat, but we were emotionally drained, too. I think I was swinging between being numb to it all to the complete opposite, feeling intense hopelessness.

I remember sitting at the bar of the hotel and thinking to myself that the staff were coming in to work daily, and they had the responsibility of creating this façade of normality for us guests, while their own lives had completely fallen apart. I felt guilty and a bit ashamed for needing their assistance with anything. Their hospitality was incredible, their smiles genuine and they were grateful for our patience and understanding of any inconvenience caused. Was it helping them to come to work and escape their lives for a few hours? Did they judge us for having a temporary involved and superficial experience of their lives post-Idai? What was Antonio’s life like after he dropped us off at the end of the day? 

I thought of my family and friends back home. I thought of my home and my life. My gratitude prayer was very long tonight.

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Saturday 23 March 2019 – Day 9 After Cyclone Idai

Even though it was only our third day in Beira, it felt like we had been there for so much longer than that. Antonio had us off to the airport by 7am. The airport was as busy as we had found it when we had landed. We didn’t have enough words to express our gratitude to Antonio, who had become the third, yet most crucial member of our crew. We wished him well, and said our goodbyes.

As we walked through the airport doors, WhatsApp messages from friends and family came through in a flurry, all asking about our wellbeing. It was a relief to finally be reconnected to the internet. Most people hurriedly walking around were in a uniform representing which international rescue organisation they were from. The ones I recognised were UNICEF, Vodacom, the Kenyan Army, The Red Cross, SANDF, The Portuguese Army and Gift of the Givers. There were so many more that I saw, but was just not familiar with. We had a chat with the Gift of the Givers team, and they gave us a clearer picture of how bad the situation was outside of Beira. It was exponentially so much worse than what Stenette and I had experienced. The head of operations from Gift of the Givers explained that the relief effort in Mozambique would take years to get the Sofala province, the worst affected area, back on its feet.

It filled my heart with pride to see so many South African volunteers working so hard to be of service to others. Just thinking about it now gets me emotional. You and I have no idea what types of dangerous situations these individuals put themselves in to help, rescue, feed and restore some dignity to those who need it most. I am in awe of the work Gift of the Givers does.

While waiting to board our return flight to Joburg, Stenette and I spoke about the fact that one could never really capture the essence of a disaster like this in a video, or in a picture. It was layer upon layer of despair that would not accurately translate to a viewer at home. Even though we knew we had tried our best to tell the story of the people in the aftermath of Idai, we hoped that, if we could make our viewers feel a fraction of how we were feeling, then we would’ve done a good job.

We landed at OR Tambo in the afternoon. I returned home to loadshedding. I dropped my bags, kicked off my muddied shoes and sat in my lounge with Beira sweat still on me. I sat in silence for hours and, as darkness descended, tears welled up as I wondered about what would happen to the people we had met and how their stories would end and would the world still care about them next month?