SAR, Vol 15 No 3, May 2000
BY BILL BUTT
Bill Butt, who works for the United Church of Canada division of World Outreach, is communication consultant to the Christian Council of Mozambique and is based in Maputo.
In the wake of Mozambique's economic collapse caused by the decade-long South African sponsored economic and military destabilization project, Mozambicans made painstaking efforts over the last few years to rebuild a devastated country. Recovery was seriously set back, however, by floods that assaulted the country earlier in February. There was extensive and sensationalized media coverage around the globe focusing on the assistance that had been provided by military forces - including South Africa's - and foreign development agencies. And while this assistance was appreciated, there was little coverage by the western media of the many ways Mozambicans helped each other, even when they had very little to offer except for courage and resilience.
The floods affected more than three million people, of whom one million were evacuated from their homes and are now homeless as their property was damaged or destroyed. By mid-April, several hundred people were already confirmed dead and bodies were being discovered daily as the waters slowly receded from river basins in the south and centre of the country. Due to a lack of communications technology and an adult illiteracy rate of 60% - higher in the rural areas - most Mozambicans did not have timely warning of the water's approach and many had no time to flee. Even emergency relief personnel lacked the resources to adequately assess the situation in affected flood zones, a handicap that increased the loss of life.
A million livestock perished with many more at risk for flood-borne diseases and malnutrition. The floods covered 100,000 hectares of Mozambique's best farmland, destroying crops and in many cases contaminating or eroding soil. About 150,000 families lost their crops, meaning that for these subsistence farmers there is no means of survival until the next harvest in February 2001.
In Maputo, the floods created canyons several kilometres long and as deep as 20 metres. The water eroded a number of streets in the city, and many important highways including the Estrada Nacional 1, the main north-south spine of Mozambique. This major artery is used by hundreds of trucks each day to distribute goods around the country. The devastation of the floods was more pronounced due to the country's poor infrastructure, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism, the costs of the liberation war and the destabilization campaign, Frelimo's own failed economic experiments of the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of the structural adjustment program imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. It is estimated that recovery could take as long as 15 years.
The extensive western media attention lavished on Mozambique was not due to the scale of the floods. Many other countries such as China and Bangladesh have suffered worse floods in the past with significantly less media interest. What the Mozambican floods offered for western consumption were sensational TV-ready images and the opportunity for westerners to reassert their perceived benign role as the saviours of passive Africans in desperate need of assistance. And since Mozambique is of political and economic interest to South Africa, it is of interest to the West.
Even in the infamous case of the woman giving birth in a tree - images shown repeatedly in the western world - the stress was less on the mother's courage and competence than on the drama, suspense, novelty, and tabloid-level grotesqueness of the circumstances. The coverage was dehumanizing. The woman's name is Sofia Chivuri. Her calm and resourceful mother-in-law, who was in the tree with her, helped in the delivery. The baby's name is Rosita. Her father Salvador Josine had gone to Maputo looking for a job, and Sofia had made her way to Maputo with their three children to be with him as he found work on the docks. Sofia and Rosita met Mozambique's President Chissano, a fund was set up to provide for Rosita's education, and she has become a hopeful symbol for Mozambique - coming by way of disaster and on to a better future. This information was hardly noted in the international press.
Once the novelty of helicopter rescues had worn-off, the western journalist left. The story was "over," and as a media event, the floods no longer existed. This highly selective media coverage led to the erroneous perception - even by Mozambicans themselves - that Mozambicans lacked the initiative to help themselves. Yet what viewers and readers did not see was the dignity, co-operative spirit, bravery and persistence of Mozambicans battling against the flood conditions. Their strength and ingenuity that was needed to survive for days in those famous treetops could not be captured on film. Nor could journalists capture the cooperation necessary to contrive a bit of privacy when, for example, individuals had to defecate. Cameramen were not interested in the women who had to tie children and other weaker ones to branches to keep them from falling into the waters while they slept. They did not go to the emergency shelters to film the patience and the discipline with which the evacuees organized themselves, queued for food, water and toilets, cooked and kept clean their individual spaces. In short, the stories of how people managed with what they had were stories that never made it to the top of the news hour.
Had journalists gone to communities far from the flooded regions, they might have recorded scenes of Methodist and other churches gathering sacks of food and clothing that were distributed by volunteers from the congregations who knew their neighbour's needs.
In the bairros around Maputo, Presbyterian churches organized teams to go door to door, wading through the floodwaters to find those unable or afraid to leave their homes for the central emergency shelters. The churches organized food, dry clothes, personal prayer, and frequent visits for those who wished to stay home.
Rotaract, the youth group of Maputo Rotary Club turned up in the nearly inaccessible bairro of Liberdade in a Coca-Cola delivery truck they had wheedled from a local business. The youth group brought donated supplies and comfort and joined neighbours working together to repair collapsed fences and house walls.
In the Anglican parish of St. Mary Ketwene near the village of Salamanga in Matutuine district, pastor Alberto Daniel and his small congregation helped list the families in need. They turned out with machetes to hack down trees to widen the road for relief-supply trucks, and spread the word so that all the essential supplies could be gathered, ready and waiting for the trucks that arrived on the newly constructed road.
Lichinga, the capital of Niassa Province is several days drive from the affected region. In this northern city, congregations took up weekly collections for the Christian Council to distribute to people affected by the floods.
Wealthier Mozambicans lent power launches, tools, vans, diesel pumps, warehouse space, or whatever they could offer in their own communities.
Others rescued people stranded by the floods. Titasi Josine is a 70 year old widow who lives in Chokwe. Here is her story in her own words. "Water was covering all my body. I spent three days standing on a table. I then decided to face the monster and save my life by getting off the table and walking across the waters to safety. No one was available to help. As I was going out of the house, a man arrived and said that he would take me to some safe place. When I asked of his name, the man refused to let me know of his name saying that it was not important at that time. The man left me once we arrived on dry land and said that I had to continue because he had to go back in search of other people." (This case was supplied courtesy of Nicodemus Chipfuma, Help Aged International.)
What was not shown on television screens or written about in newspapers was Mozambique's greatest strength in confronting this natural disaster: human resilience, courage and generosity; the real stuff of human drama and struggle.
Reporters frequently point out, in their own defense, that if it were not for their cameras, many individuals and organizations in the western world would not donate so much to causes such as Mozambican flood relief. However, the distortion of imagery in the direction of what makes good TV and the shortness of the media's attention span have created a challenge for Mozambicans for they need constructive long-term international partnerships directed to the arduous, expensive and unglamorous task of recovering from the floods. Mozambique needs structural changes that would make the next floods less destructive. Of course the cycle of debt peonage, which forces Mozambique to repay a $5.84 billion debt while two-thirds of the population lives in absolute poverty, leaves little left over for rebuilding Mozambique. The Jubilee coalition in Mozambique has called for this debt to be cancelled, and this call is supported by the Jubilee coalitions around the world including the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative. If only this issue were to get as much media attention.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.