Tales from Begaja - a year after Cyclone Idai
Survivors recount their losses after the 2019 flood that followed Cyclone Idai and inspire with stories of new beginnings, one year later
A PORTRAIT OF BEIRA
THE PLACE WITH NO NAME
After the cyclone, rumours of flooding had come to light. Hoping they were sufficiently elevated and far enough away from the river to escape potential flooding, residents went to sleep that night in that location for the last time.
When the banks of the Buzi river broke, Begaja was wiped out, and survivors resettled downstream, 2.5km away. Their new settlement was on the edge of the floodplains, roughly 3km from the banks of the Buzi river that rose by 10m. These two satellite images compared side by side, show clearly not only the extent of the damage and clear devastation of the village, but also just how the far removed the village is now from its original location.
The floods left an indelible mark in the minds of the people who experienced it. It also left physical wounds to the environment. These serve as a painful reminder of the trauma and human loss of the flood.
The village has a population of 1,634. Its oldest resident Sambapi Seana was born in 1902, making her 118 years old. She survived the flood by being helped into a tree.
"I was born in another area called Nhangara. I started to live here when I married my late husband. I don't remember when, but it was a long time before the civil war that lasted 16 years,” Seana recounts.
She survived the civil war, which took place between 1977 and 1992, and had raised her only child while facing severe drought conditions.
“The stories I can tell ...but I've never seen rain and floods like the ones I saw last year. I lost almost everything due to the cyclone and floods,” she says.
Seana has taken up residence in a house on the outskirts of Begaja where she spends her days in the shade of a nearby tree removing the pulp and seeds from cucumbers which she grinds into a flour by hand.
Day-to-day life has become a struggle as she survives by community bonds and the goodwill of her neighbours. Any form of aid needs to be delivered on foot, which is more than a kilometre inland from the new settlement, and water is carried in daily.
She describes the flooding as the worst experience of her 118 years on earth.
A MOTHER'S STORY: FATIMA BERNARDO
Fatima Bernardo’s voice cracks with emotion as she recounts the loss she suffered one year ago during the flood.
Like many other villagers, she gathered her family and climbed a tree but watched helplessly as members of her family fell one by one into the floodwater below. Six of her family members died on March 16 2019, two of them her daughter and son. She watched them float away.
Six people from my family fell in my sight, it will be very difficult to forget what happened that dayFatima Bernardo
VOICES OF BEGAJA
THE UNEXPECTED HERO
Joaquim Filipe José’s interest in the English language was sparked as a child when he mistakenly learnt the word “standby”, which he translated by using the handbook of a friend's TV remote. He took quickly to learning English, as he saw it as a marketable skill in rural Mozambique.
After finishing school he needed to find work and had enlisted to join the Mozambican army, but was given the opportunity to do coursework to become an English teacher instead. After qualifying, José began his career teaching English in a town near Begaja where he resides.
During the flood he climbed into a tree holding his two children in his arms. He was perched in the tree with his wife and 27 others for 72 hours.
“To be surrounded completely by water, while not being able to drink or eat anything for three days. You cannot imagine the sad situation we experienced,” he says.
As floodwater subsided, Jose didn't go on to “standby”. Hearing rumours of a nearby rescue team, he rode his bicycle along a 10km path of mud and water to Estaquinha.
Once there he was able to communicate with rescue teams, arrange aid, and take his first helicopter flight to highlight the location of Begaja. Without his intervention, rescue and aid teams wouldn't have responded immediately because they were unaware of the village's existence.
He stationed himself in Estaquinha where he worked as a translator and fixer for aid workers. He was able to put aside his own trauma and get to work assisting his community with pride. He had developed social tools and language skills with very little resources as a child, which was a huge benefit to his community during the disaster.
BLIND MAN'S TERROR
Mateus Chapinduca Massora has been blind since birth. The sounds of fellow villagers screaming and the rush of water were his first indications that his life was in peril. His two wives had led him and their children to a tree where he could hear the sounds of the deadly floodwater.
“I climbed the tree with the help of my wives and they tied me up so I wouldn't fall. We did not survive because maybe we were smart, but in the grace of God,” Massora recounts.
Having been accustomed to the layout of his destroyed home village, a year later in an unfamiliar place, a trip to the bathroom requires his son's assistance.
MAPPING THE DEAD
When people came down from trees they began the arduous task of putting the pieces back together. There was widespread devastation and all of the area's sparse government infrastructure was levelled.
In the days that followed the floods huge bodies of water still occupied the countryside. Hundreds of Mozambicans had drowned and many more were displaced and unable to receive aid or help from neighbours. Those who remained were stranded on temporary islands, surrounded by receding floodwater.
As decay set in, the need to bury the dead became imperative.
In a 5km radius the bodies of 10 people lay in nine grave sites. The youngest, a three-year-old girl, was buried with her mother, who was in her mid-30s.
Some of the sites are rarely visited as they are in inaccessible places, out of the designated cemetery, buried due to necessity.
Begaja is one of four villages which exist in 10km intervals down the dirt road from Estaquinha, the closest and only mapped village in the area.
Stories from Begaja, reflect similar stories from hundreds of nameless villages on unmarked roads in rural parts of Mozambique, Malawi, Madagascar and Zimbabwe.
These are stories of loss, grief and the painful resumption of life.
Their voices are just a fraction of the two million people affected by Cyclone Idai.
Words: Emile Bosch and Alaister Russell
Videos and drone footage: Emile Bosch
Still photography: Alaister Russell
Group video editor: Reinart Toerien
Head of multimedia; maps creation: Scott Peter Smith