A 38-year-old woman, with a crying two-month-old baby strapped on her back, hanged precariously on a tree branch for six hours as she helplessly watched her two-roomed house being swept away by floods after a heavy downpour.
news in depth BY XOLISANI NCUBE
Not far away, another woman watched her one-roomed house falling apart as the rains accompanied by lightning and thunderstorms wreaked havoc.
This, for some, would read like a script from some movie or a fiction novel, but for Nyaradzo Makholiso (38) and Maud Goredema (65) of Nzviyo Village under chief Madyangove in Masvingo’s Chivi area, it’s a tale their grandchildren will have to believe when they narrate in years to come.
It is a story of how they escaped death by the skin of their teeth as heavy rains induced by Cyclone Dineo pounded their village —leaving a trail of destruction.
Rivers burst their banks and dams spilled as people prayed for respite from the torrential rains across the country.
One such river which burst its banks was Musavezi, which for long had been a source of livelihood for Chivi villagers, their livestock and wildlife. It has now turned into a death trap for hundreds of families.
Clad in an orange top, a tattered brown skirt and torn sandals — the only clothes left after floods swept away all her belongings two weeks ago, Makholiso looks at a Mobola plum tree (muchakata in Shona, umkhuna in Ndebele) with tears trickling down her cheeks.
“I owe my life to this tree. God purposefully planted this tree near our homestead for a reason. It is my saviour,”
an emotional Makholiso said as she narrated how she escaped the devastating floods that killed 246 people and left nearly 2 000 homeless since December 2016.
She counts herself lucky to be alive.
“It was around 10pm on a Sunday, February 26 2017, while I was sleeping in my two-roomed house with my two children, Lorraine [two years old] and Makaita [two months old],” Makholiso recounted.
“I was awoken by Lorraine who was sleeping on the floor complaining that the blankets were now soaked in water.
“By then the water levels were rising, threatening to swallow the bed as well.”
In no time, Makholiso said the entire house had been flooded and Lorraine was almost drowning, while outside rains accompanied by thunderstorms, continued incessantly.
That night, the river that has been a source of life transformed into a weapon of destruction.
“I went out of the house and discovered that with the way it was raining, my house would collapse in no time,” she said.
“I prayed carrying my two-month-old baby on my back as she cried uncontrollably.
“I thought of climbing onto the roof, but again, I am a woman, I could not do that given the heavy downpour.”
Makholiso then rushed to her nephew’s house about 100m away. He was also outside scurrying for cover hoping the house would not be swept away by floods.
“We then looked at this tree, [next to the nephew’s house] and I shouted, ‘let us climb, maybe we might survive,” Makholiso recounted.
“By then water levels had reached my waist and Lorraine was almost drowning.”
She turned to face The Standard news crew, smiled and said: “I owe my survival to this tree. Had it not been for this tree, I would be dead. All of us, we would be history.”
Makholiso said for more than six hours she sat precariously on a branch of the Mobola tree with the baby crying on her back while rains continued to pound mercilessly, with water levels rising steadily.
“I thought my child would die, but the Lord is merciful. She cried for hours until she could not cry anymore,” she said with tears trickling down her cheek as she looked at the remains of her house.
“I could not comfort her because at that time saving our lives was more important than attending to her needs, which included milk and comfort. When she eventually stopped crying, I had almost lost hope and wanted to fall down.
“I heard a small voice whispering in my ears, ‘she has fallen asleep, never lose hope.’”
It was only after the downpour stopped at around 6am that water levels started to recede.
From her meagre earnings from the gold panning job at Lennox Mine, and assistance from her brothers, she had managed to acquire a small herd of goats and constructed a modest house.
Her dreams of expanding the investments crumbled in one night while she held on to a tree branch to survive the raging floods.
“By 6am in the morning, our houses had all been destroyed. I lost eight goats, 22 chickens and everything that I had,” she said.
“All what is left are rubbles of what used to be my house. Not even clothes or food. We lost birth records and identification documents for all of us.
“We are now just people — a family holding firm on faith,” Makholiso said while holding her Catholic rosary in her left hand.
Today she lives in a small white tent, 3km from her house. The tent is virtually inhabitable when it is hot. In the tent she only has two blankets and a small bed donated by well-wishers.
Makholiso is not alone in this crisis. Hundreds of other families in Chivi and other parts of the country were left homeless by the heavy rains and now depend on aid for survival.
Due to exposure to the incessant rains, Makholiso’s two-month-old baby fell ill and when The Standard news crew visited the area Lorraine had a cold.
With no source of income, no clothing or decent shelter to call home, Makholiso has to replace crucial identification records starting with her birth certificate, national identity card before she can think of doing the same for her children.
At the moment, however, what she critically needs is urgent medication for the children who are coughing. She said the nearest clinic was 8km away.
From government, Makholiso received a tent, a bag of maize meal, soap and cooking oil — goods she said were not enough to cater for her needs after losing everything to the floods.
Other villagers whose houses were not affected by the floods gave her clothes and blankets to keep her warm in the tents.
“I wish government could do something better than this. I just need assistance to build a house so that I can start afresh and rebuild my life. This is unbearable,” Makholiso said while pointing at the tent.
When it is not raining, Chivi is a very hot area and on the day The Standard team visited the small camp, the tents were inhabitable.
“At night we have mosquitos to deal with; as you can see, this is a bushy area where we are settled.
“While I have no problem in settling here forever, the health of my children is heavily compromised. It’s only by the grace of God that malaria has not yet affected us but my baby is ill due to the rains and the environment,” she said.
Next to her new home are temporal shelters for James Gwatiranga and, 65-year-old Goredema, who are also victims of the disaster.
Like Makholiso, they count themselves lucky to be alive and they also had heartbreaking tales to tell.
Since the calamity, Makholiso said besides the district administrator, no government official or any senior politician had visited them to assess the extent of damage and suffering they were enduring.
“We just hear their voices on radios as if they have been here. We hope the district administrator, who promised to come back, will return and see what we are going through,” she said.
Due to a high number of people affected by floods, government has declared a national disaster, opening doors for assistance from the international community.
Local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere said he was yet to visit the area to assess the level of destruction and the needs of the affected people.
So far, according to Kasukuwere, more than $100 million is required to help people affected by the floods, which washed away homes, several bridges and roads.
“As government, we are alive to the crisis our people are going through after the floods,” he said.
“Yes, I am yet to visit that part of Masvingo but sooner than later, I will definitely visit and assess the situation.”
He said government wanted to mobilise enough resources to assist the affected families rebuild their homes as well as re-start their lives.
“Our budget does not end on relocating them but we are looking at assisting the victims to restart and build good houses,” Kasukuwere said.
Masvingo, Matabeleland North and South have been hardest hit by the floods.