Far to the North of us, a tragedy is unfolding which beggars description, devastating the lives of thousands, if not millions of people in three of our neighbouring countries, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

William Chiwara has turned his Natural Health Coffee Shop in Kleinmond into a drop-off point for donations which he will be taking to cyclone victims in Manicaland Province, Zimbabwe. PHOTO: Altus Tolken

It is doubtful if most South Africans are fully aware of the extent of the destruction which Cyclone Idai has wrought in these countries and how long it is going to take them to get back on their feet again. Yet there are many people living in our midst for whom the tragedy is personal and immediate.

Last year, when Hermanus resident Elvia Bury celebrated her 90th birthday, one of her special guests was a remarkable young man called Zeddy Chikukwa from a village in the Chimanimani highlands of Eastern Zimbabwe, close to the Mozambique border. At a gathering at the Volmoed Retreat Centre, Zeddy described to a group of invited guests and students how his community had brought about a complete transformation to their badly degraded environment.

In an article in The Village NEWS of 19 – 25 June 2018, we wrote: In the beautiful Chimanimani Mountains in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe lies the remote village community of Chikukwa. Their fat cattle graze in the long grass, indigenous shade and fruit trees flourish and each homestead has its own vegetable garden, watered by perennial streams from the mountains. It is clearly a thriving community, at peace with itself and the world.

We went on to describe how this transformation had been achieved through permaculture, and by dint of faith and hard work over a period of about 20 years. By following the permaculture farming model to eradicate rural African poverty, Zeddy, his grandfather, who was the village chief, and other community members started a permaculture school where neighbour taught neighbour how to grow vegetables on a patch of land no bigger than a door. They collected the seeds of indigenous shade and fruit trees and started a tree nursery, planting new trees on the mountain slopes, and in the village itself, mangoes, peaches, avocados, paw paws. Because of their isolation from medical centres, they also grew herbs, making teas and infusions which helped to heal a variety of ailments.

Zeddy Chikukwa sent us these photos of the devastation that Cyclone Idai wrought on his Chimanimani village.

Now, in the blink of an eye, this has all gone, swallowed up by the raging waters that have swept across Manicaland Province. In an email from Zeddy received this past weekend, he reassures us that he is physically healthy, but he says his “mind is blown out”. He describes the horror of the situation: “About 80 hectares of irrigable land has been washed away, leaving only rocks on the fields. This makes it impossible for crop rotation to happen, to grow maize, yams, sweet potatoes, peas and beans.  All this is gone. Massive amounts of rich top soils have been washed away. Nutrition gardens have been destroyed. The result is poor diet and pressure on resources. We also lost some livestock; bridges were destroyed and we are still cut off from the rest of the world – no power, no road connection.

“Aid agencies and rescuers came once with a helicopter. Only 348 out of 1 121 people were assisted during that one visit and we are wondering how we are going to survive in the months ahead.” Although he points out that there were more deaths and casualties in other villages in the region, the impact on many families has been severe.

“A family of five was swallowed by a landslide – both parents and three children perished. The only survivor of this family was at school in another district. We have 65 homeless households and we are looking after them in the permaculture centre, where we are feeding them and checking their health once a week.  There are 101 more who are living in cracked houses, putting their lives at risk, and 161 toilets have been destroyed. Seven of the most badly-affected families will have to be relocated; they will not be able to rebuild their houses where they were living.”

He adds that they are threatened with health problems like malaria, cholera, typhoid, pneumonia and malnutrition, but as he has had training in homeopathy, he has been able to deal with the situation up to now, both from a preventive and curative point of view. He expresses his gratitude to the Mission School of Medicine for the training he received, which is enabling him to be useful in a time like this.

Another local resident who has been deeply affected by what has been happening in his home country, is Kleinmond coffee shop owner, William Chiwara, originally from Mutare. Ever since Idai struck Manicaland, he has followed events there with growing distress and then outrage. Not only has he been shattered by the individual tragedies he has heard and seen described on social media and the radio, but also the corrupt way politicians and members of the government forces are handling the crisis.

“People have been sending aid from all over the world,” he says, “but it hasn’t been reaching the people it was intended for. They have survived the cyclone, only to be threatened with death from hunger, disease, septic wounds and exploitation by the authorities. Soldiers are told to distribute the aid, but they will only give it to members of the governing party, or else they demand sexual favours from the women, before allowing them to have food for their children. Starving, injured people have to walk kilometres to access assistance and this is what they’re faced with when they get there! I sit here and listen to these terrible stories and I just cry.”  

William decided to take matters into his own hands and, placing a video on his facebook page which was seen by over 3 000 viewers, he called for help. Almost immediately, donations started to stream in, mainly in the form of clothing, linen and tinned foods. He is now planning to take it up to Zimbabwe himself by bus and trailer, paying for the trip himself to the sum of between R7 000 and R10 000. When he reaches Mutare, he and his brother will travel across the region, by ox-cart where necessary when roads are otherwise impassable. They will visit outlying villages in Chimanimani, Chipinge, Mutambara and other flood-hit districts. “I know I won’t be able to help everybody,” he sighs, “but I will make sure that the right people receive the support and half a teaspoon is better than none.”

Anybody who is able to send contributions in cash or in kind to this disaster-struck region of Zimbabwe – clothes, household goods, bandages, toiletries, tinned foods, antiseptics, pain killers, tools, anything that will help them survive and start over again, can contact either Elvia Bury on eabury@hermanus.co.za or William Chiwara on 078 492 5175 or ndichilhwa@gmail.com, or drop goods off at the Natural Health Coffee Shop at 28 Main Road, Kleinmond.

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