Dateline ACT Mozambique 9/00: Keeping their heads above water

By Elaine Eliah
Chokwe, Mozambique, March 14, 2000

"I managed to wake up only because I had a guard," remembers Celso Mavunja. "The guard knocked on the window. I took him and we ran."

Celso is Project Coordinator for the ACT-Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) projects in Southern Mozambique's Gaza region.Operating in the town of Chokwe, some 200 kilometers from the nation's capital Maputo, his home and office were in the direct path of the swollen Limpopo River when it ravaged the entire river valley.

A dam upstream, overfilled and forced to release, sent water levels in Chokwe town (five kilometers from the river) rising 2.5 meters in about one hour. Not only did the water level destroy property, but that wave, described as a literal wall of water, had the power to flip vehicles and to toss power poles around like chopsticks. As the floodwaters recede, one can still trace its deadly path by the heaps of rotting reeds - reeds that families once called homes.

"I managed to rescue four families of staff members," remembers Celso. It took him three trips to move the families and the goods they had managed to escape with. No sooner had everyone arrived at the staging point, "Authorities there said the water was still coming and told us to go even higher." More trips. More terror. Water did keep coming and the vehicle's fuel supply was nearly finished before they were able to stop running over thirty kilometers from their homes.

One of Celso's co-workers, Delita Nhatugues, couldn't account for her father. The trauma of not knowing lasted for over two days, during which time grief seemed her only option. During this time she and her boss had to walk back to the Chokwe office through waist deep water to retrieve valuables from the office safe. Delita doesn't swim. She was terrified. It was only as South African helicopters began airlifting people out of Chokwe did she learn that her father had escaped to a rooftop where he was satisfied to wait out the water.

Grieving took its toll on her, like it is still doing to hundreds of Mozambicans - parents missing children and families missing members.

In one of the daily emergency organization meetings, Mozambican Minister of the Interior Almerino Manhenje reminded press, UN, and relief agencies that the very Mozambicans responsible for helping salvage government infrastructure, have themselves been traumatized. In Chokwe, Chibuto and Xai Xai, entire city water systems are out of operation, yet the very people in charge of those facilities are themselves flood victims. Many lost homes and family members. They have responsibility to their homeless families at the same time they are being expected to continue working at a professional level.

"People are still licking their wounds," explained Philip Wijmans. As Country Director for ACT member LWF Mozambique, it's his job to keep things moving not only in LWF development projects, but now also with the NGOs emergency projects too. With years of overseas experience and a veteran of traumas both, natural and human-caused, he's currently taking stock of not only the health of the nation but also the health of his own workers. "Employees are paralyzed by shock. They realize they could have died."

"My neighbor woke me up shouting, "the water is coming'," said, Anselmo Mapulasse, who monitors development activities for LWF's projects in the Chokwe area. "I woke the family and we ran." Gathering his five children, his wife and her sister, the family left everything they owned in their flight. "I was most afraid for the health of the family because the way the water was coming was just to kill people."

The next day no one could find Anselmo's brother. Only after twenty-four hours were the men reunited. Anselmo's family made their way to Chiaquelane, thirty kilometers away. He bartered an agreement with some people willing to share their home. His wife in turn prepares food for both families, preferring this infinitely more than joining the thousands nearby camping in the mud. Although Anselmo is eager to move his family back to their Chokwe home, continued rain makes them apprehensive.

Fernando Branco is a Community Development Assistant for LWF. His family and neighbors, some 15 people in all, stayed for two days atop a cement home. Though his home has since dried out, he's worried continuing rainfall. For two days the weather grounded relief helicopters destined for the Limpopo Valley. "I think now," Fernando pondered, obviously concerned over possibilities it might happen again, "it is better to run away. To take the kids to Maputo."

The guards at LWF-Chokwe are cleaning up the damages - not exactly the dust rag type of tidying up They're virtually shoveling out silt left behind when the river receded and they're shoveling out all the office's soggy files, now too waterlogged to ever be of use. These are stacked outside with the computers, printers, and fans that will never be the same. When the staff heard flooding was coming, they heeded suggestions to place electronics high up on shelves and tables. That was as high as anyone could imagine. These waters simply pushed the shelves over and didn't stop until they'd completely submerged one of LWF's Land Cruiser vehicles.

Though rebuilding Celso's office and his home will certainly be on the task list, there are so many urgent cries for help that it is difficult to compete with more demanding priorities. What good is new electronics when power has yet to be brought to Chokwe? How can families return to a town that still has no running water? Or where the sanitation situation is becoming health threatening? Will LWF-Chokwe workers need more than material help from outsiders? Perhaps a psychological moral boost as well?

"We have a first responsibility to our staff. They've probably waited too long already," explained Philip. After this past weekend's assessment of the Chokwe situation, he and staff members concur that their local LWF staff are prime candidates for emergency relief themselves. In addition to that assistance, they'll soon have a project officer come in to help them rebuild the office and locate suitable warehouse facilities. It's a time when they welcome all the help they can get. "They have suffered too much to be able to get in gear for other people."

Elaine Eliah is a press officer currently working for ACT-.LWF in Mozambique (mobile phone: + 27 82 85 89 106).

For further information you can also contact:

Nils Carstensen (mobile + 41 79 358 3171).
ACT Web Site address:

ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response.

The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.