My house I can rebuild. My crops will grow again'

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 10 2000

Mozambicans are returning to their homes, to slowly pick up the pieces of their lives.

By CHRIS MCGREAL in Calanga, Mozambique

For nearly two weeks, Joao Nhassengo had no idea whether his family was even alive.

He first heard of the floods devastating his native Mozambique on the radio at the miners' hostel in Johannesburg's gold fields where he works. With a one-week pass from work in hand, the 28-year-old miner rushed home, where he discovered his village underwater and his family gone.

"That was much worse than finding that your house is destroyed. I looked for anyone I knew who could tell me anything about them, but there were so many people from such a big area it was hard to find anyone," he says.

So Mr Nhassengo waited, terrified for the fate of his three children. The youngest is 11 months, the eldest just six years. To make matters worse, he stayed away from work for longer than his pass permitted, and worried that this would cost him a valuable job.

When the floods began to subside last weekend, he again made his way back to his home near Calanga, in the north of the country. The water had dropped to knee deep but there was still no word of his family.

Then two days ago his wife, Beatriz, returned. She came alone.

"When I saw her across the field coming on her own, I thought the children must be dead or very sick."

But to his joy, he learned from Beatriz that the children had survived. She told him "they were in the camp but conditions were hard and now they would all come home".

Now they are all together and taking stock. The children complain of stomach pains, perhaps caused by drinking the polluted floodwater, even though their mother boils it first. But the medics in the camp said they did not have malaria.

The family is alive but its home is wrecked. The house is just four rooms. The force of water smashed all the windows and ripped the doors from their hinges. It tore away part of the roof.

Beatriz Nhassengo, has searched the house and looked outside, but the missing parts of her home are nowhere to be seen. The flood drove all the furniture against the wall of the living room. As the waters receded, the chairs were sealed under a thick layer of mud.

Next to the window, where the silt sat in the scorching sun that has come and gone in recent days, a thick crust formed. She cracked it open with a ladle and peeled the dirt from her furniture.

Although the bed frame and kitchen utensils can be salvaged, the mattresses and chairs are wrecked. Even when they dry out, the stench will always be there. Ms Nhassengo holds up her only pair of shoes that are not flip-flops. They too are ruined.

The pigs and ducks are gone. Drowned, presumably. It is a great loss. The ducks were for breeding. The children played with the sow, but she too was for breeding.

The drop toilet has collapsed. Another will have to be dug.

But most important are the crops. Ms Nhassengo, who is 21, worked the patch of ground - nearly five metres wide by 12 metres long - that fed her family and supplied a little extra cash if there was a surplus harvest. The hoes are still in the house. That is a start. But the maize is ruined.

At first glance it looks well enough, if a little battered. But closer inspection reveals the rot that had set in from the rubbish tip. The entire harvest is a write- off.

There is worse. The field is a bog. The water appears to have drained away but one step from the path and and a person sinks in the mud up to the shin. Another step, and it is up to the knee.

Beatriz Nhassengo wonders how long it will take for the land to dry out. "We cannot replant in this. Even if we put in new seed, it will not grow right. The seed will come to the surface when the land dries out," she says.

Floods come and go in Mozambique. So do droughts that drag on for years. But this is the worst natural calamity that anyone under the age of 50 can remember.

Almost everyone compares the flood to the war. Some say it was worse than the barbarity inflicted on Mozambique in that conflict from 1976-92 by the Renamo rebels, a creation of Rhodesia that later got South Africa's support. At the same time, it could be that the war that gave Mozambicans the stoicism they have exhibited in this flood disaster.

Joao Nhassengo has the advantage of money - his miner's wages - to help rebuild his home. If he wants to hold on to his job he must go back to Johannesburg. His wife will be left to complete the cleanup and revive the fields.

Her task wasn't made any easier yesterday by another heavy downpour that washed silt back into the house.

"It is something to survive. My children are alive. My house I can rebuild. My crops will grow again. There are many struggles in life. This is just one," she said.