Southern Africa: Saving lives with soap, blankets and jerry cans
By Hanna Butler, IFRC
When floodwaters rose around her home, Catherine Muyoyeta Namukolo escaped with the most precious items she could carry – her children.
During this past rainy season in Southern Africa, hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes, leaving behind their belongings to be carried away by the rising water. Saving themselves was the only priority.
Alexander Matheou, the IFRC’s representative in Southern Africa, said that once you are out of immediate danger and have found a safe location to camp, you are faced with a number of daunting practical challenges on which your life may depend.
“How do you move water from a distant source to your shelter so you can cook and clean? How do you keep clean and avoid hygiene-related sickness? How will you stay warm at night?” he said.
Simple relief items – buckets, tarpaulins, blankets and soap – can help people address these challenges. They help to maintain health, privacy and dignity, they meet personal hygiene needs, they help in the preparation and eating of food, and they help to keep people warm at night.
Over the past few months, the IFRC has launched six emergency operations in Southern Africa to support people affected by flooding. In partnership with local Red Cross National Societies and their network of community-based staff and volunteers, vital relief items, shelter and health assistance have been provided to the most vulnerable.
“You can’t wait weeks for items to arrive, they are needed in the first 24 hours. The only way to ensure this is to have them pre-positioned nearby and to have community representatives trained and willing to distribute them. This is what the Red Cross tries to build in every disaster-prone community,” said Matheou.
In the Caprivi Strip in northern Namibia at a dusty relocation camp, people who were evacuated by unusually early and severe flooding queued under the hot sun for a replenishment of relief items from the Namibia Red Cross Society. Local staff and volunteers lay out items on the ground for people who have been in the camp since March and are expected to stay until July.
Catherine receives soap, jerry cans, a mosquito net, blankets and water purification tablets. The few items are taken to the tent she shares with her children and another family. The mosquito net is hung up straight away; it is big enough for her and her four children to sleep under.
“We will use the soap for washing ourselves and our clothes. Dirtiness brings disease which is a real risk in a camp like this with many other people.”
Without the relief items she said she wouldn’t be able to afford the basic things needed to maintain her daily life. “I have no money here. At my home, I had a small business selling dried fish, but here, away from the river, that is impossible.”
It is not just Catherine making speedy use of the relief items. Women move from the collection queue to the water pump, their new jerry cans quickly filled with water to take back to their tents to cook dinner.
When the waters recede and it is safe to return home, Catherine will be leaving the camp with more than she arrived. The relief items she has will be vital to her existence at home, where she will begin to rebuild her life.