We haven’t had much news from Vilanculos about the current cyclone, Funso, since our attempt of phone calls haven’t gone through to the family, but being in touch online we know all is well so far at least. It seems everyone has barricaded and prepared for the cyclone but ended up waiting for days for it to hit!
That’s the article about travelling to the islands outside Vilanculos that was published on Sunday. When I was in touch with one of the editors at Expressen Söndag on Monday I told her about the current cyclone in Mocambique and how ironically – and tragically – it is right now ravaging the beautiful coast that I had been describing so nicely in my article. The lodge I had mentioned, Benguerra Lodge, with photos of a nice, calm beach just outside the room’s doorstep, had in fact just had to evacuate all their guests to mainland. So much for a tropical paradise. But paradises tend to have a darker side too and cyclone season is definitely one of Mocambique’s. Luckily there aren’t cyclones every year, or at least not really bad ones.
Since I’m from Sweden and Brian is from Zimbabwe/Mocambique, most people are quite surprised to hear that our families have actually met. Last time there was a really bad cyclone was in the beginning of 2007. Me and Christina were volunteering at this local organization in Vilanculos and Brian and I had been dating for a few months. Christina’s brothers and sisters had been down to visit just a month or so earlier and it was now my family’s turn (everyone except my eldest brother) to get to know the place I had been staying in for almost six months. I told my friends in Vilanculos that my family was coming in February. “Oh great, during cyclone season!” they were joking but I didn’t think much of it. A cyclone actually happening? Wouldn’t think so.
But it did.
Me and my family had been down to South Africa for about a week with a few days in the Kruger national park and then headed up to Vilanculos by bus. We soon heard of a cyclone coming in within the next few days. Eager as I was to show them my paradise I was so disappointed. I managed to get my brother to come along with me for a dhow trip out to Magaruque the day before the cyclone was due to hit. Looking back at it now, I can definitely see why mom and dad chose to stay behind and I can somewhat ask myself what I was thinking. What if the cyclone had hit while we were out on this tiny uninhabited island 12 kilometers off shore? We had to make quite some calls to get a dhow trip company that was willing to take us (but that didn’t stop me!) and eventually got hold of one that hadn’t already pulled their boats up on land. As we headed out, the dark clouds were creeping up on the far side of the island, we had the entire place pretty much to ourselves and visibility was crappy when snorkelling and there was so many jellyfish and blue bottles in the water it was quite unpleasant. I almost only remember seeing a pretty big, brown octopus – thanks to the fact that it was half out of the water, hanging onto the rocks. I feel so sorry for my brother and really wish I could take him back someday, when Magaruque shows itself from its best side instead. If he’ll ever agree to come… My brother is an absolute rock in any situation, but out there I could tell even he was a bit weary.
That evening we covered up the mosquito net covered windows (no glass) of our house. Chatting to people in town it was all talk about barricades and sand bags, but all the locals were so calm about it that we could never have expected what was coming.
It started the next morning. I remember it clearly because it was so funny at first. We were all sitting having breakfast when some of the thatch lifted off the roof in one corner, behind dad’s back. We all went “look!” and pointed everytime it happened but everytime he turned around too late and probably thought we were pulling his leg. Soon after breakfast the wind had picked up drastically and sand, rain and saltwater (our house was approximately 10 meters from the beach with only a tall hedge in between) was coming in wherever we hadn’t covered the windows enough, or where our covers started caving in.
Having no experience of cyclone weather whatsoever we did pretty much the opposite of what we should have done. We tried to fight it. Instead, we should have barricaded ourselves in the kitchen with its thick concrete walls and enjoyed a game of cards, or 10. But no, we spent the day getting soaked (and were going to find sand in our ears still days later) trying to keep the wind out by first barricading the windows with a mattress that soon got soaked too and wouldn’t stay up, then holding up a blanket against the windows, switching from the east side of the house to the south and back again as the wind was changing direction. All five of us would lean against the window with all our weight and when the wind would pick up at times it would push us back as if we were the size of ants.
The hours went past and we watched the interior of the house getting soaked and the water level rising on the floor, but the house held its grounds well. It was built with a cyclone in mind; strong walls but a thatched roof lightly laid ontop. Had it been a heavy roof bolted down, the walls would have broken and the roof taken off. This way the wind can come in and get out the other side as the thatch lifts and goes back down.
We had sms contact with my other brother and Christina’s family in Sweden and with our contact person at Erikshjälpen, who contacted the Swedish Embassy in Maputo. They arranged so that we were going to be evacuated from town the next day. I was worrying about Brian. He was at this time living in a caravan next to a friend’s house a kilometer or so from us. But he was doing fine, he had taken the safety precautions he thought was necessary, putting a sand bag on the roof of the caravan, putting a sign up saying “No cyclones welcome” and partied hard the night before to be able to sleep through it. Believe it or not, this somehow worked and his caravan was barely touched by the wind, while his friend’s house had some damage and the maid working there claimed to have seen a goat come flying over the fence.
However, Brian in his turn was worried about his family who lives 20 kilometer inland since he couldn’t get hold of them. But they were also fine, with some slight damage to the roof only, just lacking phone signal since the cell phone towers were now lying across the main street. Towards the early evening the wind calmed down a bit and Brian firmly stated he was coming over. I thought he was crazy and loved him for it at the same time. He zigzagged between fallen palm trees and sheets of corrugated steel and made it safely to our house. Letting him into our house I was very relieved but at the same time a bit apprehensive since this was the first time he’d meet my family (and the story about how we started dating and everyone’s reaction to that is yet to be told, but I’ll save that for another day). However, when I later asked if Brian should return to his caravan my mom said “Never!” and insisted on Brian spending the night with us.
That evening was marked by this uneasy feeling. The wind had calmed down to what could almost be called a light breeze. But what if it wasn’t over? What if we were in the eye of the cyclone and had just the same amount of chaos still ahead to come?
We spent that night staying awake in shifts, just in case, sitting waiting by one single little lit candle, but the wind didn’t seem to pick up again. By morning we knew it was over and we we went out to a Vilanculos in ruins. Jerry, the man running the organization Christina and I were working for, had had an accident trying to secure his roof during the cyclone and was rushed to hospital in the morning. He was lucky and got away with a few broken ribs, an injured shoulder and some bruises. So how were we now going to get to the bus stop in Pambara, 20 kilometers inland, to catch the bus down to Maputo where a woman from the embassy was going to take us in?
The garden, the next morning.
Brian now managed to get hold of his family, got a positive status report from them and asked if they were perhaps willing to act as a rescue team for a Swedish family in distress? The Stockils hurried into town in their bakkie and we all climbed up. Driving through town to get to the bus stop, the devastation was massive. There was just trees and debris everywhere. But we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, the sight of the town in ruins was horrible but at the same time we were all relieved it was over and that nobody had gotten badly hurt.
Some photos from town by an unknown photographer:
All of us Swedes jumped on the bus to Maputo and were very well taken care of by the woman from the embassy when we got there. Brian and I had been abruptly separated from each other for the first time and didn’t know when we were going to see each other again next and it was obviously quite emotional. On the bus Christina and I spoke to our contact at Erikshjälpen. We said we weren’t ready to go home straight away (my family was flying back to Sweden the next day) and he agreed. Something that we had both picked up at the preparation course we were sent to before volunteering was that going home can often be more traumatic than arriving at your new work site. Before heading out you tend to psyche yourself up, knowing that there will be millions of new impressions and cultural differences to take in. But hardly anyone prepares themselves to go home because they know what it’s like at home. But coming home after some time away is also a big change of surroundings, when you’re now full of all these new experiences. Our contact arranged for us to stay with a South African-Swedish family in Johannesburg for a few weeks and we got to help out at a babies home (orphanage, if you like), which gave a whole new dimension to our volunteering and was a great, but incredibly tough experience.
Back to the cyclone, which was now named Favio. The destruction in Vilanculos was immense but the town was slowly rebuilt during the next year. The morning after the cyclone, our maid Christina came to see us and check on us. She asked for some milk or food for her kids and we gave her what we had, absolutely devastated when hearing that her hut was blown into pieces. But she just shrugged and didn’t seem too worried, as with most other locals whose houses are built in a way that can easily be rebuilt in the event of a cyclone, something that made a great impact on us. To us, she had just lost her home. To her, she was going to have to rebuild her house, but she and her kids were okay.
During the near future we found out more and more about the cyclone that had leveled Vilanculos with the ground. It was a category four (out of five) cyclone, reaching a wind speed of 270 kilometers per hour. It was said to have killed between 4 and 12 people and destroyed the homes of thousands. Further north, in the region around the Zambezi river, there had recently been floodings, creating a hotbed for diseases like cholera, and the rainfall from the cyclone didn’t make things any better. Here’s a BBC news article about the cyclone.
About a month later, me and Christina could accompany Dave who we were staying with in South Africa, who was a member of the board in our organization, when he drove up to Vilanculos to inspect the situation there. It was emotional coming back, seeing the effects of the cyclones yet again, this time visiting the villages where the schools and newly built health clinic had been shattered by the wind. At the same time, we were so happy to be back, getting to say a proper goodbye to the town that had been our home for about six months.