Fleeing the Floods in Mozambique

February 15, 2013
Patricia Nakell reports from the Chiaquelane accommodation center, Chokwe, Mozambique.
Refugees from floods in Mozambique 15-year-old Arsenia. ©UNICEF/2013/Nakell

Doctor Samuel Mbimbo stands with a straight back, as if to attention, as he tells us about the 25 patients he has seen in the past hour and a half, and about their general complaints (diarrhea, coughs, malaria). We are in the Chiaquelane camp near Chokwe, the city in Mozambique that was devastated by the flooding of the Limpopo River. Most of the city’s 70,000 residents escaped with whatever they could grab, as violent waters engulfed their homes. The scene at the hospital tent is calm and organized. The lines to the three physicians on duty this morning are long, and in the baking sun. Some children are wailing, others can barely manage a whimper. Yet none of the adults loses patience. They all stand quietly in line, waiting for their turn, which probably won’t come for another hour, or maybe even two. As Dr. Mbimbo continues telling us about the medicines that are available (not many), I notice the little girl in front of his table, sitting on a wooden box. She is tiny and timid. It has taken us a while to notice she is even there. Arsenia is 15 years old, though something about her features makes her look like an adult. She is bony and fragile, and speaks so softly, we have to crouch down to hear what she is saying. “I have pain here,” she says, as she hastily points to her feet and looks away. Slowly she begins to tell us more. The day the waters came, Arsenia fled her home with three aunts and 12 of her cousins, most of them under the age of ten. Her mother refused to leave, insisting on staying behind to guard the house. She now sleeps on the roof, waiting for the water levels to fall. “She won’t let me go back yet,” Arsenia says. “Mother wants me to stay here at the camp.” Her father died many years ago.
Displaced persons from the floods in Mozambique Lines at the Chiaquelane accommodation center. ©UNICEF/2013/Nakell

Suddenly there is a commotion. A tall man wearing a bright blue T-shirt appears. He is UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Stewart Sukuma. A tireless advocate for children and one of Mozambique’s most famous singers, Sukuma has become deeply engaged in the plight of the flood victims, and visits the camp regularly to talk to people, to help boost morale, and to speak out about their situation and needs. He stops near where Arsenia is in line for her medication, and soon he is speaking to her. We cannot hear what they are saying, but the shy smile on her face says it all. Half an hour later, Arsenia has her box of pills. She still is beaming from her encounter with the famous singer. She makes her way out of the tent, past the nursing babies and sweating mothers, and hurries to her friend, who is waiting for her under a large tree, with a baby at her bosom. It is Mercia, Arsenia’s best friend from back home. As they walk back to where her aunts and cousins are camped, Arsenia tells Mercia about the singer who came to speak with her. They look at the photos we had taken, and giggle. It is a brief, tender moment of teenage camaraderie in what otherwise is a bleak existence at the camp. With no tent for shelter, Arsenia and her family spend long days at Chiaquelane exposed to the elements, come hellish heat or rain. But it’s the nights that are worst. “There is no light in the camp, and there are boys who harass me and want to beat me, so I don’t even go to the toilet when it gets dark,” she says, visibly shuddering. “There are also snakes, and I am afraid.” But things are getting better at the camp. Food distribution has begun, and drinking water is available at several water points. Even morning classes have started, a relief for Arsenia, who says she misses school and her schoolbooks. “Of all subjects, I like Portuguese and math best,” she says, and smiles with pride. And for a few seconds, she seems to forget her aching foot, the snakes, the nasty boys and the dark night ahead. Or so we hope.