Flood victims wade croc-infested watersComment on this story
Limpopo - Baked mud patterned by cracks around a homestead at Denstaat farm near Musina served as a stark reminder that the scorching sun had returned to the Limpopo River valley.
Next to a house in this soggy situation sat Ruth Sematla, staring blankly at the sky and lost in thought - almost insensitive to her 13-month-old son seeking sanctuary against her shoulder.
Sematla was among a group of more than 80 farm dwellers who had just returned to their flood-ravaged homes after last week’s torrential rains that wreaked havoc in many parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
Like the other farm dwellers, she had crossed a raging crocodile- and hippo-infested river to get home.
Two buses transporting the displaced farm dwellers - mostly women and children - had dropped them off on the opposite side of the Limpopo River tributary from their temporary camp at the Musina showgrounds hall.
Crossing the swollen, raging water was frightening.
“This is risky. Look, they are hitting the crocodile with stones. No. I am not going there,” said Violet Chuene, 39, carrying a 10-month-old baby.
“So what shall we do?” asked another woman.
“I would rather go back to Alldays. Look! They are turning back,” Chuene replied, referring to a group who had managed to cross the bridge.
Among the women was Precious Nare, who had given birth in a bakkie just metres from the same river three days earlier. She shook as she braced herself to cross. The sound of water rushing over a broken bridge was deafening.
“Come on, guys. All we need is tactics,” said one man, trying to spur the women into action while he joined the other men taking off their shoes and tops.
A tractor pulling a trailer was parked on the opposite side along a path dividing the overflowing water catchments.
Sematla fastened her baby on her back and walked up to the bridge, still covered in water. A few men had started crossing - swimming and testing the water level. In some places it was neck-high.
Once they found they could get across, they called the women to try.
“If we do cross (over), who will give us food? They will just say these people are gone (from the camp) and forget about us,” Chuene said.
More men started crossing the raging body of water. Others formed a human chain and threw bags to each other.
Women waited with their babies, watching.
“Give me the baby. Give me the baby,” yelled a young man as he swam across to where the women were waiting.
The women were reluctant, but one by one they started handing over their babies - putting their children in the hands of strangers.
Then it was time for the mothers to cross. Nare was shaking and crying. Sematla too. The men were growing impatient. “Come, come! Jump in! Bring your hand!”
Reluctantly, the women jumped into the water. For many, like Sematla and Nare, the fact that their babies were safely on the other side propelled them into action.
After about an hour, all the farm dwellers had swum across. The men waiting on the other side had loaded their goods onto a trailer. It was 4pm - five hours since they had left their camp in Musina.
“We have crossed the Jordan (River). Now we are all free,” a man quipped.
Sematla began breastfeeding her child. Tired, wet and cold, she could barely speak.
The farm dwellers still faced another hurdle: a 7km walk along a muddy path to their final destinations, the Samaria and Denstaat farms.
Saddled by the weight of heavy bags and babies, a few slipped and fell as they moved through the mud, following each other along narrow paths.
After almost an hour they approached the first farming fields. Uprooted irrigation pipes strewn across the fields bore testimony to the damage caused by the floods.
The group grew silent as hunger and weariness began to take their toll. The lowing of cattle reverberated through the thickly forested farmlands bordering the Limpopo River.
The group start splitting off to their respective homes.
After 30 minutes, Sematla arrived home - a cluster of mud, brick and stone-wall houses on the river’s edge.
“I have lost everything. All my furniture is damaged. My groceries are wet. I am left with nothing,” she said, her head in her hands.
Meanwhile at Samaria farm, Nare had fallen asleep. Her baby is yet to be named.
“We are still thinking about it. It must be a good name that will remind us about our suffering and bravery for crossing the river,” said Elson Toma, 45, the child’s father.