“We know it’s coming,” said Graça Machel, “but are we preparing ourselves adequately?”
Natural disasters like the recent cyclones Idai and Kenneth that wreaked havoc in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi are acts of God that have been part of mankind from time immemorial.
But how nations prepare for them could be the difference between life and death. The difference in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Cyclone Idai is proof of one nation’s state of readiness to deal with the effects of these natural disasters against another’s, experts point out.
Nelson Mandela’s widow and former First Lady of Mozambique, Machel was giving a road map for deliberations in a keynote address she made at a half-day public dialogue on natural disaster management in Africa at the Wits Business School on Friday.
“Let us do whatever we can to save lives,” Machel urged the panelists, who included philanthropists, academics and relief aid workers, including from the UN Population Fund.
Machel said those in disaster management at the UN “sent one of the best in the system to come and guide the operations” in the wake of Idai.
Machel said they were warned not to think that current African capacity would be sufficient to provide the necessary relief aid.
“The type of cyclone we had was the first of its kind, and it was later confirmed that it was the first of its magnitude in the southern hemisphere.”
She said many nations of the world rose up to assist the cyclone’s victims, among them disparate countries like Botswana and the UK. “It is possible to come together.”
But they were not caught unaware, certainly not in her native Mozambique: “We were told that the cyclone was coming.”She asked the panelists who were to deliberate the dynamics of disaster management to “help us to understand this”.
Almost in a soliloquy, Machel listed pointers for the gathered stakeholders to ponder in their discussions. “I want actionable recommendations. Perhaps we might know the speed - the question is: are we preparing ourselves adequately?
“Governments need to seriously mobilise people in areas it is going to hit so that the impact on people it is going to hit is minimised. If it is happening or it has happened, what do we mean by response? Are we concentrating on giving out food and medicines - those necessary things people need to survive?
“I do not want to pre-empt the discussions, but what does resettlement mean? In many cases we think of infrastructure, not people. In what conditions are these people being resettled? Governments will be calling on the international community to come and assist with resettlement and reconstruction.
“As researchers, check out how much these governments have put into resettlement themselves, not only relying on international bodies to provide. I ask this because sometimes we behave as if this is the responsibility of international donors. We must take responsibility.
“We talk of infrastructure, to rebuild schools, railways, clinics how much are we focusing on human rebuilding? The disasters leave behind traumatised people, deprived of everything, including the loss of their dignity. How much focus should we place on humans?
“Who comes to sit with me to ask of those of my family who died, who were they? It is not enough to say four of my family members died, but who were they? After the water subsides, do we go back to search, maybe not for bodies, but for bones? “
Reconstruction, when it happened, needed to focus on the entire social fabric: “The reconstruction of a community is wider.”
She lamented the template of relief aid.
Machel said the way people lived in West Africa was not the same as they did in East Africa, “even if we are all African”. The cultures were different, she said.
“Take into account the way of doing things. We don’t ask people what is the best way to support them. We treat people as numbers. Is that correct?”
If our preparation is better, the impact can be minimised if it happens again, she said.
“Based on the lessons learnt, we shouldn’t be caught unaware. We know what to do to save lives.”
“Wangari Maathai, a woman of my generation, taught us even the basic things can help us, like planting trees.”
And when the seminar began, it did not degenerate into just another talk shop, as Machel warned it shouldn’t.
A lot of pertinent issues were raised by the panelists, each an expert in their area of disaster management and relief work.
Hassan Kaya of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a Tanzanian, said very few people died during Hurricane Katrina in the US.
There was an inherent lesson for Africa, he said: “We need to know how to capacitate our own people in their communities, using what they have, to sustain themselves. We should encourage grassroots innovation.”
For Gertrude Chimange of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, operating out of Zimbabwe, it was important to depoliticise disaster management strategies.
At least 344 people died in Zimbabwe during the devastating cyclone that ravaged six districts, displacing 17000 people, with 300 missing.
These numbers, compared to the effects of the US disaster, were catastrophic, the panelists concurred. Clearly, preparedness was key.
“Preparing for disasters is what we need to do all the time, involving all the state resources,” said Ettiene van Blerk of the SANDF.
Malawi suffered only 60 casualties, according to Wycliffe Ouma a PhD student attached to the Wits African Centre on Philanthropy and Social Investment, who undertook a study tour of the country just three days after Idai struck.
The level of preparedness was high in Malawi - hence the few deaths - said Ouma.
Messaging was also important, said Sithembiso Gina, a programme specialist of the SADC.
People needed to be told for what reasons exactly they were being moved.
Gina said 12000 people affected by Idai “were either pregnant or lactating”.
Musician Berita Khumalo, better known by her first name, was also a panelist.
She was born in Zimbabwe and uses her guitar and voice to bring hope to communities in distress.
A protégé of the late Oliver Mtukudzi, she said Tuku always reminded her: “When we cry, we sing; when we rejoice, we sing.”
Other than her native Shona, Berita also sings in Swahili, Xhosa and Zulu and is well-placed to comfort many in Africa who are aggrieved. She recently did a tour of East Africa.
“I am ready to work with any organisation doing relief work,” she said.