Aid to Zimbabwe

Chimanimani District in eastern Zimbabwe was one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Idai. With their houses seriously damaged or destroyed in the storm, villagers were put up in temporary shelters, subsisting on basic amenities and food from the government and NGOs. A river, pictured here, formed after the disaster. Having received supplies from the local government, villagers crossed over the river on makeshift bridges to return to their temporary homes after the storm.

When Cyclone Idai swept through Zimbabwe from March 15 to 17, 2019, the landlocked country bordering Mozambique received more than 600 millimeters (23.6 inches) of rapid rainfall within 24 hours. Massive landslides and flooding followed, wiping out entire landscapes. Manicaland Province in eastern Zimbabwe reported severe damage, with more than 90 percent of the mountainous Chimanimani District lying in ruins.

A week after the cyclone struck, all main roads and bridges leading to the hardest hit areas in the eastern part of the country still remained inaccessible. Undaunted, Tino Chu (朱金財), head of Tzu Chi Zimbabwe, and a team of native volunteers drove a vehicle full of bread and water-purifying agents from the national capital, Harare, to the disaster zones. They were led by local villagers familiar with alternative routes. Since they had to circumvent so many sections of road that had been damaged, what would have been a five-hour drive to Chimanimani became an arduous journey of more than 10 hours. At night, the team camped outside a pitch-dark military base.

During their journey, the volunteers passed through quite a few settlements that had been hit by landslides. Survivors recounted that on that fateful night, torrential downpours descended rapidly from all directions, uprooting trees and triggering severe flooding. When the water receded, only rubble and mud were left behind across the ravaged landscape. A week after the disaster, survivors were still almost entirely dependent on limited supplies delivered by helicopters. They were also at the mercy of temperatures which ranged from the mid-20 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day to lower than 10 degrees (50 degrees Fahrenheit) during the night.

Electricity and water supplies were interrupted in the disaster areas. As a result, survivors were forced to consume water collected from roadside puddles. The first item Tzu Chi volunteers distributed was a water purification agent, of which 150 milliliters could purify a thousand liters of untreated water. Volunteers also quickly reviewed the needs of shelters and disaster sites and immediately set out to prepare the next delivery of relief items, including food, water purification agents, blankets, and other basic daily living necessities.

Cyclone Idai dealt a hard blow to Chimanimani, turning the entire region into a disaster area. Tzu Chi volunteers quickly delivered food and water purification agents to survivors housed in shelters.

Gasoline needed

When volunteers returned to Harare to purchase more relief supplies, they also had to find ways to fuel the three vehicles they were using for the relief mission. Gasoline is in short supply in Zimbabwe due to the nation’s weak economy and a shortage of foreign currency. In city areas, refilling gas tanks at a gas station usually requires an average wait of four hours. The long queue of waiting vehicles often chokes the roads, causing severe traffic jams.

Volunteer Chu has spent many years traveling across the country to care for the needy, so he is used to the challenge of purchasing gasoline in Zimbabwe. However, the challenge this time was to fuel not one but three vehicles to urgently transport relief supplies to the disaster zones. Every day, volunteers left home early to find stations that still had gasoline supplies. “Recently, the longest I’ve been in line at a gas station was nearly seven hours,” said Chu. “That would have been acceptable if the wait had resulted in full gas tanks. However, on several occasions, just as it was about my turn to refuel after I had waited several hours, station staffers announced they had run out of gasoline. No gasoline means we cannot travel to disaster zones….” He choked up with emotion in mid-sentence. After he had recovered, he continued: “Having personally visited the disaster areas and witnessed the devastation, we know how badly cyclone victims need help.”

Knowing that Tzu Chi volunteers were traveling to the disaster areas to deliver aid, people who lived in communities that had been receiving aid from the foundation generously donated what they could to help. On April 2, about 800 people in Eastview, on the outskirts of Harare, gathered to make donations. Although poor, each brought whatever clothes and money they could contribute and entrusted them to Tzu Chi volunteers to deliver to the disaster areas.

Agnes, 78, is unemployed and lives alone. She donated 30 cents (about three U.S. cents), an amount that accounted for almost her entire life savings. “When I heard about the calamities caused by Cyclone Idai,” she said, “I was so sad that I cried. I just wish to have the opportunity to pass my blessings on to the survivors.”

Many residents in Jacha, Epworth, which lies about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the Harare city center, moved to that area from out of town and are poverty-stricken. Despite their difficult financial situations, many donated their most valuable possessions. “Clothes and shoes are among the items the disaster victims need the most,” some said. “This is something we can do.”

People residing on the outskirts of the national capital, Harare, donate second-hand clothes and money to Tzu Chi for volunteers to deliver to disaster areas. Jessica Yang

Sad people comforting sad people

Chimanimani District was a grim picture of devastation after the cyclone, with rock debris and mud blanketing the areas that had been impacted by landslides. Roads were badly damaged and cut off. Three weeks after the disaster, the local government was still trying their best to repair the roads, with almost no progress made on repairs to other infrastructure.

International rescue teams, with the help of search and rescue dogs, continued to locate the remains of victims buried alive in the debris. At Kopa, a village in the mountain foothills, landslides had uprooted the administration center and more than a hundred buildings. Several hundred residents were reported to be dead or missing. A rushing river formed after the cyclone. Survivors carefully crossed over the river on makeshift log bridges to collect relief supplies distributed by the local government.

On April 5 and 12, Tzu Chi volunteers launched two large-scale distributions. Forty-eight five-kilo (11-pound) bags of soya chunks (a food made from soybeans after the oil has been extracted) were donated to seven shelters. Volunteers also brought 2,000 blankets to survivors to help them stay warm in the cold nights. An additional 400 families received cooking oil, salt, sugar, cornmeal, and clothing. Overjoyed, the aid recipients clapped and sang. (By mid-April, 3,725 families had received aid from Tzu Chi.)

Nearly a hundred houses in Ngangu village were washed away by landslides, with many more houses severely damaged. Over a thousand survivors took refuge in four shelters. Mukando, a female victim, told Tzu Chi volunteers that people from other charity organizations had come to help them, but they all had left as soon as they’d delivered their relief supplies. “You personally handed the supplies to us,” she said, “and you also prayed with us. The way you conducted the distribution moved me very much. This is the first time I have felt such warmth.”

Mukando led Tzu Chi volunteers to where her home once stood. Pointing to a large plot of land in front of her, she said, “Our house had three bedrooms. Here was the yard where I reared chickens. Over there was our kitchen.”

Landslides smashed into her home the night the cyclone hit. Her husband and two daughters were injured, but fortunately the whole family escaped safely. After that, they were sheltered in a church. Having lost all their possessions, Mukando felt listless. She often walked to a stream some distance away to do laundry, or went to collect relief supplies for her family. She just did not want to stay put in the crowded church. Her situation was the epitome of the people who had no choice but to stay in shelters.

With their hearts warmed by Tzu Chi volunteers, Mukando and her family, who had been feeling helpless since the disaster, broke into smiles. The younger daughter in the family looked cheerful as she put on clothes brought by the volunteers. The warm help from strangers seemed to have helped her regain some hope for the future.

When Cyclone Idai hit, landslides all but wiped out several villages in Chimanimani District. After the disaster, Tzu Chi volunteers accompanied some villagers back to where their homes once stood.
A Tzu Chi volunteer displays a photo salvaged from the rubble.

Jean Mutekure was a member of the Tzu Chi relief team. Her hometown is in Chimanimani District. She lost four family members to the disaster. She could not contain her grief when she returned to her hometown, especially as her parents and older brother and sister were still missing without a trace.

When Mutekure saw a woman standing alone looking forlornly ahead at a piece of land strewn with rubble, she walked up to her and shared with her about her tragedy of losing family to the disaster. “Let’s not be sad,” Mutekure said to her. “Let’s submit ourselves to God. Don’t cry, don’t cry. We must believe in God, believe that everything will become better.” The woman, who had lost six relatives, hugged Mutekure tightly. In the embrace, the two women found an outlet for their grief.

Despite her sadness, Mutekure pledged that she would expand her love for her family to include the entire human family and continue to serve the needy with other Tzu Chi volunteers.

May 2019