The power & challenge of inclusivity when disasters hit: learning from Cyclones Idai & Kenneth.
Updated: May 2, 2019
One of the best memories of my childhood growing up in rural Zambia was my interaction with Aunt Elizabeth. As toddlers, my twin sister and I were always psyched to “ride” on her wheelchair wherever she went within our small town. As we grew older she started taking us on her errands, while being pushed by the gentleman my grandmother had employed to push her. Later as teenagers, it was my twin sister and I interchangeably pushing her around and on several occasions, we went to visit the field where she had “commissioned” and employed local labour to grow groundnuts and cassava in a field. My twin sister and I were always in awe at how she managed to do all this from a wheelchair and we never quite understood how and why she had even ended up there. Until many years later when it was explained to us that she had suffered from polio in her early years as a child.
Many years later as teenagers in the late 1980s while studying at a girls boarding school in northern Zambia, we encountered other girls that were also handicapped. The Catholic Girls school we went to had a system of mixing visually impaired girls with those that were sighted so we could understand inclusivity. I remember pulling a prank on my friend Mary whom I crept up on when she retorted: Musonda I know you are there – just come out of hiding! I laughed hard and asked her how she knew, to which she responded: I could smell you from afar. Mary once told me that she knew that that day it was going to rain. She said she could “smell” the rain coming. I looked at the sky which was an intense blue with no cloud in sight. And yes, it rained later that afternoon. A hailstorm with such fury it’s still etched in my memory and we had to help our visually impaired sisters to safety as we all dashed to the dormitories. The nuns had always prepped us for the rainy season encounters reminding us to always make a line and hold hands with the sighted girls at the front and back to support the visually impaired ones (who would be in the middle) – a system of sorts. And with hindsight, a level of preparedness.
Many years later as my career within WWF and eventually in the UN started to focus on climate change adaptation, I realized more and more how inclusivity was such a critical aspect of our work. Except it wasn’t at the same time, something hardly talked about during international meetings. Interactions with many communities across many landscapes in Africa, Latin America and Asia – made me realize just how vulnerable old, handicapped, women and children were when climate related disasters hit. This was even more evident on my own continent – Africa.
In 2008, while working for WWF, I supported the WWF-Mozambique team as a wetlands expert on some of their work in the Zambezi Delta in the wetland of Marromeu – a beautiful wetland ecosystem. I was blown away but also shocked at the changes that had manifested within this delta as a result of upstream degradation in some parts. The local communities were incredibly dedicated but also very vulnerable with some encroaching on to the receded flood plain during the dry season and also because parts of it hardly flooded due to river regulation upstream (Cahora Bassa Dam). In effect the communities were exposed from two sides: the Dam side and the coastal side.
In 2017 I had the privilege of visiting Mozambique yet again as a UN Environment staff, this time round as lead on consultations for potential project on focusing a possible early warning system for the entire coastline of the country – 2,880km!!
Just two years on, I watched in shock a few weeks ago on the news as Cyclone Idai did what it what cyclones de best: damp tonnes of water onto land (usually with ill-prepared communities) with such ferocity, ghastly winds and intensity. And pretty much rendered some of those “high-level” conversations we have redundant. Reality of the beastly winds and rain had arrived on the door steps initially to the people of Mozambique, before making headway inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe. Both the latter countries had already been experiencing drought spells and their ecosystems mostly degraded and as such, fragile.
Thankfully the international community did their best to contribute to the disaster to support the affected communities and figure out how they can support the displaced people. Most of the headlines I saw on both local and international media showed the faces of the most vulnerable: women and children. And the handicapped too. I couldn’t help but wonder – how were these women juggling being mothers, caregivers of old and handicapped and figuring out how to escape to dry ground. The daunting images of woman running with a heavy bag on the head, a baby on the back and others in tow. Or the tragic moment a mother loses grip of her child and they are totally separated without either one knowing where the other is, amid the confusion. And those of a pregnant woman scaling a tree to avoid the rising water and being the subject of a global media, cameras on her (with little dignity to protect herself) as she gives birth in a tree. The vulnerability of the poor even goes further particularly for women, suffering from heightened insecurity and crime encounters including sexual ones. The collage of media stories below speaks volumes. The trauma!
All this took me back to my teenage years at boarding school listening intently on what to do once a rain storm came and how we had to assist our less able bodied visually impaired sisters. Seriously I cannot for the life of me even imagine what most of these women are contending with.
And almost in quick succession another cyclone has come to Mozambique BEFORE they have a moment to breath let alone recover. When we "international community" speak of resilient futures - what do that really look like and how do we move from rhetorical statements in support of women who suffer the worst atrocities following disasters? What does one do when these extreme events intensify with almost no warning? How do we rethink community and the power of inclusivity in how we navigate preparedness before disasters?
Is there need for “new” narratives under this “new” normal instead of us sticking to business as usual?
Because right now, this moment, there is NOTHING usual to current circumstances and we can longer afford to continue on this “business as usual” trajectory.
We are truly unprepared and climatologists have continued to warn us – the warmer the planet gets the more we are prone to extreme whether events, with women, children, handicapped and vulnerable and poor mostly effected, especially in the global south. Perhaps a time to rethink how we are talking about climate change, disaster, degraded spaces – across Africa.