It began with a farmer who wanted to see how his neighbours had weathered a deadly cyclone. It has turned into an extraordinary grassroots relief operation that has helped thousands in rural Mozambique. Helicopters land in the farmhouse's driveway. Aid workers in matching T-shirts sleep in tents in the front yard and on the roof. And hundreds of local subsistence farmers whose lives were swept away by the floods drop by to collect the food and supplies to start again.
"We've been at it for ... three weeks? I've lost track of time," the farmhouse's sole resident in normal times, mango farmer Gilles van de Wall, told The Associated Press after another frenetic day.P otluck reigns. Visitors bring beer and bottled water to stock a straining refrigerator. Dogs, at least one cat and a caged grey parrot have adapted to the crowd. New people arriving? Just budge over.
"Prepare to be utterly disappointed," one recent night's impromptu cook for the crowd of volunteers declared. Cyclone Idai hit this part of rural Mozambique particularly hard, with torrential rains draining down from the nearby mountains that separate the country from Zimbabwe. Rivers burst their banks leaving corn stalks hanging from electrical wires. The floodwaters made the farmhouse and surrounding buildings an island.
Even before the waters drained, van de Wall began a rescue operation for families nearby, "then a much wider area," he said. Soon, some 600 people were sheltering at the farm. Then 1,000. The first night he didn't get much sleep because all the children were crying, he said. Then more food arrived to ease their hunger pangs. Word got out among fellow large-scale commercial farmers. Friends from the nearby city of Chimoio brought the first supplies. Then others came from Mozambique's capital, Maputo, 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the south. People started driving up from South Africa, even farther away.
Meanwhile, workers at the farm were reporting distress in communities across the crocodile-inhabited Lecito River behind the farm. Remote by road — a 150-kilometer (93-mile) drive — and yet just a kilometer (mile) across the water, the communities were judged to be in "critical" need of help, van de Wall said. The opening of the road some five days after the cyclone helped to reach them. The arrival of helicopters helped even more. Tons of food, shelter and utensils, mostly from donations, were flown in.
"If you're the first people to reach them, it's indescribable," van de Wall said of the desperation of families surrounded by flooded fields. The emergency assistance worked well enough that people on the other side of the river are living on their own destroyed plots, not in camps, a key factor in avoiding the spread of disease, he said. Scores of thousands of people displaced by the cyclone across central Mozambique are now huddling in shelters, often with poor water and sanitation, and a deadly cholera outbreak has been declared.
(With inputs from agencies.)