HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsCyclone Idai: What were their names?

Cyclone Idai: What were their names?


Guest column: Alex T Magaisa

“What was his name?” asks Andy Dufresne at breakfast on his first morning in Shawshank Prison. It’s a scene in the timeless movie, Shawshank Redemption.

Andy had arrived at the prison the previous day along with a new cohort of prisoners to start serving their sentences. On that first night, one of the new arrivals had been beaten to a pulp, by the sadistic assistant warden, captain Hadley. The poor chap, referred to only as the “Fat Man” had been terrified and tense, crying out to his mother saying, “I do not belong here!”

At breakfast someone mentioned that the chap had died overnight. Andy, who was sitting at a nearby table and overheard the conversation asked what his name was. The question had a cold reception. “It doesn’t matter what his name was. He’s dead,” one of the prisoners Heywood said.

The scene is a poignant reminder of the significance of names and naming people. For Andy, naming the victim gave him some dignity, even in death. Naming him erased the ignominy of anonymity. Unlike the other prisoners, Andy cared. Asking for the victim’s name meant he had empathy, which the other prisoners lacked. From that, the audience realises that Andy is unlike any other prisoner; that he is probably a good man, with a good heart, all because he asked for the victim’s name.

That is because names matter

I do not think there is any human community that does not assign names to its members, something with which to identify the individual. Names, it seems, complete us. Being without a name confers anonymity and anonymous people are hard to trust.

Indeed, in many communities, names are stories in themselves. They are not just a mark of identification but they also carry profound messages. In our culture, some children carry names of their fore-bearers, in honour of the family’s roots. Some names are a show of gratitude to the creator, an affirmation of the family’s beliefs. For others, tormented by years of being mocked by others, names are a message to them, perhaps to say we have overcome.

Growing up in the village, our dogs and cows had names, sometimes to confer a message to the neighbour. With time, the animals got accustomed to their names. They would respond upon being called by their names. Those names were also their mark of identity. Names matter, because they are part of us and the things around us.

The tropical cyclone that struck and devastated Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi in the past few weeks has left a dark and indelible mark on the communities. It has transformed the landscape, creating inland lakes in bowls where dust once swirled; uprooting trees and transporting huge boulders from the mountains into valleys, burying villages, townships and people underneath the rubble. It has reshaped the landscape, ended lives and transformed some.

Until a couple of days ago, most of the outside world only knew that people had died because of the cyclone. But there were no names. All there was were numbers. 82 people died, 200 feared dead, a 1 000 estimated dead, among others. Those were the headlines. But numbers do not tell the human story. They are the bare headlines without the small detail. Names do tell the story.

A couple of days ago, one list emerged, of teachers and schoolchildren who were reportedly missing after the flood. Three things were conspicuous on the list:

First, it had names. It listed the names of the headmaster, teachers and support staff. It also listed the names of 39 schoolchildren. Names allowed the world to conjure up images of the people otherwise buried in the numbers. Numbers without names are just that: numbers. Numbers with names carry a strong message. Everything changes.

Second, for almost every surname, there were two, three or more children who carried it. This suggested that they were siblings, cousins or that they were related in some way. Names did something that numbers could not do. They gave an insight into the scale of loss at the family or clan level.

Third, the list was handwritten. It was meticulous. The handwritten list was symmetrical. It showed a hand that paid attention to detail. They were not just names. Even in the midst of grief, the hand maintained a dignified steadiness, making sure the names were captured well. It is the nature of our education system to train people to write well, to understand the beauty of pattern and uniformity. It was a list of sadness but it was beautifully captured by hand, a very Zimbabwean style.

Finally, names gave identity and individuality to the victims. They weren’t just bundled up into a figure. Instead, we could recognise them individually, by name. To identify a person by name is to recognise their self-worth; their dignity. We are pleased when we meet someone and they recognise or remember us by name. If they can remember our name, may be they care. We forgive those who forget (and as we grower older, our memory suffers erosion) but nevertheless we appreciate those who make an effort.

Names are a form of inclusion. This week at my university, we had a conference on decolonising the curriculum in British higher education. We had a short exercise in which everyone was asked to specify what would make you feel included. We were working in pairs. When the group shared its responses, one pair on the other side of the room said, “I feel included when others pronounce my name properly”. It was amazing because that was precisely what my colleague and I had also written on our piece of paper. When people don’t make an effort to pronounce your name or simply mutilate it without care, as if it is unimportant, we feel excluded. Names do matter.

If naming is inclusionary, not naming is therefore exclusionary. We can choose, very deliberately to not give a name to something because we disapprove of it or its conduct.
Refusing to name someone is therefore a form of rejection and condemnation.

All this matters in the current disaster situation. We need the names of all the deceased. It is important to put names to the deceased. It’s not only a form of respect, but it also reaffirms their dignity. A name says, I am not forgotten. It says my story is remembered. Even graves carry names: the name announces one’s presence to the world. It says, “I’m here” giving a voice to the silent.

But because sometimes circumstances are so dire that not everyone can be accounted for or identified, humans have come up with a way to give them a name and a voice. Hence, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, first recognised in Britain after the First World War, the idea and institution spread across the world. Even our own National Heroes Acre has such a tomb. It is in memory of all those who died, but whose actual names or even location of their remains is not known.

This is why it is important to go beyond the figures and to compile the names of all those who have lost their lives to Cyclone Idai — in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. They had names and their names carry their stories. That is why the list of names from Dzingire school caught the attention of many people, For the first time, people weren’t just seeing numbers. They were seeing names and through those names they were seeing real individuals and attaching faces to the loss.

We saw the names – similar surnames in many cases and we saw stories of siblings gone in an instant. We imagined their final moments, together – brother, sister, cousin, neighbour. All because we could read stories through their names.

It is one thing to say hundreds or thousands have died, but as Andy Dufresne would have asked, “what were their names?”

Let us, when the time comes, build a monument that lists all their names, and tell them that they matter too; that they may be gone, but they are not forgotten.

That monument should serve not only as a memory bank for our conscience but also as a constant reminder to leaders that as the world’s climate continues to change and present serious hazards, they must always have systems for disaster-preparedness. If we had been as prepared as we ought to have been, it is probable that some of those names on the monument would not be there.

Gems from adversity

Sometimes, out of adversity we discover pure gems that we never knew or thought existed in or among us. Our country and region has experienced tragedy in the past weeks. It cannot be fully expressed in words. Our hearts are in pain. But Zimbabweans of all cultures, races, colours, ages, religions and whatever index that exists have risen and come together in a show of love. It’s an incredible convergence of love like none ever seen before.

Out of this we must derive a message. We are a strong people. We have always known that we have resilience and we have ploughed on despite our challenging political, social and economic circumstances over the years. Two years ago, Zimbabweans came together in what they thought was a new dawn. It was not to be. But events of the past two weeks have been on another level. Inspired by love of humanity and compassion for the fellow human, we have congregated in different spaces, physical and virtual to resist the calamity of nature and some might say, inept governance which neglected the basics of disaster preparedness.

As some have already said, it is a reminder of the endless possibilities we can achieve as one people; as a united people united in our diversity to confront a challenge and seek to overcome it. People did not wait for government to organise them. They did not wait for politicians to organise and lead them. They took leadership. And the politicians followed in their wake. That is what networks of cooperation do.

Politicians have to understand that disaster tourism is unacceptable. Sites of suffering are not occasions for political fighting and grandstanding. They are sites of work and taking responsibility; acknowledgment that we have failed the people and we are sorry. They are not sites to visit for one day, for photo opportunities and pontificating to claim political capital. These are real people; real lives that deserve to be treated with dignity.

There will be time enough to discuss what went wrong and lessons that ought to be learned. The current disaster is a circumstance of natural causes but also of poor leadership. Children did not have to be in school. The State has a duty to protect citizens, particularly children and the elderly, and it’s a scar on the conscience of government that it did not take enough precautions to minimise the effects of the natural calamity. It is not amiss for people to raise these questions even in the midst of disaster.

Even the declaration of two days of national mourning appears to have been an after-thought. The politicians could have used this tragedy to find convergence. There is still a chance for them to do so. If such a great tragedy cannot cause them to look at the bigger picture, I don’t know what else can.

John F Kennedy famously said ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. For the multitudes of Zimbabweans it has been ask not what the government can do for its people but what the people can do for themselves. And they have demonstrated it in great abundance. Long may this spirit spread and continue as we confront the challenges that confront us.

 Alex Magaisa is a law lecturer at Kent University, UK. He writes in his personal capacity.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading