BY KENNEDY NYAVAYA, RECENTLY IN CHIMANIMANI
HUGE grey boulders on the river banks of a calmly flowing Nyahode River remain a painful reminder of the great loss brought by Cyclone Idai to Kopa Growth Point in Chimanimani some eight months ago.
Deemed one of the most destructive Indian Ocean cyclones on record, the fierce currents washed away hundreds of households killing and maiming thousands while destroying property worth millions of dollars.
For 13-year-old Tanatswa*, these new features, less than two kilometres from her parents’ house, represent a painful loss she has to endure all her life.
“I used to stay with my sister and her family (husband and two sons) in the house that was sadly washed away that night along with all of them,” she says in a depressed voice.
On the fateful night of March 15 when the tropical storm pounded this area, considered to be the epicentre of the disaster, the teenage girl had visited her parents (some two kilometres away), for a weekend sleepover. She escaped the fate that befell her family who have been missing ever since.
“Whenever I think about it, I just stand up and separate myself from the others so I can get space to cry,” said the Form 1 student at a local school who till this day survives on bottling her emotions.
Her story of suppressed agony replicates that of thousands of other children in the cyclone-affected parts of Zimbabwe, particularly Chimanimani and Chipinge. However, not enough efforts have been made to address this trauma and what it entails for their future.
Plan International estimates that around 225 000 people across the three districts of Chimanimani, Chipinge and Mutare were affected by the disaster, with 60% being children.
“Prolonged exposure to violence, fear and uncertainty can have a catastrophic impact on children’s learning, behaviour and emotional and social development for many years,” Unicef executive director Henrietta H Fore was quoted saying at a Rebuilding Lives Conference in Berlin last year.
“If ignored, toxic stress from witnessing or experiencing traumatic events can lead to an increase in bed-wetting, self-harm, aggressive or withdrawn behaviour, depression, substance abuse and, at worst, suicide,” she added.
To escape the gloom, Tanatswa says she has plans to relocate to another place.
“The only help I can get is being removed from this place to somewhere far because people around this place continue to say things that hurt my feelings,” she said.
She feels that people in her community, particularly school colleagues, misunderstand her, in fact they “do not even comfort me but continue to talk about it (the cyclone) even when I am around”.
Organisations including Unicef, Save the Children, Childline, Africa Aid among others have been on the ground in hard-hit townships like Ngangu where they provided psycho-social support, bereavement support, and trauma counselling to affected children.
These organisations’ input has been useful in trying to restore a normal state of mind for children to live past their experiences but with time there has been a slump in their activities.
A Grade 5 school teacher at Ngangu Primary School, Shepherd Mureserwa said such programmes had assisted a lot, but signs of trauma were still evident among pupils.
“In April, children were quite traumatised by what transpired because some lost their parents or loved ones,” recalled Mureserwa.
“Psychosocial support is very good and in Chimanimani I think this type of education was supposed to be there even before Cyclone Idai.”
Mureserwa and other teachers at the school where 30 pupils died while 10 are still missing, have been conducting guidance and counseling with children, and despite the progress he says more still needs to be done.
“They do not want sudden noises, even from those tippers (construction trucks) which are loading, if ever there is a bit of noise they panic, meaning they still have a flashback of what happened,” he said.
“The way we are seeing it is that these children are still traumatised and as time goes on some are getting used but whenever the weather changes we have a problem because some immediately want to go home.”
The symptoms point at post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.
Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
With the rainy season starting and heavy torrents having already started pouring in Chimanimani and surrounding areas, terror and anxiety has been reincarnated especially for those leaving in tents set up to avert an accommodation crisis after the cyclone.
Elisha Muparikwa (16), one of the 352 people staying at Garikai Camp site in Ngangu, yearns for immediate action to solve the desperate housing situation.
“It is more painful for us because we have to stay here, we would be grateful if we get houses because the tents we live in are not safe especially now that the rainy season has started,” said Muparikwa who lost a close friend during the disaster.
The poor living standards here remind children of the Cyclone Idai disaster and that is hampering their recovery from trauma.
“There are different types of trauma that children face which can also be dealt with in different ways but in cases of natural disasters like Cyclone Idai there is need for psychosocial support and safe shelter where they can feel secure,” said a Harare-based psychologist on condition of anonymity.
Studies suggest that if not effectively rehabilitated psychologically, about 13% of people exposed to trauma end up with PTSD with some of the effects being isolation, depression, alcohol and drug abuse.
“It really depends on how the trauma is handled and if not done well then children could be exposed to psychosis, anxiety, alcoholism and depression which in some cases lead to suicidal thoughts,” said the psychologist.
With more natural disasters happening every year, a question has arisen about the government’s disaster preparedness and ability to reduce the impact before, during and after tragedy strikes.
While obliged to safeguard all citizens, the Constitution Section 19 (2) (b) mandates that: “The State must ensure that children have shelter and basic nutrition, healthcare and social services”.
However, reports about government officials withholding donated items have become rife with most recent revelations exposing that red tape had stalled building of new houses for cyclone victims in the area.
This deprivation of such basic rights, particularly to a vulnerable group like children, is a negation of government’s responsibility and could prejudice their future if left unchecked.
In the past, poverty and delay in the provision of housing for disaster victims has proven catastrophic as in the case of Chingwizi in 2014 where over 3 000 families displaced by Tugwi Mukosi Dam expansion floods stayed in tiny tent communities for too long, leading to a rise in crime.
Cases of crime, abuse and child prostitution have been recorded, with over 100 girls said to have fallen pregnant to date.
These are some of the future realities that children who have faced a disaster as immense as Cyclone Idai would have to live through if their welfare is continuously ignored as is the case now.
A determined Tanatswa, who wants to pursue a medical career when she grows up, imagines a different future.
“When I am done with school I want to be a doctor,” she said with a glowing face.
“I have contemplated dropping out of school before but because I want to do good things, I have to continue.”
Only time will tell if she attains her dreams but with the current circumstances like losing her sister (the source of her school fees), seeing debris left by the cyclone and not getting counselling, only the future knows her fate.
Kennedy Nyavaya is a finalist for Media Monitoring Africa’s Isu Elihle Awards, which aims to encourage innovative and insightful reporting on children in Eastern and Southern Africa. This story was produced with the support of the awards and its partners.