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Sounds, smells of death in Idai’s trail

By Isdore Guvamombe

Cyclone Idai has receded to the ocean, but the smell of death still wafts all over Chimanimani and Chipinge. Many people are still missing, others lie buried in debris, pinned under huge stones and chances of recovering their bodies are next to zero.

A man stands next to the wreckage a vehicles washed away in Chimanimani, eastern Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by the cyclone Idai.
A man stands next to the wreckage a vehicles washed away on March 18, 2019 in Chimanimani, eastern Zimbabwe, after the area was hit by the cyclone Idai. – A cyclone that ripped across Mozambique and Zimbabwe has killed at least 162 people with scores more missing. Cyclone Idai tore into the centre of Mozambique on the night of March 14 before barreling on to neighbouring Zimbabwe, bringing flash floods and ferocious winds, and washing away roads and houses. (Photo by Zinyange AUNTONY / AFP)

Other bodies might have found their way yonder into Mozambique and still others might have dropped or washed ashore before reaching the Indian Ocean where they will fade nameless and unglorious.

In some cases, whole growth points and business centres have been washed away, together with their owners or keepers who slept in the backyard.

So cruel was Cyclone Idai that it even exhumed bodies from cemeteries and washed them away.

The survivors are in shock and in need of food, shelter, medication, clothing and psychological support.

More than 50 new rivers have been formed, while many old rivers have changed courses in many places, giving the country a new dilemma on roads infrastructure.

Chimanimani and Chipinge are mostly remote and craggy.

Here, geography condemned the land to valleys squashed between high massifs and a thousand interlocking hills and hillocks.

Here, again, rivers frond out of mountains, hills and hillocks, marking their channels and eating out space from the already squashed valleys, as they carry their loot to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.

Here, again, homesteads and business centres perch precariously on mountain slopes, mountain feet and riverbanks.

Since time immemorial, the communities here eke a living from these rolling valleys overlooked by high interlocking massifs. And, so do their livestock and little everything else.

It is here again that dotted towns and growth points, the nerve centres of development, are built on valleys and mountain feet.

One such settlement is Ngangu, a formal high-density suburb, built aboveboard with all the facilities of a modern township; running water, primary and secondary schools, churches and houses line up in square and linear streets.

There were more than 800 residential stands that were sold by council and developed into houses in Ngangu.

Overlooking the suburb is the towering Ngangu Mountain, whose summit is the fiery and sacred reliquary of the spirit mediums of the Chikukwa chieftainship. All the paraphernalia, from clothing, to spears, knobkerries and clay pots were safely kept there and only used at ritual times.

Only Doisa, the main female officiant of the shrine was allowed to clean and work on the paraphernalia, for, she was in post mendicancy life. She is now late, having died many years ago of natural causes. They are yet to replace her.

In the past few years, the advent of Pentecostalism, saw many Christians climb up the mountain day-in day-out to pray. They came from far and wide, in different ages and regalia, in all shapes and sizes fouling the spirits and destroying the accoutrements.

Chief Thomas Chikukwa has always complained about the religious invasion of Ngangu and the destruction of the paraphernalia, but that is subject for another instalment.

Now when Cyclone Idai struck on March 14, Ngangu Mountain went sodden around 10pm and pushed down tonnes and tonnes of stones, mud and water, in huge avalanches and landslides that flattened at least 40 houses in Ngangu suburb.

Disaster! The path used by Christians to climb up Ngangu is now a huge new river that has left a trail of destruction and razed houses. Huge stones remain as a stuck reminder of the cyclone’s ferocity.

On the Thursday night in question, people slept early. It was cold and dark. There had not been electricity in Ngangu suburb for four days. It had been raining heavily for more than 48 hours. The ground was soaked and saturated.

The avalanche came in sudden sluggishness as 15 newly-formed streams gushed from the mountain top and merged into three huge streams of mud, stones, water and logs on arrival at the foot of the mountain, where Ngangu suburb starts.

The township was flooded. The grinding and rolling of the stones shook the township, flattened 40 houses and killed scores of people in their sleep. Others managed to escape.

Ngangu Cemetery, with more than 200 graves, had about 70 exhumed and washed away.

“I stayed in the school yard in Ngangu. I had slept at 6.30pm because there was virtually nothing to do without power and under heavy rains. Around 10pm I woke up to find my wardrobe, my fridge and kitchen cardboards shaking. Everything was shaking. It had just stopped raining. Hell broke loose when I opened the door and was thrown back by the raging debris avalanche that forced its way in. It was very warm. Almost hot.

“I managed to open the other door with the avalanche flowing behind me out of the house at high speed. It sounded like there was low-flying plane.

“I heard crying and screaming. I heard people shout Doomsday had come. I looked back from a vintage point a few metres away and saw my house crumble and disappear under the mud and stones. I was left with nothing but the clothes I was wearing,’’ says Brenda Sibanda, a teacher at Ngangu Secondary School.

Sibanda’s story of the hot mud paste is shared by many survivors.

How could it be hot when it is raining cats and dogs?

Honestly how does a rainfall-triggered mudslide be hot?

This question has largely remained unanswered.

At Kopa Rusitu Valley, just a spitting distance from the confluence of Chipita, Rusitu and Nhahode Rivers, the growth point housing a clinic, shops and Government houses was washed away and scores of people killed. The three rivers changed their courses.

A family of five was swept away without trace alongside dozens of other people.

Mr Edison Hurukayi (71) of Sabumba Village, said his son-in-law, his daughter and their three children are missing after their house was swept away in Kopa, Rusitu.

“This is the most painful period of my life. I do not know how to explain this to you. I lost everything. I mean everything. As we speak my daughter, Jane Hurukayi, her husband Francis Mapungwana and their three children Tinotenda, Tavongwa and Mazvita are missing. They were swept away at their home in Copper, Rusitu that Friday,” he said.

Along Nyahode River was another settlement of 15 tuckshops and they were all swept away at night together with their owners or attendants.

In villages dotted on the valley and mountain sides, disaster struck in many forms and formats. But when the story is fully told, the highest concentration of the cyclone deaths were in Ngangu, Kopa, Nyahode and Biriiiri, all business centres.

Today, the people of Chimanimani and Chipinge remain haunted, shell-shocked, confused and still needing material and psychological help. The ghost of the cyclone still haunts them. The Herald