- Philip Hatcher-Moore
The immigration official at Maputo International Airport looked over my visa form, and asked me what sort of trucks I was visiting in Beira. I had written down “TRUK” on the form — the acronym for Team Rubicon UK — and she seemed mildly amused, or confused, that I would have travelled all this way to look at some beaten up wagons. It transpired that her misunderstanding would be rather prescient; 24 hours later I was sat in the cab of a dumper truck, loaded to the hilt with several tonnes of humanitarian aid, rumbling from Beira to the interior through the night.
I was in Mozambique to document recovery efforts after Cyclone Idai ravaged the region in mid-March, travelling with Team Rubicon UK, a charity comprising volunteers, many of whom are ex-military. It was soon evident that their approach was drastically different from many of the larger charities working there, from the military nomenclature imbued in their operation, to their idea of “comfort” in the field. I split my time in Mozambique between their two, four-person “strike-teams”, which were charged with delivering aid to isolated communities.
I had worked on the aftermath of the cyclone in Zimbabwe and Malawi several weeks previously, but it was Mozambique that had borne the brunt of Idai’s rage. Further north Cyclone Kenneth had just battered the country for a second time. Country-wide, some 1.85 million people have been affected by the cyclones, according to UNICEF. In its wake, Idai has brought a cholera outbreak, and cases of malaria have risen sharply, with more than 25,000 cases reported so far.
One of the biggest challenges aid organisations have faced is simply trying to reach the people that need their help. Even after the floodwaters receded, some communities remained isolated for weeks; sections of highway and bridges have been washed away, and tight, winding dirt roads have been bogged down in mud and blocked by fallen trees. These were communities that lost everything.
Martha Paolo, a nineteen year-old mother of two, lives in the village of Gaubolene, a few hours’ drive from Beira. “This is the first time we’ve seen anything like this here,” she told me, through a translator. Even the oldest people in her village couldn’t remember a storm as bad as this. Warnings had come through on the phone, but no-one here expected to see anything of the magnitude of the chest-high floodwaters. “We tried to protect ourselves in the house, but the storm blew the roofs off,” she said. “There are many families that lost all their family members.”
As the waters rose, Martha, who is several months pregnant, took her two children and climbed a nearby tree, covering herself and her children with a blanket — their only protection against the storm. The family spent the entire night in the tree, and the following day, braved the gushing waters in search of higher ground. “We couldn’t save anything from the house,” she said. “We lost everything.” The house was washed away, along with all their belongings, and the family’s crops were drowned in the flooded fields.
Martha said it took a month for the first aid to arrive. Trees had fallen, blocking off the tracks that led to the village. They had had one drop of food aid, and the community helped each other out with jerry cans and cooking pots. A week before I met Martha, John Zoumides, a former army medic who now volunteers with Team Rubicon UK, had arrived in the village on a helicopter recce. After speaking with the local chief, the team organised to come back with kits to help people get back on their feet: jerry-cans, blankets, solar lamps and other items. I rode along with them as they were bringing it all in.
“Improvise, adapt, overcome”
Earlier in the week, I had spent time with Team Rubicon UK’s other strike team — the aforementioned arduous all-night truck ride. We had to negotiate rickety, makeshift bridges and detours around washed-out roads, the convoy blew a tyre, and I had to climb out of the cab to hoist fallen telephone lines clear of the truck.
Paul Taylor served in the infantry of the British Army for 26 years, and has turned his career to disaster response and humanitarian aid; a Team Rubicon UK veteran, he had led this mission from the first deployment. When our truck rolled in to the dusty, barren village of Bandua one morning at 5am, it was Paul that met us, a head-torch on, having just emerged from the mosquito dome in which he had spent the night.
Paul and his team were not afraid to rough it, nor of getting stuck in with whatever needed doing. They hired labourers to help unload the several tonnes of aid, but were right in the middle of them, sweating it out in the midday sun to get everything unloaded. When the trucks got stuck in the sand, they were there digging them out. And symbolic of the respect they had for the community they were helping, as soon as the trucks were out, they grabbed shovels and filled in the trenches left by the spinning wheels. In all my years spent getting stuck on bad roads in far-flung places, I have never seen someone pick up a shovel to leave an area just as they had found it. I often heard Paul utter his mantra — “improvise, adapt, overcome” — when faced with problems. And this is exactly what his team were doing, day-in, day-out.
Back in Gaubolene, John was having to improvise, adapt, and overcome, too. A culvert had collapsed on the main road — a 4x4 could drive through, but not the big wagon that was bringing in the aid to Martha and the rest of the population. And further along, the road narrowed, until eventually it was swallowed by the stagnant flood waters.
John jumped out of the pick-up truck, and arranged for it to shuttle back and forth, between the truck and a school, bringing in a few kits at a time. Meanwhile, he rounded up a group of motorcycles to bring him and more than one hundred jerry cans to the village, several kilometres away. If they couldn’t get all of the aid to the village, they’d bring the village to the aid.
Families were arriving on foot as pick-up trucks ferried-in the supplies, congregating on the football pitch of the local primary school. The school was on slightly higher ground, so had escaped the flooding, but the rustic buildings had taken a battering by the winds, their roofs blown off, and some classrooms had collapsed.
Jordão Alficha was in the corner of the site, steadily fashioning a structure for a new classroom with a machete. He was not the sort of man to wait for assistance to come — it could be months, years even, before the school received any sort of help to rebuild. So this teacher was taking matters into his own hands. The classrooms he could fix, but his bigger concern was the damage caused by the storm to the school’s solar panels — the only source of electricity this far out in the bush. These were something he couldn’t repair.
“Your mother is a donor”
With the trucks emptied, Paul and John’s respective teams travelled back to Beira, where they had set-up base. It’s common for aid organisations to take over hotels and apartment complexes in disaster zones, often resulting in lucrative deals for their owners.
This was a somewhat different set-up.
In an empty bar-room of a local beach club, Team Rubicon had set-up their mosquito nets on the floor, living out of the kit-bags with which they had flown out, sharing the space with a contingent of Brazilian firefighters who had also come to help the relief effort. The owner of the complex had welcomed disaster responders, and Paul and the team had struck up a relationship with him, each of them simply wanting to do what they could to help people in need. Everywhere they went, their spirit of volunteering spread to those they met, and through these collaborations, things were achieved.
The idea of squeezing the most out of every penny donated seemed to be at the core of how Team Rubicon operated here. The seven responders working alongside Paul were all volunteering their time to be out here, taking time off work, and keeping their living costs to the bare minimum. They were sleeping on the floor, negotiating contracts for trucks and cars as hard as possible, and pushing every day to get as much work done as they could, all whilst living off one meal a day — often a dehydrated ration pack cooked over a camping stove far from the nearest bed. They knew that the people they had come to help were living in much harder conditions, and so had little time for luxuries.
I have at times become somewhat disenchanted by the waste and inefficiency of some of the responses witnessed in the myriad conflict and disaster zones I’ve covered across the continent. It was refreshing to spend time with a group of people who simply wanted to help: to get their heads down, and get things done. They said they felt proud, and privileged, to be out helping people, and they lived by their organisation’s values: “your mother is a donor” — in other words, don’t waste a penny.
After a week with with the team, I was flying back as they ended their mission. The flight home for me would take the best part of 24 hours. As I stood waiting for a coffee at the airport, I made small-talk with a salaried NGO worker in the café. She talked about her flight out to Mozambique, and how she had sent the available routes to her boss. “Just take the shorter one,” had been the response. “It’s only an extra £300.”