Friday, January 21, 2011

Rains: feast or floods?

The rains have subsided and the heat has returned but for once I’m happy about it. Until yesterday it had rained every single day since my arrival back in Mozambique. It never lasted more than an hour but the accumulated effects of rains here and in Zimbabwe and South Africa have swollen the Limpopo River to the top of its banks. My morning runs take me over the bridge and I’ve watched the tops of trees disappear under the rising silty swell. The once shallow, lazy river is now an angry brown snake, swirling violently around the bridge columns. One morning the eastern bend was obscured by mist and it looked like a vast bay opening up to the ocean.

The talk among neighbors is of flooding. The devastating floods of 2000 are still fresh in people’s memories. The renovation of my school was part of the recovery effort and we only re-opened the doors last semester. Broken farm equipment, desks, filing cabinets and other flood-damaged materials littler the school campus in rusting piles. Even the paint on the houses still shows signs of “the night they’ll never forget.” Dona Nelia was telling me that they awoke with water to their knees and had to leave most of their things behind. She pointed up to a faint line in the chipping white paint of my house near the top. “That’s how high the water got,” she explained.

At first this year’s rains were good news. Josefa explained that January is a “month of hunger” because people spend all of their money and eat all of their food during the excess of the holidays and then are left with nothing. The rains have brought excellent yields in corn, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and other crops. “Now the poor people will eat,” she said. But feast could become famine if the Limpopo continues to gorge itself on rain.

This afternoon, after a long day of sweating, I went for an evening walk behind the school. Where there were once plowed fields there is a wilderness of grass and resin plants high over my head. I feel like an insect in the grass. When I got to the riverside I saw that, despite the pause in rains the past two days, the river level had actually gone up slightly. I came back and reported to Dona Nelia and another neighbor who were sitting outside on a straw mat. They said that the upstream dam is discharging little by little. Apparently the halting of the rains has not put us out of danger. Dams in South Africa and Zimbabwe will also have to discharge. People in the flood plains may be forced to evacuate.

Here in my neighborhood we’re going on with business as usual. Watching the skies with a weary eye and praying we don’t hear the loudspeakers calling for evacuation. It’s an unsettling feeling to think that your fate is in the hands of the weather gods or the politicians who decide when and how much water to let out of the dams.

To the folks back home, there’s no need to worry about me. As an American I have the unique privilege of an entire support team monitoring the situation and looking out for my welfare and safety. What I worry about are my friends and neighbors who don’t have the luxury of escape and who don’t deserve to repeat the heartache of the floods.

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