Maputo, Mozambique – March 2000

The Real Y2K

In Africa, where everything happens at a slower pace, the Millennium bug hit a month late. And in a continent still much removed from the realities of e-everything – business, conferences, travel and information – the disasters predicted by computer breakdowns and meltdowns in Europe and North America came from somewhere else. The sky.

Aerial view of a flooded town in southern Gaza province.

Since early February, Mozambique – and most of southern Africa – has been reeling from the hardest and most intense rains on record. On February 4, gale winds and gushes of water hit Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, and continued unabated for the next three days. This initial storm left thousands homeless, cut off Maputo’s routes to South Africa and Swaziland, and washed away roads. One of my colleagues who lives in Matola, a town 20-km outside of Maputo and one of the worst-affected areas, was trapped in his home for more than five days. When he finally stepped out, the road outside his house was gone. The hole left behind was 2 meters deep.

Back to cyber-world: computer experts and other doomsayers reported sheepishly that nothing of consequence actually happened on January 1. Some tried to save face by warning that unforeseen effects of Y2K might surface in the months ahead. All in all, however, things were looking good.

They should have checked the weather reports.

Southern Africa’s version of Y2K validated – at least partly – the experts’ warnings. The initial problems were indeed peanuts compared to what came next. Although the first rains devastated lands and left many villages underwater, the following waves of water washed away whole towns. Bricks and mortar weren’t guarantees against the relentless flow coming downriver.

On February 22, the full force of tropical Cyclone Eline hit the Mozambique coast, near the central city of Beira. Winds measuring 250km/hr wiped out whole swatches of land – land that was still flooded from the first rains. Eline made its way inland, bringing destruction to many parts of Zimbabwe and Botswana. The rivers continued to swell to record levels, and the accumulated waters began their journey to the Indian Ocean. Via Mozambique.

The combination of seemingly endless storms and Cyclone Eline flooded many of southern Africa’s rivers to unsustainable levels, which in turn created enormous pressures on all of the existing dams. Opening the dams was inevitable.

Workers sort sacks of WFP maize for distribution.

The two most flooded rivers at the moment are the Limpopo and the Save, which pass through Gaza and Inhambane provinces respectively. Their levels continue to rise as more dams from neighboring countries (and even Mozambique) release yet more water. Last Saturday, I spent the day volunteering with the World Food Program (WFP) and sorting out food that would go to Chokwé, a town in Gaza province that was the temporary home for thousands of people. By Sunday morning, less than 12 hours after I’d left the area, Chokwé was underwater.

Some people said the wall of water was 4 meters tall and rushed by at 15-km/hr. Others said it was half the size. No matter. However tall it was, it was tall enough to flood homes, drown people and wash away cars and trees. The Limpopo valley has all but disappeared and the river is in places 125-km across.

On Saturday, the day before the latest Y2K reverberation, I met and talked to several aid workers, all of whom did not foresee what was coming, but were instead focusing their efforts on distributing food, water and medicine to the homeless. A couple of guys from Médicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) were busy receiving equipment for the cholera camp that they were about to erect. In Chokwé.

Another group from the Red Cross spent the day arranging to transport huge water treatment plants to areas where the population had temporarily settled but had no drinking water. In Chokwé. And I helped count and sort (literally) tons of food-maize, sugar, oil, and high-energy biscuits, which were to be taken to a WFP warehouse. In Chokwé.

South African helicopter prepares to airlift food and supplies.

I imagine most of our work was undone in a matter of minutes as the Limpopo rushed through Chokwé and the nearby villages. Relief operations are now focusing on saving people – women, children, men and the elderly – who hurried to climb trees, roofs and cars as their homes disappeared. Some people have been stranded since Sunday, and, given the measly life-saving resources available, most will die.

Other people refuse to be rescued, preferring instead to try and save their possessions and cattle. Although that kind of attitude may sound foolish and naïve to the “western” world, what good is it to be saved now if their only resources for survival – which are predominantly goats and cattle in Gaza – are gone? These people have no insurance or bank accounts. They receive no social security and most have never been to a health clinic. They are left with nothing.

Aid agencies are overwhelmed. There are thousands of people still homeless from the first floods – remember them? They need water, food and shelter. There are thousands more people clinging on for their lives – on a rooftop or in waist-deep water in Gaza and Inhambane. They too need water, food and shelter. And the same scenario will unfold in the Zambezi valley if that river floods as a consequence of the opening of the Kariba Dam on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. At this point, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

This weekend, I will head to some of the camps with friends and lend a hand. We’re aware of our limitations and know that at the end of the day, we will not have done much. Unfortunately, unlike the computer-driven Millennium Bug, this disaster caught everyone off guard. No matter. Because, like the virtual Y2K, this is still a global problem. And we’re all part of the solution.

Facts & Figures

Maputo, formerly Lourenço Marques, is a lively African capital, whose many coffee shops, bars and night spots give this city a distinctively Latin feel.

Although Mozambique’s civil war left much of the city in disrepair, a lot has changed over the last 2 years. In fact, Maputo is undergoing a massive face-lift and it is almost impossible to keep up with the changes.

It has a population of about 1.5 million, and is situated on the Gulf of Maputo (map) – conveniently located near great beaches, such as Ponta d’Ouro, Inhaca Island and Bilene Beach. Since 1898, it has been the Mozambican capital.

Mozambicans and their Coffee

Although Mozambique gained independence in 1974, the Portuguese influence remains clearly evident. Going out for coffee is a national pastime, and the Portuguese pastelarias (pastry & coffee shops) dot the streets.

Some of the most popular include Pastelaria Nautilus (on the hip and happening Ave. Julius Nyerere) and Continental, Scala and Djambu on Ave. 25 de Setembro.

I recommend having a galão (tall glass with a shot of espresso and topped with milk) or a café com leite (coffee and milk) and a pastel de nata (typical Portuguese pastry which is very yummy) at any of these pastelarias and watching the “never-a-dull-moment” street life.

Hotels & Whereabouts

Although Maputo does not lack accommodations in the $100+ range, more modest lodgings are sometimes hard to find.

However, the tried and tested Fatima’s (Ave. Mao Tse Tung, 1317) is the best bet for backpackers. Also accessible money-wise are Pensão Martins on Ave. 24 de Julho and Hotel Tivoli on Ave. 25 de Setembro (the same one as the Central Market) in the area known as the Baixa.

Although the Baixa is certainly safe enough during the day, it is a bit dodgy in the evenings, and travelers should not wander around by themselves there after dark.

Nightlife & Foodstuffs

It’s kicking! It’s happening! And it’s pretty wild! Maputo is a big party town, and the party usually lasts until the next day. The clubs and bars don’t usually get going before midnight, and some, like the Mini-Golf will draw crowds only after 2am.

However, if you’re looking for something to keep you awake until then, hit the Buraco Loco bar on Ave. 24 de Julho (opposite the famous Piri-Piri restaurant) if it’s a Friday, or try Eagle’s Bar at the Baixa, off Ave. 25 de Setembro, on Saturday.

Eagle’s is across the street from the Feira Popular, a fair filled with dozens of cheap and funky bars, good restaurants, like Lua (Chinese) and Coqueiro (Mozambican), and other odds ‘n ends, such as the famous travelling puppet/strip show (not to be missed)!

About Me!

I have been living in Maputo since July ’98 and I work on a USAID-sponsored reproductive health (that’s family planning, STDs, and AIDS stuff!) project.

In my spare time, I play tour guide and hostess to friends (and friends of friends of friends) and take road-trips to Swaziland, South Africa and beaches up and down the Mozambican coast.

I drive an old Mazda with rusty doors, and unlike practically everyone else, do not own a cell phone (the latest and most ubiquitous trend on the streets).

I am from Brasil, and will often end up talking about football (soccer) and samba with my Mozambican friends, all of whom love our soap-operas (my country’s biggest export along with evangelical churches of dubious origins!) and TV shows.

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