Guest Column: Oskar Wermter SJ
First, there was a violent rainstorm which softened the soil. Then big chunks of soil started sliding down the hillside. Little huts made of pole and dagga, with thatched roofs, were hit by the mud, collapsed and then carried away downhill. Eventually, rocks followed and smashed what was left of these poor shelters. The people asleep in the huts who had not seen the mud and rockslides coming were overwhelmed by the mass of rubble, pole and dagga material, thatching and stones, and naturally vanished together with the rest downhill. Their bodies were carried away in the river, with some eventually reaching the sea, never to be seen again.
Some observers later reported that the cyclone had been out there in the ocean, well before the catastrophe hit. It had been clearly visible on the weather charts of international TV networks. It was obviously moving towards land and eventually made its landfall right in the centre of Beira. The violence of the storm ripped off the corrugated iron sheets on rooftops, and people who were asleep and unprotected had their living quarters flooded. Much of the city of Beira is below sea level, and there is now a lot of stagnant water attracting mosquitoes and spreading malaria and cholera.
This was not a unique happening. On the very first pages of the Bible you meet Noah, his wife and family, and the animals in the ark rescued from the Great Flood. God had wanted to wipe out the human race because of their wickedness, but he changed his mind: Mercy and compassion prevailed. He set a rainbow into the sky as a sign of the covenant that “there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth” (Genesis 7 – 9).
We must open our eyes and see the catastrophes as they approach. We should not blame God and the powers of nature. If the Kariba Dam wall were ever to break and let the water stored in a lake 175km long flood the Zambezi Valley, whose fault would it be?
We need to ask: Who built Kariba? Who failed to do the absolutely necessary maintenance work? The answer is simple: We and our forebears built the wall, and we and our government are obliged to maintain it. Don’t we see the cracks? Can’t we appeal to professional engineers everywhere to save the Zambezi Valley and its people?
In Nigeria, a provisional church building collapsed and killed hundreds. In Asian countries, blocks of flats and factory buildings keep falling, with big populations dying under the rubble. Are the builders ever asked to answer for their shoddy construction work ?
If we allow the atmosphere round the globe to warm and make the ice shields at the North and the South poles melt and raise the sea levels, who can we blame for the islands being flooded and sinking into the depths of the ocean?
A school in Chimanimani was hit at night by Cyclone Idai; two students and a security guard perished in the process. “Sliding mud and rocks struck the school dining hall, which collapsed and fell onto the dormitory where 48 Form 1 pupils were asleep” (From a report: Beyond Cyclone Idai).
Mudslides coming down the mountain killed 350 people, and 250 are still missing. The Catholic Bishop of Mutare said 44 bodies were taken to the parish church in Chimanimani. At a meeting for people willing to help, he announced that food aid would be needed for the rest of the year. What happened in Chimanimani and Chipinge may also happen to us. Not only Mutare, but also Harare is affected. Sixteen thousand families suffered. We all have to learn how to handle a situation like that.
We must respect nature to avoid such damage. Many helpers are needed. People pray for protection. They must also do what is in their own power.
In Brazil , along the Amazonas, trees are cut down to turn the forest into fields and produce marketable crops. This damages the river banks. We must save the trees so that rivers do not cause flooding. The sign of the rainbow must remind us that, the maker and keeper of this earth does not want floods out of control. It is up to us to respect the limits of nature and of the whole earth, our common home.
Noah and his household were rescued through the ark, a vessel that was floating on the water. We must build our arks well in time. The rainbow is our signal.
Oskar Wermter is a social commentator and writes in his personal capacity.