To Begaja and back - stories from Mozambique’s lost village
Sunday Times journalist Jeff Wicks and photographer Alaister Russell chronicle tales of loss and hope in a village destroyed by Idai
The rhythmic whirring of chopper blades announced our arrival in the village of Estaquina as the pilot of an SANDF Oryx carrying a payload of food and medicine aimed the helicopter’s nose toward a soccer field.
Set on high ground away from the banks of the Buzi River, the village was spared most of Cyclone Idai’s wrath.
Save for rooftops peeled back by punishing winds, Estaquina had survived the onslaught of the tempest.
However, the neighbouring village of Begaja had lost people. Many had died. More were missing.
Entire families were wiped out, we were told, when the village was overcome by water.
Those who survived had spent days in the treetops to escape the flood.
While tales of the global relief effort streaming into Beira and the damage wrought on the port city had been beamed across the globe, the true human toll in isolated areas and villages was difficult to measure.
That is what we set out to do – find compelling stories of loss, starvation and strife that the world needed to hear.
Even with the floodwaters receding, the 10km dirt track that snaked toward Begaja had been impassable in the days before.
We had a gamble on our hands. Our time in Estaquina was limited and we needed to hitch a ride back to Beira the next day.
No light means no pictures and the sun was inching toward the horizon when on hastily hired motorcycles, straining under our weight and the men driving them, we moved in the direction of the village.
Downed electricity lines lay across the road, trucks and cars caught up in the flood lay abandoned at the roadside while our motorcycles cleaved a path through the mud.
In the flooded maize fields surrounding the village of Begaja, the unmistakable scent of death hung heavily in the air.
The high watermark of the floodplain was marked by debris lodged in treetops. Houses had been swept off their foundations and a pair of women huddled at the roadside.
The mother and daughter had clung to the branches of a mango tree for four days. The young mother lost her four-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. They were ripped from her arms by the current as she tried to take refuge in a tree.
She found her son’s body tangled in the brush, and buried him in an unmarked grave near what once was her home.
Everyone there had borne witness to death and had lost everything in the flood.
While they stood at the roadside recounting their horror, and bathed in the light from the setting sun, the clacking shutter of the camera broke the eerie stillness.
The women and others left destitute would cross a river to another village, wading into the murky water carrying anything they could salvage from Begaja.
Alaister waded into the water and photographed the villagers as they moved across the water.
Through his viewfinder he watched the sun dip below the horizon. It was time to leave.
But not before encountering a local hero.
Augusto Machava, a farmer, and 46 others he pulled from the water spent four days on his roof. His entire existence was destroyed.
When the water subsided, he moved through the village, pulling the bodies of his friends and neighbours from the morass and, without funeral or last rites, buried them in the mud.
Now he also reached out to us.
“I was using water from a puddle to wash the mud off my legs when Augusto approached us,” Alaister recalls.
“In broken English he said he knew of some clean water I could use. We followed him to his house, the only other brick structure in the village, where he returned with a jerry can filled with water.”
This man, who had lost everything, wanted us to use his last drinking water to wash our feet.
After much protestation from him and in defiance of ours, we shared a drink of the water from a chipped mug which had survived the barrage of water.
“I became emotional and felt connected through our commonality as humans. I felt nothing but admiration for their resilience and immense pain, for the horrors they had endured. I felt it was important to tell their story and I knew that I was in the right place,” Alaister said.
Now in darkness, it was time to move back to Estaquina.
Only one motorbike would start and after a short walk, the headlights of a 4X4 carrying sick villagers to the clinic at Estaquina rounded a bend.
Our interpreter secured us a place in the loadbed among the infirm while our drivers followed, one bike towing the other.
Before reaching Estaquina the 4X4 was bogged down in deep mud, its wheels spinning it into place.
We drove the last few kilometres on the last working bike that was towing the broken-down one.
Under a tree in the camp we sat in silence.
“Nothing prepares you for the sobering moment you walk into a scene and witness devastation and loss of life and meet the resilient people who endured,” Alaister said.
We went without food that night, our hunger pangs nothing compared with what the surviving villagers experienced.
It was clear we had to do everything possible to tell the world what was happening in Begaja.