dog on pedastal in a flood

A Devastating Storm

Voices from the Future | Ntombi Makuyana

A Devastating Storm

The Event: Tropical storm Idai struck the southeastern Chimanimani and Chipinge districts of Zimbabwe on March 14, 2019. The torrential rains caused massive floods, washed away roads and bridges, submerged around 20,000 houses and completely destroyed 700 homes. An estimated 268 people died, and another 200 people were swept away by floods to neighboring Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. Those flood victims still haven’t been found.

Ntombi Makuyana, a graduate student at Arizona State University, lives 9,686 miles away from her African grandparents. But she has kept in touch with them and her extended family. Recently, Makuyana’s sense of disconnection grew when her grandparents faced the worst — their house was destroyed and washed away by muddy floodwaters in the small village of Chimanimani, at the southeastern edge of Zimbabwe.

“I felt guilty,” says Makuyana, a 24-year old medical biochemistry graduate who is hoping to go to medical school this fall. “I didn’t have any idea how serious the situation was. My grandmother held my grandfather by his hand to stay above the muddy waters as they ran outside to safety. The water was still up to their chests. Tree branches and other debris washed along the water and cut the skin on their legs and arms. The water moved really fast. The village is in a very mountainous area, and the water came with force from the top down. Everything was covered in mud. My grandparents lost their house totally.”

Makuyana learned that her family didn’t want to bother her with too much information about the storm at the time. She had relied on the news. After all, Makuyana was busy with her finals, writing essays and getting ready to graduate from the university. She is the first in her family of very modest means to become a college graduate.

“My grandparents’ village is in a very rural area,” she says. “There is no electricity, and the connection with a phone is bad. It doesn’t always work. In the end, my grandparents were picked up by a rescue helicopter and evacuated to a local school. Some people from the village were saved from drowning because they are really good swimmers.”

Soon, they faced other hurdles. Makuyana’s 90-year old grandfather had to spend a week in intensive care.

“It was very scary,” she says. “His mouth and ears were full of mud because he fell in the water. My family is very poor, so I had to send money for the hospital care and his pills; otherwise, he wouldn’t have gotten the care he needed. It was very stressful because I was a student and I didn’t work. The money I had I used for them. I also paid for a new small house for my grandparents that my father built.”

Additionally, Makuyana’s grandmother suffered intense headaches after the floods.

“I am sure she has a post-traumatic stress disorder,” Makuyana says. “I learned quickly that there were too few doctors in our rural area, and they only provided medical care for people who were able to pay. Without my help my grandparents would have suffered more.”

Makuyana has always wanted to be a doctor — to help her people. She changed her thinking after the cyclone. She realized that much is wrong in her home country’s health care system and that there are infrastructure issues that she couldn’t fix as a medical doctor who was only educated about treating patients.

“Doctors can relieve pain, but not actually go into the root of the cause of the disease,” she says. “I would like to do research, but it is very hard in my country. I’d like to create conditions using diagnostic tests and a system for women to get checked before ovarian cancer has developed too far. Now many women don’t find out about the diagnosis before they are pregnant and see a doctor. Then it’s too late.”

As for Makuyana’s own future, it’s on hold for now as she calculates her earnings possibilities after attending medical school. She teaches science as a teacher’s assistant in a local high school and finances are tight. Still, she sends money home to her parents and her grandparents.

”My grandmother tries to cultivate the land to get food to grow again,” she says. “But it’s hard because there is still so much sand and mud on the ground. She says that they’ve never experienced a cyclone in their lives. ‘Maybe the Gods were mad about us’, she says. She was surprised when the cyclone happened. My grandfather is still ill and his hearing is bad. As an educated person I believe the cyclone was caused by the changes in climate. We really have to think hard about how to slow that development.”

                                                                           —Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss