Thursday, 1 April 2010
Hang in there.. help is on the way
I am a bit hesistant about featuring this piece, I really would hate to add to the stereotype of Africans and trees :// Then again, its a great story about courage, determination, destiny and love in the most difficult of circumstances. How Sofia gave birth to Rosita in the most dire circumstance. I am publishing it with the hope that someone, somewhere, who may be upset or depressed about a situation in his/her life, may be inspired to have faith.
I hope you like it as much as I did
It's Rosita's birthday today March 1st. Her classmates will recite poems specially prepared for her and sing songs. The local mayor will attend. Neighbours have been gathering at their home for days to prepare the special foods for the day. There will be lots of pictures taken, and people will celebrate her special day around the world. It's the day the world ended for her mother and the rest of the family.
"I know I'm special," says the beautiful nine-year-old with her head downcast, staring at at her sandaled feet.
Today, 10 years ago, Rosita Mabuiango was born in a tree in the tiny village of Chokwe in Mozambique. It's an image which is easily recalled by many people. It's a picture which alerted people around the world to the plight of the hundreds of thousands caught up in the floods in 2000.
Nearly 200 000 people were saved in a massive rescue effort, 700 died and countless lives were ruined by the devastating waters. But the image of Sofia Chubango giving birth in a tree is probably the only thing people will remember.
Altogether 14 931 people were saved by South African helicopters. SA Air Force helicopter pilot Chris Berlyn estimates that his crew alone rescued about 2 000 people.
The air force had already been deployed to assist with the massive rescue operation spearheaded by the Mozambican navy, which had already managed to evacuate more than 100 000 people from flood-affected areas. But the worst was yet to come.
People had been living and farming along the Limpopo River for many a generation and were well aware of the risk of flooding. Locals had long become accustomed to the rhythm of the river, and men and women with withered hands did not feel it was necessary to leave. For many, their livestock and mud and reed huts were everything - their savings from a lifetime of toil in the fertile valley.
On the day of the flood the women, draped in their traditional skirts, scarves and T-shirts, chatted as they crossed the short distance from the field to the coolness of the mafureira tree and the small mud huts.
Rosita's uncle Carlito Mabuiango remembered cracking a joke which had everybody laughing and smiling after a day in the field. The women immediately set about starting a fire and tearing up the gusha leaves that would be mixed with ash for dinner.
"We didn't see it coming," Sofia said.
Faced with ever-increasing water levels threatening to break dam walls, Zimbabwe and Malawi opened their flood gates, sending a torrent of water rushing down the Limpopo.
Berlyn and his crew had already been in Mozambique for two weeks.
A plane would identify pockets of stranded people, co-ordinating a fleet of helicopter pilots who would carve an area into grids, systematically rescuing people stranded on rooftops and trees.
The pilot would announce through a loudspeaker that people should make themselves visible. Help was on the way.
The BK-117 helicopter wasn't really made for rescue operations. With its small capacity - for six passengers - it would take innumerable trips to make a dent in the number of people needing help. Still, the crew pushed as far as they could - at least 10 people per trip. On one occasion even a dog.
"It was a job. Sometimes people refused to leave. They'd wave as we left, and we knew they wouldn't survive," Berlyn said.
On the day of the flood there was no time to grab anything. As family members raced to a tree, the waters swirled against their shins. By the time they had crossed the 5 metres to the tree trunk, the water was waist deep.
"It was amazing. Even the oldest person, who struggled to walk, suddenly had the strength to climb," Sofia said. Children, mothers, fathers and grandparents secured themselves in the crook of a branch.
Within 10 minutes, the water, now covering the vast expanse of valley below them, was 2m deep and rising.
A desperate mother
In the tree with Sofia was her second eldest child, two-year-old Benedicto. There would be no sleep that night as the family, clinging to branches in three mafureira trees, watched the roofs of their huts disappear under water. "We watched the water rising, always rising," Sofia said.
The new day dawned, bringing with it excruciating pain in Sofia's belly. She tried to stifle her cries, for the sake of Benedicto. The two-year-old was hungry, thirsty and scared. Sofia, herself struck by stabbing pains, couldn't comfort her little boy. "He was crying a lot from hunger, but there was nothing I could do."
Two weeks before, there were rumours that members of 7 Medical Battalion would be deployed to the flood-ravaged country. Corporal Tshifhiwa Nengovhela's girlfriend and mother had asked if somebody could go in his place. But this is the army. People aren't asked, they get deployed.
Nengovhela was nervous. From the media, his impression of Mozambique was of one of a violent country where there was no order. And the images on television the previous week gave the impression that any helper could perish. And he had his entire life ahead of him. Under-resourced and under-prepared, Nengovhela found himself dispensing medical treatment to throngs of flood survivors in Chibuto, 350km from Maputo.
Other days he would be loading and unloading food aid at camps for internally displaced people.
On March 1, 2000 Nengovhela was attending to a common medical problem - people with blistered skin from being immersed in water for too long.
"The flood was vast. You looked for colours or any indication of life. Sometimes you would go down into the tree and the people would already be dead. But we were not collecting bodies," Nengovhela said.
Sofia could no longer stifle her pain. Her stepmother, in another tree, immediately took charge. Sofia needed expert hands.
Carlito was dispatched to fetch the heavily pregnant woman. Sofia carefully clambered down the tree and climbed onto Carlito's back, the pair slowly swam to an adjacent tree where a women experienced in childbirth was, like everyone else, precariously perched on a branch. By the third day, the lack of food and water had exhausted the 24-year-old and occasionally she would wake with a jolt, having drifted off and then, somehow, realising her treacherous condition.
"It was very, very painful. I was crying, screaming. Sometimes I thought the baby was coming, but other times I thought it was because of hunger," Sofia said.
She was sitting on one of the lower branches, too weak to climb any higher. If she reached out she could touch the water below. It would not quench her burning thirst. She prayed.
"Let your will be done," she asked God.
At 7am of the fourth day, March 1, 2000, Sofia and the rest of the family in the tree spotted a small helicopter. They waved, throwing up blankets and scarves but it disappeared. No one spoke, even thinking about it was too much of an effort. Then a dot appeared on the horizon. Then many dots.
At 9am Berlyn and his crew had been in the air for two hours. From one tree, Berlyn could see somebody waving a red scarf.
Like so many times before in the past two weeks, Stuart Buck was lowered in a winch to help retrieve survivors.
"When we pulled him back up, he said there was a woman in a tree and she was about to give birth.
It wasn't what we wanted to deal with at the time," Berlyn said.
Nengovhela was staring at his medical bag. He could feel the gaze of every crew member on him. He tried to calm his mind. "I was was very, very nervous. Everybody was depending on me," he said.
He'd hardly had time to prepare himself when the radio call came in. There was a woman in a tree who was about to give birth. Moments later, the BK-117 had landed and Nengovhela got on board. Quickly, he stripped his medical bag to the bare minimum: clamps, scissors, space blanket.
The helicopter hovered above the tree, creating swirling winds and forcing the weak survivors to cling to the branches with the little strength they had left.
"We got scared, we feared we were going to be blown out of the tree," Sofia said.
The man in the green jumpsuit and white helmet went up and down rescuing people from the tree, leaving Sofia behind. "They said they would come back for me," she said.
Safely in the harness and with the helicopter rotor sweeping the branches this way and that, Nengovhela made his way down into the tree, carefully trying to find his footing among the dense foliage.
The tiny life inside Sofia would wait no longer. In rural Mozambique, women regularly give birth outside of hospitals. The midwife would assist as, perched between the branches, Sofia pushed a little girl into a world metres above the swirling floodwaters.
When Nongovhela finally clambered across to Sofia, she was clutching her baby to her chest.
"The baby was very, very blue. I was struggling to find a pulse and wondered if the baby was alive," Nongovhela said.
In his limited Shangaan, the medic was able to elicit a few nods from the drained mother. He cut the umbilical cord. Somebody handed him a towel, which he used to wrap the baby and continued with his examination. Finally, carefully running his fingers up the baby's arm, he felt it. "There were signs of life," he said.
Mother first, then the baby were winched into the helicopter and onto higher ground in Chibuto. From there they were taken to hospital in Maputo.
The entire drama had been captured by SABC cameraman Adolf Spannenberg. By the time mother and child had recovered, the world knew of the miraculous birth.
The famous mother and child were whisked away to Europe and the US, networks clamouring to speak to the two miraculous survivors of the floods in Mozambique.
An appeal by the Mozambican government for $250 million was met and nearly doubled by the generosity of international community. Air support for the rescue effort was dispatched from the UK, Spain, the US, Belgium, France and Botswana.
"The world, after witnessing the miracle, could not just let things return to the status quo," said Berlyn, who, 10 years later, has left the military and today ferries naval pilots to ships porting at Durban harbour. When he returned from Mozambique, it would take him weeks to recover from the physical exhaustion, and even longer from what he witnessed.
He still finds it ironic that the same people who would typically be called on to do the bombing runs on Maputo in the mid-80s were co-ordinating the humanitarian effort from the South African side. "It was a job. We did what we had to do and then we came home," Berlyn said.
Nongovhela is still in the army, and when he recalls those weeks in Mozambique, he remembers the countless times when it was too treacherous to enter a flooded hut. He remembers the faces of the people standing on the roofs of their homes, surrounded by their livestock and family.
"The father would send the mother and children, but he would not go without his animals.
"I think a lot of the rescuers' lives were changed, seeing people die and others who could not be saved. But we rescued a lot of people, and I'm proud of that."
Over the past 10 years, a number of government officials and foreign visitors have visited the family to see Rosita and her mother. Nine months after the floods, the family were able to move into their own brick-and-mortar home, compliments of the government. Recently the house was fitted with running water and electricity. Many others would leave gifts for her.
Rosita's father, Salvadore Mabuiango, says people think they have lots of money. The family's rise to fame has led to a number of detractors. Nothing directly. Always a hush or a whisper carried via the network of neighbours and friends. Some have even been known to go to local inyangas to put a curse on the family. The family were one of us and now they are rich, is what some say. Sofia understands, though. "A lot of people lost everything in the floods, but I gained something," she said.
The money and gifts have helped to feed and clothe the four Mabuiango children. Rosita's siblings are nonplussed by the attention their famous sister attracts.
Rosita is typical of children her age. Her favourite activity is school, "because I learn so many new things", and at home she is expected to assist with the household chores.
Rosita is afraid of the goats. ("They may bite.") She doesn't like the long grass. ("It makes my legs itch." She's scared of climbing trees. ("What if I fall?")
At the local administrator's office where Sofia has been working as a messenger for the past three years, she is fairly anonymous in her grey overall with a name tag that says "Carolina". But everybody here knows the woman with the miracle birth.
As she enters her compound, the grey overall shed and brightly coloured T-shirt revealed, her face lights up and her smile belies her age as neighbours ululate and her children rush to greet her.
Rosita doesn't move from her mother's side, and regularly whispers in her ear.
"We're more like friends. She tells me all her secrets. Mostly about things that happen at school," Sofia says.
Much of her time is spent playing with her youngest sister, four-month-old Cecilia.
"I'm a mother, and I regard all my children as special.
But there is something about Rosita..." Sofia says.
A special daughter
And every year, as March draws near, Rosita gets more excited.
"It makes me feel special. And a lot of people like me on that day," Rosita said.
Amid all the frivolity and preparations in the compound, Salvadore cuts a glum figure. He bemoans the fact that he only earns $50 a month and that food prices are skyrocketing. That the neighbours are gossiping about them and some don't even talk to him anymore. He hasn't been to the family's farm 15km away for months now, complaining that the rains have been poor.
"We are not like other families around here. We get a lot of attention. But the money we make is not nearly enough, because things are very expensive," Salvadore says.
Two years ago Salvadore was convicted for selling off gifts given to Rosita. Sofia explained to the local magistrate that whenever she tried to stop him, Salvadore would beat her. The court warned Salvadore and made Sofia the custodian of Rosita's assets.
Salvadore dismisses the incident as a conspiracy by jealous neighbours intent on tearing the family apart. Privately, Sofia confirms the beatings.
But things have improved since the court hearing, and Salvadore hasn't hit her again, she says.
"I think the warning did him good, and things are better now.
"Sometimes life is very good, but sometimes, when I have problems with my husband, it seems a poor life," Sofia adds.
Rosita is oblivious to the beatings or the fact that her parents faced off in court. When asked about the gifts she has received, she can only shyly point to the two cribs in her parents' room.
Nearly 10 years after Rosita's miraculous birth in a tree, Sofia decided to have another child - Cecilia.
"It won't be long before Rosita will go to Xai-Xai or even Maputo to study, and then there will be nobody here for me," Sofia says.
In the meantime, Salvadore's cellphone is ringing repeatedly.
Television crews are on their way from the UK and Portugal to celebrate the miracle baby's 10th birthday.
After a decade of dealing with the pushing and prodding of news crews, Sofia still appears shy, and is occasionally reluctant to pose for pictures.
"Sometimes I get a bit irritated with all the attention. But then sometimes I think I'm like a priest, and in telling our story, it gives people hope."
Thanks for reading through..have a good friday!