By Mairead Heffron
“I’m going to work for a year with the UN development Programme”, I tell my friends and family. Immediately images of UN peacekeeping missions and blue berets float in front of their eyes. I explain to them that Mozambique is now a country at peace, that peacekeeping activities are better left to my military friends, and that what I will actually be doing is working on Disaster Risk Reduction.
This again, draws some blank stares and confused comments: “you’re going to reduce natural disasters? How exactly?” The theme tune from ‘Captain Planet’ rings out in the distance while I explain that I won’t so much be playing a superhero-like role in diverting cyclones, as trying to mitigate the risk for vulnerable groups. I try to paint a picture of the situation in Mozambique; frequent floods, cyclones, drought, occasional earthquakes.
“Ah, so you’ll be building break-waters, dikes, that kind of thing? “hmm, not quite” Fifteen minutes and twenty questions later, I am even confused about what I will be doing. I do know I’ll be working with the government in Mozambique, with a small group from UNDP, and a multitude of NGO partners and donors.
On my second day in Maputo, I attend the annual meeting of INGC (national institute for disaster management). Almost everyone in the room is wearing an orange vest, like cyclists and construction workers wear at home. Some have matching baseball caps. This is the INGC uniform, the colour of the vest corresponding to the level of alert in the country. I learn about 50 new Portuguese words in connection with natural disasters in the first hour of the conference. I forget 45 of them an hour later. It doesn’t matter though, because for the next year I will be hearing them over and over.
After a month, I know the words for flood, earthquake, bushfire, resettlement, reservoir, river basin, but I still have difficulty exchanging morning pleasantries in my office. In an attempt to speed up my language progress to allow me to contribute in meetings, I enlist the services of two teachers, one Brazilian and one Mozambican. The Mozambican doesn’t appreciate my Brazilian accent, and for the first couple of classes tries to change this, but by the third class, has all but given up.
I am surprised by Maputo. It is cooler, more beautiful, and more developed than I had expected. I have not visited Africa before, and am taken aback by the number of cafés, foreigners, and fancy cars. Once I get out of the city though, the beauty of the Mozambican countryside takes my breath away: vast plains, lush vegetation, pristine beaches- the stuff adventure guidebooks are filled with. I visit a village with my colleague and a couple of consultants where we meet with a local village committee recently trained in disaster management by the INGC. They too have adopted the orange vest fashion.
We sit under a tree, beneath a cloudless African sky, after they have serenaded us with song, and they tell us their experiences and their concerns. What is their main issue? Communications technology to receive flood warnings? Disaster education for other villagers? Drought resistant crops? No. They need a boat. Their village sits on slightly higher ground than the immediate surrounds, and when the river floods, the village remains above water, but they are stranded. They need a boat to move people and goods around in times of flood. Maybe two boats, if UNDP is feeling generous.
It’s easy to get caught up in high level policy, quasi-political discussions, and advanced early warning technology here, and my UNV experience is certainly opening my eyes to all of that. But I also need to remind myself of the day to day realities for those people at the centre of all of these programmes and discussions. The villagers sitting under the tree, for whom a boat can make a world of difference.