A year after Intense Tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall in southern Africa, communities in Zimbabwe continue to feel the storm's effects. For many, the trauma is physical, emotional, and spiritual, necessitating mental health care that has become increasingly inaccessible since the country's economic crash. In this bonus episode, we talk with freelance journalist Ray Mwareya, who grew up in hard-hit Chimanimani and wrote a feature story on the subject.
Ghosts and thunderstorms: Mental anguish stalks Zimbabwe's Cyclone Idai climate-horror survivors
By Ray Mwareya
“In 1998, a pastor baptized me in this river.” A man named John points to what was once a serene flow but now a bed of ash-white rock boulders. “In 2019, my entire family was buried under this river.”
In March, a year ago, over 1000 people were swept away, homes flattened, when the calamitous tropical Cyclone Idai triggered landslides and burst rivers throughout Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique. The United Nations has described Cyclone Idai as “one of the deadliest storms on record in the southern hemisphere.”
Today, one year on in Chimanimani, the Zimbabwe district where up to 300 lives were walloped, another annual rain season is getting on, as is usual. However, this time, the zigzag of lightning in grim clouds brings a huge mental alert to hundreds of survivors like John, who never got the chance to bury their loved ones. “I’m 35, and I know that rains are seasonal and normal, but the bang of thunderstorms, the glitter of lightning in clouds is just too frightening,” John moans.
As the floodwaters rose last year, John’s wife and son fled their home in panic, thus getting hammered by muddy rock falls and buried underneath.
The trauma of yet another oncoming but fairly normal rain season has spawned a crisis of mental anguish in Chimanimani district, in a country where there are only 12 psychiatrists working in mental health for a population of over 16 million.
“Now we must lock doors after 6 p.m. We see ghosts and hazy images. I cower under the bed each time grey clouds and thunderstorms gather in our sky,” says Itai Goyo, 29, whose two siblings were buried under the mud of a burst river, along with a neighbor family. Their remains have never been recovered. “I fear the boom of rain clouds.”
In Chimanimani, visitors are perplexed by sudden community customs of cooking dinner at 3 in the afternoon, locking homestead doors by 6p.m., drawing down of curtains and sleeping immediately. “People say they see amber lights, the mark of ghosts patrolling dusty roads every night after 7 p.m., sometimes fuzzy voices of the dead knocking doors,” says Garikai Moyo, a traditional herbalist who spins dry cat bones and spice leaves to cast out what he calls spells of spirits tormenting survivors. “Last night, a light bobbed up and down the road at my neighbor’s pathway. There were shrills of frightened children, fearful of ghosts. We then saw it was a lost motorbike driver figuring out his way home.”
In Chimanimani, district of the carnage, the weather and climate is tied with beliefs in supernatural and restless spirits of the dead that are so entrenched that it is impossible to separate fiction from trauma.
For instance, when rain clouds gather in Chimanimani, local customs dictate that one must not wear red clothing, as the color is a magnet for lightning strikes. “Wide spread traditional beliefs in Zimbabwe dictate that the dead live on; the dead demand jugs of sorghum beer from their families at night and that the dead will be vengeful ghosts on the living until the living unite to dig up rivers, recover and properly bury Cylone Idai victims,” says Barbara Tanyaniwa, a Zimbabwe sociologist and trade unionist.
The thousands of survivors have received scant help. The government of Zimbabwe offered a small amount of money and wood coffins to bereaved families and commanded that burial be done instantly. Furthermore, hundreds of survivors, those whose homes and gardens were levelled by rummaging waters, still live in shanty tents made of plastic and wood pulp that are pitched next to rivers that carry graves of victims. Around and inside these tent camps, nights are pitch dark, devoid of the illumination of electricity light. “A stray night dog foraging for food or biting the tents is hallucinated as a ghost patrolling too close,” says Never Jemwa, a disaster climatologist for Chimanimani District Municipality. “In our outreach with survivors, we hear tales of night screams of people fearing ghosts. It’s untreated mental trauma from unbearable loss of lives.”
Talking of trauma and uncured grief, Zimbabwe is generally an emotionally broken place. A generation has seen its community suddenly disfigured by a normally calm weather event, says Dr. Dixon Chibanda, one of the few psychiatrists still working in Zimbabwe and who is counselling Cyclone Idai survivors. “Sometimes when we are walking down the road in Chimanimani and thunderstorms darken clouds, a child will suddenly scream, ‘death is coming!’ and hide in bushes. Cyclone Idai aftermath has created a psychologically fractured people.”
Dr. Chibanda explains that more than 10% of the population of Zimbabwe are affected by mental health issues; among people using primary healthcare facilities, the figure is about 30%. In fact, Zimbabwe has one of the highest suicide rates among countries in the southern region of the African continent. Dr. Chibanda recalls an elderly patient whom he is counselling, a 6o-year-old survivor of the cyclone who lost her husband and three grandchildren when boulders of muddy rock flattened their bedroom. “She asked me: doctor, can you stop these sessions and constant repetitions about these events, and how I can move on? I will never move on, I have ghosts of my entire family crying out swept by the rains.”
In Chimanimani District, an entire generation of young people who are unemployed and uprooted by death and carnage of the weather event are attracted to drugs that mute of the trauma and turmoil. “I dug five graves in the week after the rains ebbed,” pities Simon Jecha, 25, balancing a mug of tea brewed with Mudzepete leaves, a hallucinogenic drink that blunts the painful memories of his experience. “I can’t stop taking substances,” he sobs. “I can’t function without them. All young people in my neighborhood are taking these things. This is our only way to stabilize our minds and live another day.”
These drug-dependent survivors of Cyclone Idai fit a pattern that already exists in Zimbabwe. Currently, 80%of all admissions to psychiatric facilities in Zimbabwe are due to substance misuse, says Hopewell Chingono, a Harvard Nieman fellow and filmmaker whose documentary State of Mind detailed Zimbabwe’s widespread mental illness predicament.
“The trauma from Cyclone Idai weather disaster will replicate itself,” Chingono says. “People are shaken, terrified to take a new direction, but there has to be collective and individual healing. The easing of this deadly weather cyclone did not mark the end of mind troubles.”
Dr. Chibanda the psychiatrist, remembers a young father, 19, who was brought into his hospital in handcuffs, screaming at the top of his voice, clearly hallucinating. The young man was just a month into marriage when a burst dam from the cyclone swept his wife and three months old baby. “He recovered after five days of anti-psychotic medication. In my work, I am constantly reminded of how trauma brought by climate disasters haunts Zimbabweans across social gulfs.”