It has been six months since Cyclone Idai swept through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, leaving one million children in need of humanitarian assistance. SOS psychologist Norah Brikenhof was in Beira on that terrible night. She spoke to us about her experiences and the ongoing needs of children in the city.
“My family lives by the beach, so the cyclone hit us with full force,” Norah recalls.
“By 9 o'clock in the evening the situation was getting serious. The power went out and it was completely dark. Then we heard windows breaking in the house, and part of the neighbour’s roof came crashing loudly into our garden.
“It was terrifying. You are completely at the mercy of the storm. The phone doesn't work. You can't call for rescue. You count every minute.
“It was like that until midnight - then silence. The eye of the cyclone had reached us, but we knew the storm would come back. We were panicked. Two hours later it returned, this time from the other side.
“The next morning, when it was finally over, we went upstairs. There was water everywhere. I was completely exhausted but I was too anxious to sit still. I made breakfast for the family, but I can't remember if I ate. Then we went outside. I knew that the neighbourhood would be destroyed, but I was still not prepared for the sight. Everything was broken, even the most stable houses. It was like the apocalypse.
“I could only think of the children, my colleagues, and the poor families in their huts. I was sure there would be many deaths. So many children needed my help, so I went to work.
“A few days later I met a little boy who was having nightmares. He kept seeing mango trees falling on his house. When he admitted that, he was laughed at. I had to intervene and explain to him that his reaction was completely normal. That it is normal to be afraid and cry when something like this happens.
“Negative emotions are simply laughed away here in Mozambique. Life here is hard - it's about survival every day. Often there is no time to calm and re-assure a child. For his grandmother, fear was not acceptable - not even for herself.
“Another woman I visited lost a baby during the storm. The child died in her arms, and she also told me that 14 of her family members died. Her reaction was different - she repressed her feelings and let nothing get to her. She compensated by taking care of others. This made her feel she was regaining control - but in the end she was still in shock. Her strength and her coping strategy may be to help others, but what about her trauma? She seemed strong but there was so much pain.
“It was not my job to tell her, "Wait, look at your trauma first." My job was to reinforce her strengths and coping mechanisms.”
Norah is part of the SOS team in Mozambique who are supporting children and families in the wake of the disaster. At our child-friendly space in Beira, children left homeless by the cyclone can find a safe place to play and access trauma counselling and support. We are also helping 700 families in Malawi to rebuild their lives and communities.
Providing traumatised children with long-term psychological care forms a large part of our emergency response to the crisis.
“In those early days after a disaster, we must give hope,” Norah says. “It could be dangerous to talk to those affected about what they have experienced before they are ready to cope, we could very easily re-traumatise them by exposing them to the situation again.
People must first understand for themselves what has happened and begin to process what they have experienced.
“Those who find strength in the community are encouraged to go out, share with others, do something. Others need physical exercise, they need to be active, rebuild their houses, replant the garden or even do sports.
“The real consequences often come long after the storm subsides. You cannot identify which people are at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until much later, so we must be vigilant and train our colleagues to recognise the signs and react accordingly. Without the right emotional support, many families will not be able to continue to care for their children or their livelihoods.”
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