What a Plastic Sheet Can Do

Beira, Mozambique — Munhava Matope, on the outskirts of Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city, is what is often described by outsiders as a “marginal” community. Nonetheless, few who visit would likely object to using harsher terms like “shanty town,” “favela” or “slum.”

It’s a community of about 7,000 Mozambicans, many of them new arrivals living precariously in makeshift homes after migrating to the city from the nearby countryside. The tribal languages of the Sena and Ndau groups are spoken here as is Mozambique’s official Portuguese. It’s loud and dirty, and crisscrossed by busy railroad tracks. The second word in its name means “mire,” and there’s plenty of that, ankle deep across footpaths, and in deep lagoons where drainage from Cyclone Idai’s rains fill fetid pools where mosquitos breed and malaria remains a threat.

One of Munhava Matope’s principle industries is waste recycling—which in Mozambique means sifting glass and plastic and paper fiber and food scraps from the mounds of municipal garbage generated daily in this city of one million.

Cyclone Idai hit Munhava Matope here in mid-March, its gale-force winds tearing roofs from their homes and, in some places, whole homes from their foundations—and scattering their inhabitants to emergency shelter wherever it could be found.

Yet eight weeks after the Cyclone made landfall, many of Munhava Matope’s homes have been restored, and families once again are living together under a single roof. It turns out restoring a roof can restore a home—and that’s a job that turns out to be rather easy to do.

Restoration started with a local NGO, Terra Nova, which is a cooperative of about 30 families dedicated to garbage recycling. Many of those families lost their homes in the Cyclone. Terra Nova’s director, Flore Roura, immediately sought help from local officials.

“They said it couldn’t just be for our members. It had to be for everyone in the community,” said the Alsace, France, native, who has lived in Mozambique now for ten years. “We said that would be about 7,000 people.”

That was more than Terra Nova was expecting to assist. But when the aid came it was simple and timely and, best of all, perfectly suited to the needs of this community. Donations came in the form of plastic sheeting—enormous lengths of polyethylene tarps, each festooned with the logo of UK Aid, the United Kingdom’s emergency response agency.

Working with International Organization for Migration’s shelter cluster at Beira’s airport, Terra Nova took possession of 600 UK Aid tarps. They come in packets of two, folded-over gray tarps, which look like blanket squares inside a clear plastic bag. Unfolded, they stretch out to nearly 100 square meters. That’s a surface that can do a lot in a place like Munhava Matope.

“When the Cyclone came, we had to do whatever we could to stay with neighbors,” recalls Amelia Antonio Nhamithatibo, 41, as she sweeps her arms out in explaining she and five children had to flee to find accommodation after winds blew away the metal roof over their one-room home. Today two sheets woven over the skeletal stubs of what once were ceiling rafters make a tight, rainproof shelter out of the home they had recently abandoned.

Says her neighbor: “Amelia and her family are so happy to be back, all together in one place.”

Around the corner, 21 year-old Sozhino John sits proudly on the roof he repaired with a single sheet of plastic brought here by IOM. He says it will easily last the three or four months it will take him to save enough to purchase new sheets of metal to restore the original roof.

Haji Joakim Dom Luis, 18, restored his home with sheets anchored to his roof beams with twine and wire. The tight design over his home’s peaked roof resembles a cardboard box under a matching lid, with UK Aid logos running along the concrete frieze. Mr. Dom Luis says 12 people are sleeping safely under those UK Aid tarps. He thanked IOM for helping him save his home.

Recently, Terra Nova’s Flore Roura did a wider distribution of tarps to help more families. “These people expect so little. They’re usually the last to get anyone’s attention,” Ms. Roura said. “You can imagine how pleased we are to see them back in their homes."