‘It has to be us’: How a diaspora rushed to raise aid after Cyclone Idai

Why We Wrote This

The images scrolling across TV screens and newsfeeds after a natural disaster can make it seem as if the victims’ communities and countries are passively waiting for help. But there’s always more to the story. 

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
John Manake, a parent and volunteer, helps a child cross a temporary footbridge after Cyclone Idai on the way to Pagomo primary school in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, March 25.

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Everywhere Cyclone Idai hit, it seems, people had the same idea: We can’t wait. We have to act.

In Zimbabwe’s capital, an elderly woman walked more than 6 miles to deliver a heavy sack of donations she balanced on her head, because she didn’t have money for bus fare. In Mozambique, a massive search-and-rescue operation by the Indian Navy was preceded by Mozambican fishermen, bobbing through the vast planes of water to rescue survivors.

And in Ohio, a Zimbabwean refugee named Freeman Chari logged into GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website, and launched an appeal for flood relief. A week and a half later, after the page traveled across Zimbabwean and diaspora social media, there is more than $84,000. “People are saying our country is broken, our government is broken, but we still want to do something,” says Mr. Chari.

Their generosity has created new opportunities – and challenges – for the organizers, as they consider longer-lasting ways to contribute. “Suddenly, the scale of what we can do has changed,” Mr. Chari says. “It has become this huge responsibility that I never expected.” But even as he was speaking, the votes of confidence were pouring in. Another $15. Another $30. Another $100.

It wasn’t much. Just $5. But as Tatenda Murecha sent the small donation hurtling across the internet from his home in Turkey last week, he felt a little less helpless.

Nearly 6,000 miles away, in his home country of Zimbabwe and neighboring Mozambique and Malawi, hundreds of thousands of people had seen their world disappear underwater, devastated by a tropical storm called Cyclone Idai that experts were already beginning to call the worst natural disaster in the Southern Hemisphere’s recent history.

Images from the pummeled region showed exhausted victims clinging to treetops or balancing on tin roofs as floodwaters rushed past them. Survivors described waterways clogged with bodies and rescuers admitted they might never know exactly how many people had died, with many of the victims’ bodies washed away into the open ocean.

Far away, studying for his degree in mining engineering, Mr. Murecha had been reading these horrifying details when he stumbled across a GoFundMe page titled “Zimbabwe Cyclone Relief,” run by a Zimbabwean living in the United States.

“My thought was, if we’re going to wait for foreign organizations or our government or anyone else to help us, we might be waiting a very long time,” he says.

On the other side of the world, in Hamilton, Canada, Zimbabwean Moleen Makumborenga had made a similar calculation.

“Nobody else is going to save us,” she thought to herself as she punched in her credit-card details on the same crowdfunding page and clicked send. “It has to be us. We have to save ourselves.”

It was a scene repeated again and again over the last week and a half, as the communities devastated by Cyclone Idai jump-started their own recovery efforts, often before the floodwaters had even begun to recede. In Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, for instance, an elderly woman walked more than 6 miles balancing on her head a heavy sack of donations she had cobbled together from her own house for flood survivors, because she didn’t have money for bus fare to a pick-up point. In Mozambique, the arrival of a massive search-and-rescue operation by the Indian Navy was preceded by Mozambican fishermen, bobbing through the vast planes of water to rescue survivors. And in the Zimbabwean border town of Mutare, private helicopters diverted from ferrying tourists over Victoria Falls carried air drops into flooded areas where road access was still cut off.

Everywhere the storm hit, it seemed, were people with the same idea: We can’t wait. We have to act. 

That had also been the thinking of Freeman Chari, a Zimbabwean refugee living in Ohio, when he logged onto GoFundMe on Saturday March 16 and typed out a description of the fundraiser he wanted to launch.

“Tropical Cyclone Idai has hit most parts of the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe.... There are many fatalities,” he wrote. “The funds raised will be used for relief efforts including food, shelter and water.”

He threw in a grainy photo of a submerged village and clicked submit, hoping he might drum up a few thousand dollars to add to the relief efforts of a Zimbabwean church group he had raised money for before.

Instead, the page traveled quickly across Zimbabwean social media. One day in, Mr. Chari, a lab technician and software engineer, had $10,000 in his coffers. Three days later, the total hit $50,000, much of it collected in small sums – $5, $10, $20. And most of the donors’ names were recognizably Zimbabwean, a tribute to the country’s sprawled diaspora, the result of years of political repression and economic hardship under the regimes of Robert Mugabe and his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

“People are saying our country is broken, our government is broken, but we still want to do something,” says Mr. Chari, who thinks Zimbabweans supported his page because he is well connected with activists and has in past GoFundMe campaigns provided exact breakdowns of where donors’ dollars went. “They didn’t think twice. They rose to the challenge.”

By March 26, the fund had raised more than $84,000 from 1,889 donors. The average donation was just $44.50. (A GoFundMe initiated by a Mozambican living abroad, meanwhile, has raised more than $22,000 from 347 people.)

But the scale posed an unexpected opportunity for organizers to contribute in ways that were bigger and would last longer than they had originally anticipated.

As they continued to collect money, after all, many of the victims’ immediate needs were starting to be taken care of. Broken roads leading to devastated areas were crowding with donated semitrucks from around the region, loaded down with supplies. In nearby Mutare, warehouses filled with donations of food, water, and clothing from local individuals and organizations and international NGOs.

“So far the response has been amazing, with people from all over the country donating, but it’s also been very ad hoc, and very focused on the immediate needs [after a disaster],” says Wellington Mahohoma, another of the GoFundMe page’s organizers, who has known Mr. Chari since they were both student activists at the University of Zimbabwe in the early 2000s.

With the money from the GoFundMe page still ticking upward, Mr. Mahohoma, Mr. Chari, and the other organizers began to wonder if their dollars wouldn’t be put to better use rebuilding schools and houses, or piecing together roads and water pipes washed away by the storm. 

“Suddenly, the scale of what we can do has changed,” Mr. Chari says.

But that comes with its own dilemmas. Unlike charities or governments, which could divert donations as needed, the GoFundMe page made a promise to donors on how it would spend their money. More complicated projects would also be harder to track, and Mr. Chari has promised his supporters a dollar-by-dollar accounting of how their money is spent. 

“It has become this huge responsibility that I never expected,” he says.

But even as he was speaking, the votes of confidence were pouring in. Another $15. Another $30. Another $100. He no longer recognized the names of any of the donors. They were all strangers now, hundreds and then thousands of them, trusting his promise that he would do right by people who were suffering.

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