Adapt and thrive: working to support Mozambique’s rural communities in a time of COVID

Villagers in isolated areas of rural Mozambique gather round battered radio sets, which crackle into life, broadcasting public health messages in the local languages of Emakwa and Ekoti, delivered by respected local announcers: “Coronavirus exists! Avoid going out unless necessary! Wear masks! Wash your hands!” Elsewhere, volunteers walk through the dusty streets of settlements, using megaphones to spread these life-saving messages.

The broadcasts are often virtually the only link between these vulnerable populations and the national and global elites charged with responding to a pandemic which has in the space of a few months turned life upside-down for billions of people. They are also only possible due to the tireless work of the Tenure Facility’s partners in Mozambique, ORAM-Nampula, Terra Firma and Nitidae.

When the Tenure Facility began funding efforts to scale up land rights among indigenous and local communities in Mozambique in July 2019, no one could have imagined that instead of mapping, demarcation and community capacity building, our partners would find themselves at the forefront of the local Coronavirus response. There is a certain logic however: the innovative project aims to empower local populations through information exchange and awareness-raising of existing rights. Now those same approaches could be used to warn of the virus and help save lives.

Their commitment to the communities they work with made it inevitable our partners would step up to the role, once the scale of the pandemic and the threat it posed became clear. They swung into action with a package of activities, from broadcasting public health messages to working with local government to provide essential equipment – everything from hand-sanitiser to face masks to megaphones – where they were needed most.

“We found that rural communities, at least in the places where we are working, are aware of the disease and preventive measures,” says Noel Kamphambe, a local project coordinator. “We noticed that people wear masks and keep a social distance of one-and-a-half metres between them. That’s really good. It means that the messages that we are sending are arriving and are being understood.”

"We found that rural communities, at least in the places where we are working, are aware of the disease and preventive measures. We noticed that people wear masks and keep a social distance of one-and-a-half metres between them. That's really good. It means that the messages that we are sending are arriving and are being understood."

- Noel Kamphambe, a local project coordinator.

The importance of this work is deeply appreciated not just by the communities themselves, but also cash-strapped local authorities, who have found themselves stretched to breaking point by the demands of responding to a pandemic in areas where regular healthcare is already chronically underfunded.

“Your concern and willingness to support us in this mission is priceless,” Narciso Sandulane, Director of Health for the Larde district in Nampula said simply.

Months into the global pandemic, and with no end in sight, the importance of adapting to the realities of a new existence is increasingly being balanced by the urgent need to resume work to support Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities across the developing world. Indeed, the health, social and economic impacts on communities whose vulnerability is already deepened by uncertainty over land rights makes it essential that they receive help now – and secure tenure in the shortest possible time.

"Your concern and willingness to support us in this mission is priceless"

- Narciso Sandulane, Director of Health for the Larde district in Nampula said simply.

According to surveys carried out in the communities where they are working, ORAM-Nampula, the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic have been severe, with restricted movement between rural and urban areas fuelling a collapse in demand for agricultural products.

“We are forced to sell our products at very low prices due to a lack of customers. There is a lot of supply and little demand,” says Belito Fernando, a young member of the Nova Familia Association, and a local farmer.

Meanwhile, the promise of strengthened land rights heralded by the start of the project have receded, as fieldworkers have been confined to their homes and offices to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Because of this disease, our partners who support us – as is the case with ORAM – have already retreated and, because of that, our lives have ground to a halt. We see that our hopes and expectations of creating a strengthened association, and having our lands delimited are being badly compromised,” one community leader told ORAM-Nampula representatives.

Our partners are acutely aware of the need to get back to their regular work, and they have seized on a gentle loosening of restrictions by the Government to make tentative steps towards a resumption of activities.

"Because of this disease, our partners who support us - as is the case with ORAM - have already retreated and, because of that, our lives have ground to a halt. We see that our hopes and expectations of creating a strengthened association, and having our lands delimited are being badly compromised"

- one community leader told ORAM-Nampula representatives.

The focus is now firmly on continuing to support the pandemic response in remote communities, whilst also finding ways to work safely within restrictions. A first step has been to start recruiting and training Community Assistants – identified from within communities themselves – who will support technical experts throughout the demarcation process, and provide a vital link between the project staff and villages at a time of seriously curtailed mobility.

By early October, more than 100 people had completed their four-day training, and land is being identified for demarcation. It’s slow going, however; where previously training sessions could be held with 50 people at a time, now class sizes are down to 8-12, with social distancing measures, extra hygiene and Personal Protective Equipment deployed, according to Juma Aiuba, Oram-Nampula’s communications focal point. Not only has progress been slowed, but the restrictions on gatherings and the need to use face masks are complicating the vital job of communication, both between the partners and the communities, but also within communities themselves.

“Normally big meetings are an opportunity for communities to discuss, everyone together, young people and old people, talking about agriculture, the village, life, everything. It was really nice, and important for them to be able to discuss like that, and now they can’t. It’s a really big problem.”

Nonetheless, and despite there being few if any reported cases of COVID-19 in the communities where our partners are working, Aiuba recognises the importance of finding ways to work in a world that has altered, and may remain altered for a long time to come.

“When the pandemic started, some of us wondered if this was the end (for the project). But we have experience within the organisation, people who know how to adapt. That’s why we went to the Government and said “we are available to help”. We work with these communities, and we knew that when it’s all over, we need the communities to still be there for us to work with. We are adapting ourselves to help them, and because of that, anything is possible.”

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