Humanitarians are a community of committed people. For Augusta Maita, endearingly referred to as Mama Maita by the people of Mozambique, this commitment means saving lives and doing as much as she can to serve people in need.
When Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique this past March, Mama Maita propelled herself to action. As the General Director of INGC – the national disaster management institute in Mozambique – Maita knew that she had to give the people of her country the best opportunity of survival.
Cyclone Idai caused catastrophic damage in Mozambique, killing 603 people. It was followed by Cyclone Kenneth, which caused further displacement and destruction. In the aftermath, people needed immediate aid, as there was no communication or infrastructure. Maita worked tirelessly to help her disaster-stricken country during this humanitarian crisis.
As Mozambique approached the end of the rainy season, Maita remembers with a glimmer in her eyes how she danced with joy. “I was almost clapping, like wow, we have managed so well this season,” she recalls. When Maita joined INGC at the beginning of the wet season, her first encounter was with a storm. It was the biggest event she had experienced since she started her new position. “I thought that would be the most impactful event that I would see that season.”
Two days after Cyclone Idai, Maita and her team travelled to Maputo Province, near the town of M’beda, to help with another emergency. Two days after Cyclone Idai, Maita and her team travelled to the city of Beira in Sofala Province, to help with another emergency. It had been raining nonstop, and people were clinging for their lives from treetops as they screamed for help. It was night-time when they arrived, and the water was strong and merciless. The team could not rescue everyone. Maita still gets emotional when she thinks back to that day. “I keep on hearing the screams. I think that specific moment was one of the most terrible moments I could have seen in my life.”
Maita’s conviction to help as many people as possible ties into her admiration for people’s resilience. After Idai, Maita and her team went to Buzi in southeastern Sofala province, one of the hardest-hit areas, to assist with water purification efforts. There, Maita saw a mother with her child latched on to her breast as malaria had her bound hand and foot. “She said she had not eaten in a long time, while the child already looked malnourished and could hardly find anything to feed on.”
Maita was inspired by the mother’s spirit. “That woman was so strong, she kept herself strong for her baby. There, I felt how people can be so resilient even in the worst of conditions.” Maita recalls how, at that moment, she was grateful to have the access to bring assistance to people in need.
In her position, Maita found it was hard to control an ardent urge to hop on a helicopter and reach all of the areas affected by Cyclone Idai. “It was about people’s lives and their suffering. But we had limited time and resources – we had to find a balance,” she says.
Working with a team of people who were not so emotional was helpful. In the end, Maita’s emotion-driven efforts showcase a quality that is unique to women humanitarians.
“Thank God I am a woman, I can be emotional,” she says. An understated aspect of Maita’s experience is her understanding of the role of women in humanitarian response. She believes that cyclones such as Idai would have had any aid worker in dire straits regardless of their gender. “I did everything that a man would have done. There is so much to do, lives to save, one forgets about being a man or a woman.”
After helping to plan responses for two major cyclones in Mozambique, Maita raises concerns about climate change. Often in the case of disasters, the focus is on humanitarian assistance, but she believes that investment in climate change mitigation is critical to response preparations. “If we invest in prevention, we can try to reduce the impact whenever it comes,” she says.
Reminiscing about her days in the field, Maita notes that her belief in teamwork, decentralization of responsibility and coordination of efforts is fervent. She expresses gratitude towards institutions such as OCHA and the World Food Programme for their support in Mozambique. And she hopes that her 2-year-old daughter will one day understand why she chooses to work in the field. “It’s difficult to be away from home, but then I think about those who have lost their parents.”