When Jessica and James Brewer touched down in the port town of Pemba in Mozambique in early March, they could not have known how COVID-19 would shape their stay.
Veterans of international volunteer work, the Tasmanian couple were about to begin a six-month stint in a shanty town in Pemba for the fourth year running.
It would be their third placement with a young child in tow, and their second while pregnant, so they knew what to expect regarding living as a young family in a slum.
But they could not have guessed that an international pandemic would shut down their work, and make the already difficult lives of the people they were there to help even harder.
Helping the people of Pemba
Mr and Ms Brewer are graphic designers, photographers and videographers, and for part of each year they use their media skills while volunteering in places like Pemba.
There, they live in a children’s centre in a slum, and work with an international not-for-profit organisation, sharing stories and raising awareness about social injustices and helping to run food and health programs.
Much of the work is challenging but the couple consider it a “joy”, and the Mozambican people are what make the Brewers passionate about their work.
Coronavirus restrictions in a slum
Less than six weeks into the Brewers’ stint in Pemba, Stage 3 coronavirus restrictions were introduced and the programs run by them and their colleagues shut down.
“Our school in particular, it had over 1,000 students, and those students would get meals each day, and families were very reliant on those meals,” Ms Brewer said.
“[The shutdown] has brought a lot more poverty and I would say a huge rise in begging within the children.
Additionally, social distancing around water wells, which most people use daily, is extremely difficult, so maintaining basic hygiene is nearly impossible.
Looking at total lockdown
“We’re in Stage 3 at the moment, which is just before full lockdown, where you can’t leave your house,” Ms Brewer said.
Houses in Pemba, she explains, are mostly grass or mud huts, or shanties that Australians would think of as small garden sheds.
Living in each of these dwellings are usually five to 15 family members, who have no access to running water or electricity and little food.
“If it does get to Stage 4, it will be so challenging for those families,” Ms Brewer said.
“It just comes down to basic survival.”
Finding a way through
With their usual programs shut down, the Brewers and their colleagues have become “very creative” in their work and one result is the facemask-sewing program they began.
It provides skills and training for disadvantaged women, who have sewn more than 300 masks for use at the local medical clinic and in the children’s centre.
“It’s just a really simple way that we can do something to help,” Ms Brewer said.
The pandemic in perspective
Despite coronavirus having made daily life harder for Mozambicans, it is arguably not a stand-out disaster in these parts.
“I think, in honesty, we’re used to chaos and disaster,” Ms Brewer explained.
“We had two cyclones that hit our country last year, and we had outbreaks of things like cholera.”
Add to the list flooding and malaria and it is not hard to see why Mozambicans are experts at dealing with disasters.
“When it comes to their sprit and their heart, there is a lot of resilience … so that is one thing that we have as an advantage.”
Guessing what comes next is something the Brewers are used to with work, and now they are applying that to family life as well.
They were to fly home to be with family to have their baby, but the suspension of international travel has derailed those arrangements.
Still, the Brewers are great fans of flexibility and adaptability and are seemingly taking this unknown in their stride.
“I guess all we can do is hope that the airlines are open in that time, and if not we’ll just continue to be here, and have our little one in Mozambique,” Ms Brewer said.