Tasmanian family waits out COVID-19 shutdowns in slums of Mozambique, with baby on the way

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.

A slum in the port town of Pemba, where the Brewers volunteer each year.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

Tall Australian guy carrying a young African child on his shoulders, while another child grabs him round the legs.
James Brewer with some of the local children who benefit from his volunteer work.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

A small group of young children looking happy in a slum in Mozambique
The people of Pemba are the reason the Brewers volunteer there.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

Rice and beans in plastic bowls being handed to children whose hands are seen taking them
The closing of local feeding programs has led to many children going hungry.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

“[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.

The hands of a child holding water they have picked up from a blue tub that sits underneath.
Soap is hard to come by, making maintaining basic hygiene very hard.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

A woman leaning on mismatched, rudimentary crutches, standing in front of a shack on a sunny day.
Most people in Pemba live in mud, grass or bamboo huts, or in shanties.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

Female and male health workers wearing facemasks while standing in the outdoor corridor of a hospital
Medical clinic workers wearing the face masks made in a local sewing program.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.

African woman carrying a sack of food on her head and a baby in a sling on her back, while walking towards a mud hut.
Local women have benefited from participating in a face mask-sewing program.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.”

A shanty town in Mozambique that has been flattened by a cyclone, with housing materials and trees strewn across orange dirt.
Another recent disaster endured by Mozambicans — a cyclone in 2019.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

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.”

Hundreds of African people sitting on a beach wearing very colourful clothes as they wait with containers for food supplies
The people of Pemba in the wake of a 2019 cyclone.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)

Family plans

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.

Young couple with the mother holding a toddler, standing by a beach with palm trees
The Brewer family don’t yet know whether they can travel back to Tasmania to have their second child.(Supplied: Jessica Brewer)
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