Jaco Swanepoel’s heart went out to those who suffered immense damage in Vishakhapatnam during cyclone Hudhud. He packed his bags and went to help the victims. “The best thing that you can do in a situation like this is just to help the person in front of you,” he learnt. Here he recounts his journey to the heart of the calamity, how he brought about change and how it affected him.
I come from a country where we don’t get any natural disasters like cyclones. This is the first time I have experienced something like this. It is extreme when you see something which involves a lot of people. A friend of mine in South Africa said one day to us, “We must run towards a crisis, towards poverty, and go and make a difference, rather that moving away from it. Maybe we will feel most alive in the midst of a crisis or in the midst of poverty, because then you experience something completely different than what you are used to and you also experience the heart and the need of one another.”
When I was staying in Hyderabad, I heard about the cyclone. I told myself that I really wanted to go and make a difference there; I booked a train ticket and just came here. I linked up with a non-profit organization that has been helping people here for many years already. I met a few people from America on the team who have also been helping in the midst of this crisis. I just came in to serve along with them all, and see what I could do. I told myself before I came here that I will do anything that will help in building up this community.
My first thought when I came here was what can I do to make a difference, I don’t even know the total cost of all this damage here in Vishakhapatnam. Questions started to rise up in my head – can we help everybody, can we just give money, and is it possible that a cyclone like this could have damaged so many things? I don’t have enough words in my head to describe this, it’s beyond words what I am seeing here at the moment.
I can honestly say that the best thing you can do in a situation like this is just to help the person in front of you. A lady in Mozambique once said to me that you cannot help everybody, but you can help one person at a time making a difference. The place where I feel most alive is in the midst of poverty or in the context of Vishakhapatnam, in the midst of the city’s biggest crisis. It is hard to describe it for people when you are here and experiencing all the need of this crisis. Thousands of people have lost everything in Vishakhapatnam. People are in need of big things. That’s the thing about natural disasters, that I believe you cannot blame anybody for it.
The one thing in Vishakhapatnam that’s also a big problem at the moment is electricity. While I am typing this, I don’t know when the electricity will go off. For the first week after the cyclone, the people did not have electricity for 8 days. It’s quite hard for the shops here to run when they don’t have any electricity.
We went to a village that nobody wanted to visit as they didn’t have water and electricity for days, and gave out medicines to the people. One of the best things I saw was the joy on their faces when we gave them the medicines with another nurse from India, because they didn’t have anything like that in their village. We stayed in that village for hours and hours just to hang out with the people there and talk to them. It was so great for me to see something like that.
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While we were walking along one of the slums and giving out food, clothes and just talking to the people, I had a few tears, because it’s outsiders like us who are busy rebuilding their houses. I’m rather speechless really. What I’m seeing is beyond words and what I’m doing here is almost too simple – it’s hard to explain.
There are people around the world living in the midst of rubbish tips and garbage dumps. These are the poorest of the poor, living in the worst places imaginable. And we are searching them out…to hang out with those whom nobody visits. I know sometimes it’s beyond cultural boundaries. Love exists where there is nothing.
The moment that I will never forget is when we realised while walking between these slums/garbage dumps, that the people still have joy inside them, and in the middle of this crisis they can still laugh. I believe that’s the secret of life – to retain joy in the midst of pain and in the midst of a crisis. That’s one of the things that will help you out of it. I know it’s not easy all the time.
The question I have for myself personally is whether the things that I am doing is enough for them, can I do more? I am so glad for the government of India that said they will support these precious people in Vishakhapatnam who have lost everything. Sometimes, in a crisis like this, we must see the good in this and not always just the bad side.
It’s hard to describe these things to people who are not here. Thousands of trees are lying on the grass and a lot of houses are damaged here, buildings don’t exist anymore. The local people are busy with the construction work. One of the locals told me that when the cyclone was going on, they asked 100,000 people to leave the city because it was too dangerous for them to stay here.
I am so glad that I could experience this; be in the midst of this crisis, and just be the hands and feet for people who needed it the most. It was such a great honor for me to go and help them in this season of my life and just be there for them.