· Vatican City ·

Martina Zavagli, in the Maputo slums “From kitchens to the schools, to save children”

Martina Zavagli in Mozambique and the ASVI cooking stoves (Courtesy Asvi)

27 June 2020

Coordinator for AVSI in a Country plagued by Jihad and hurricanes. “My daughter was born here”


There are places, and Mozambique is one of them, where emergencies are the norm. And not just one at any particular time. But many, and all at once. This immense Country in south-east Africa, 800,000 square kilometers, and home to almost 30 million people, is presently facing hunger, poverty, the Jihadists’ assaults in the north -since October 2017 terrorism has caused between 350 and 700 deaths and displaced 150,000 persons-, and the devastating effects of cyclones and of course, the outbreak of Covid-19.

It is in this context that Martina Zavagli, from Imola, 36 years old and who became a mother five months ago, lives and works. Her baby girl was born here, in Mozambique, where she arrived in early April 2017. “I’ve actually been in Africa since 2011, almost three years in Sudan and two in Rwanda”, she says. She chose to leave because she was “driven by curiosity to know different worlds. I did my foreign civil service in Rwanda, and it was there that I got to know the cooperative sphere, where I saw what it means to make one’s skills available for difficult contexts”.

Martina Zavagli lives in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique and coordinates the 15 AVSI projects, active in Maputo, Cabo Delgado and Zambezia. The problems we have to confront are immense, and which are rendered more complex due to the vastness of the country. Regarding the living conditions of the vast majority of people, almost half, 46.7% of the population, live below the poverty line. One person in two lives on less than $0.50 a day. A population of poor people; and of poor young people. Sixty percent are under the age of 24. As if that wasn’t enough, one in four children are victims of child labour.

AVSI has been present in the country since 2010. “We are committed - says Martina - to three sectors: education, the environment, and agriculture. Regarding education, we follow a child throughout their entire education, from kindergarten to primary school, through secondary school and university”. This task starts with the walls to the books: “We restructure schools, we give lessons to teachers and we provide school materials. We follow more than 20 thousand children, because we work in various regions and many schools”. The principal “problem” we have to overcome is the huge number of children. “Every school - she explains - is overcrowded”. The elementary school, so to speak, has classes made up of about fifty pupils. “And each school has between 2,000-3,000 students”. This problem is exacerbated in the suburbs, in the slums where AVSI is working. “There aren’t enough facilities to accommodate them all”, Martina explains. So much so that in order to guarantee the possibility of attending the courses, shifts are taken: “We start with the first classes, then in the second part of the morning there are the older children. Because there isn’t the capacity to welcome everyone”. Hence the work we are doing, there “We try to build new schools and renovate the existing ones to make them capable to accommodate more classes”.

The other policy area is environment and energy. “In the slums we promote the sale of improved hobs”. That is, electric cookers. Most households cook with coal-fired hobs, which involve significant CO2 emissions. “The result is that there is a lot of pollution in the home. And this causes a lot of deaths from respiratory diseases. Plus it costs a lot of money and people here don’t even have the money to buy the necessary food. The hobs that we try to diffuse save money and reduce carbon emissions, so pollution is reduced and health is improved, especially for mothers and young children who are always near them”.

And then there is agriculture, which is one of the few sectors that provides employment. But due to the country’s climatic conditions, months of fatigue can be upset in a single day. In fact, last year two hurricanes, one in the central area of the Country, the other in the North destroyed part of Mozambique. “Many families found their houses destroyed and their sowing for the whole season to completely throw away. Since then we have decided to take care of it. So as to mitigate the risks due to climate change We have started working with the farmers to resume processing and understand the problems in their areas,”. The damage caused by cyclones is not over yet. “Many families are still displaced”. Then there is the jihad.  In the province of Cabo Delgado, in the north of Mozambique, the rebels of Islamic origin, and government forces have been at war for three years. Between them, the civilians see their homes destroyed, and their family members beheaded. According to data from the NGOs, from 2017 to today a thousand people have died and a hundred thousand have been forced to flee. Martina lives in Maputo with her family. She met her husband in South Sudan. Five months ago, they had a little girl. From these years in Africa she has learned “to be patient, to understand that there can be lives very different from mine, but worthy of respect, not to take anything for granted, to respect rhythms that are different from those we have in Italy, to live and appreciate simple things: you don’t need just about anything to be happy”.

By Elisa Calessi