Xai Xai, Gaza Province, Mozambique — The president's motorcade, numbering dozens of cars filled with local, national and foreign dignitaries, takes the detour that leads across a temporary bridge, crossing the mighty Limpopo.
The swollen river burst its banks early this year, with catastrophic consequences for Mozambique, spewing floodwater that swept away roads, homes, lives and crops in Xai Xai, the capital of Gaza Province.
President Joaquim Chissano has come to the city, to open a freshly-painted secondary school named after him. He is also here to survey and inspect repair work and the state of the north-south highway leading upcountry from the Mozambican capital, Maputo, 200 kilometres away.
The peak of the floods hit Xai Xai in mid-February after a fresh surge of water from South Africa down the Limpopo River.
Five months after the floods, the road still looks as if someone pounced on the asphalt and began hacking away with shears, leaving a jagged trail of tarmac behind. Huge Caterpillar diggers scoop up sand and dark red-brown earth and trundle down to different parts of the road, discharging their cargo and slowly filling giant craters and smaller potholes left behind by the receding waters.
In the distance, the major bridge over the Limpopo, marooned in the middle of the water and unconnected to land at either end; it stands forlorn and useless as vehicles bump along an alternative route to Xai Xai.
Cashew trees were also casualties, some uprooted and upturned, others sitting in a lake of water that once was dry land.
Just across the Limpopo, on the outskirts of the southern Mozambican town, a huge blue 'water bed' purification unit lies like a beached whale above the riverbank. Xai Xai's water system was destroyed. Playful children queue at a tap with their buckets, bowls and jerrycans to fill up with clean water that one slurps copiously as if to prove that it is pure and drinkable.
A few kilometres away, outside the municipal hall in the city centre, Joaquim Adolfo, a deputy police superintendent, describes the ruin of what he calls his once beautiful town. The road in front of the town hall is pockmarked with potholes. Underground sewerage pipes stick up into the daylight. Many in Xai Xai are still living on food aid, donated water and hope.
Mr Adolfo laments that he lost all his belongings to the floodwaters which reached the first floor of many building, and completely submerged others in Xai Xai.
The policeman, who helped coordinate the local rescue operation and saved lives, says many people who fled the floods have stayed away. Others are trickling back home. He is concerned that the lashing rains may come again, but prays this will not happen, though he says residents are better prepared and now know to take shelter on higher ground.
He is happy about President Chissano's visit to take stock of the situation, bringing important guests who can assess the damage and report back to those who might help rebuild Xai Xai.
Wailing sirens signal the approach of the presidential convoy with an impressive security detail. People head for the nearby courtyard of the new school that bears his name, where President Chissano praises the people of Xai Xai and Gaza for their courage and determination to reconstruct their town, their province and their lives.
Women arrive bearing fruit in baskets upon their heads, a local dance troupe performs and children recite poetry and sing special songs in praise of 'Dearest Papa Chissano' who they thank for helping with the rehabilitation of their town.
Chris Jansen has no time to participate in the celebrations at the brand new school down the road. He is the busy commercial director of the South African construction firm which is fixing the road, to Xai Xai and other parts further along the highway, and some bridges. The scale of the task is enormous. US$3 million have been allocated for the repair work which Mr Jansen says will require one hundred thousand cubic metres of material to upgrade the road to full bitumen standard.
On the northern side of the Limpopo, another flood plain, the existing earthfill will be extended by 35 metres, using stabilised sandbags which are being tipped into the river to form a retaining wall. Fifty-four metres of a temporary emergency steel bridge will be erected to meet up with what's left of the old bridge. restoring the regular flow of traffic across the river, until a permanent replacement can be built.
Mr Jansen explains that the approaches to the bridge were washed away so that, although it is still intact, the bridge is literally standing in the middle of nowhere, in dramatic isolation, a constant reminder of the floods for local residents, motorists and pedestrians who now have to find other ways across. He says the plan is to have many more bridges and more 'erosion-resistant' approaches, to try to avoid a repeat of the devastation in February.
Mr Jansen remarks that, in the two weeks since his company started the repairs, he's become all too aware of the longing of the people - obliged to walk, because there can be no taxis or public transport without roads - for the work to be finished, it's hoped, at the end of September.
But for Aventina Lumanguwele, who lives in a tented rural hamlet at Macia, en route to Xai Xai, there will be no return to city life 100 kilometres away. Her house was close to Xai Xai in nearby Chokwe, a town famous for its tomatoes. But she lost her home when the floods and the Limpopo almost swallowed Chokwe, making the town front page news around the world. Mrs Lumanguwele is now one of thousands of displaced Mozambicans.
She tells of how she, her husband and three children were forced to flee the waters which just kept rising in Chokwe. "We suffered", she says simply. Her husband is a good swimmer, a factor which helped to save the family when they decided not to wait for the water to reach them and swam to safety and higher ground. But before they left Chokwe, the Lumanguweles had been in the treetops for three days.
Others in her community were stuck on rooftops and on top of churches and schools. "They were the ones who hung on and had to be saved by the helicopters".
Aventina Lumanguwele now lives in a tent, but says she prefers the security of her new home, her new life and the plot of land where she has planted maize and is waiting to harvest her crop. She seems to have taken up the advice in this proverb from President Chissano, "help yourself and you will be helped".