As the saying goes sometimes in life what you wish for is not what you wanted.
Mid-January 2015 in Malawi will probably be remembered as one of the wettest and most devastating periods in recent history, In some areas of Southern Malawi approximately over a month’s worth of rain (170mm +) fell in just 24hrs. In some locations if rained non-stop for 72hrs.
In December many Malawian s were praying for rain as yet again the rains were late. Where I’m living they only started seriously late December. So when it started raining on Friday 9th Jan in Malosa a small village 25km north of Zomba my fellow VSO housemates and I were fairly complacent. Later that day when we walked home for lunch a few minutes away we had to battle against the swirling winds. Our umbrellas turned inside out and we struggled to navigate our way around the muddy puddles and more worryingly a number of large broken branches across the track. By the evening when the winds had blown down all the fences and the heavy drizzle had turned into continual intense downpour I remember remarking that it just wasn’t normal. Usually it rains in huge big storms with thunder and lightning for 2, 3 or maybe 4 hours and then stops. But this was definitely something different.
That evening the usual wildlife sounds of birds, cicadas and frogs were interrupted with the rasping sounds of chainsaws as many neighbouring trees had to be felled to prevent them falling onto houses. All night the wind battered at our back door, blowing the rain horizontally under the door into the house and through any open window. The rain did not stop and hammered down onto our tin roof so loudly we could hardly hear each other speak.
Saturday saw a slight lull in what we later discovered was a cyclone and in between showers we walked into the village which was remarkably unscathed. However the rain started in earnest again in the evening and continued on and on and on….for the next few days finally stopping on Tuesday. With 3 days of continual rain we realised this was going to cause some serious damage to houses, crops and road infrastructure. Many houses in villages are made of simple mud bricks which are burnt to make them hard but no concrete or cement is used which makes them incredibly porous. We started to see and hear terrible stories of destruction where houses simply crumbled and collapsed on top of people crushing them. Rivers burst their banks and came pouring down through villages and main streets of towns wreaking havoc and demolishing businesses.
Needless to say I was really shocked and saddened by all the news and expressed this to my colleagues at the nursing college where I’m working. I’m still surprised by the way Malawians take everything in their stride and have a very different way of handling bad news. One of our librarians explained how his house was full of water and that everything was ruined. Why are you smiling I asked “at least I’m still alive” was his response. When another tutor showed me a video clip of a lorry driver heading straight over a broken bridge and into the river, I exclaimed in horror and asked if he’d survived she said of course not he’s dead! Even talking to my night guard who lost his outdoor kitchen and toilet buildings I was astonished when he just presented in a matter of fact way that the buildings were gone, finished (bas in Chichewa). Curiously the Malawian people accept that this is God’s way.
The immediate aftermath is awful with a huge number of homeless people. President Peter Mutharika declared 15 of the 28 national districts disaster zones and as of 16th January the number of displaced were 22,000 households (121,000 people) this was still being assessed and expected to rise; 153 missing people in Nsanje district and 53 were reported dead (DoDMA. 2015). The impacts on Malawi are going to be truly debilitating as the nation already depends heavily on international aid. There is of course the immediate disaster response to help with. Many homeless people requiring shelter and food and affected households seeking medical assistance and psychological support. Relief agencies are on the ground and I’ve been working this week to coordinate a partnership between VSO and MSF to help send 5 nurses out to the worst affected Nsanje area. Once the emergency response is dealt with the lingering effects of the cyclone will be felt for many months and years to come. Hundreds of hectares of crops have been destroyed number potentially impacting 638,000 people (116,000 households) (DoDMA.2015). Children have missed out on vital education. Infrastructure needs to be rebuilt or repaired so that water, electricity and transport networks can function again.
All in all the last few weeks have been terrible for Malawi and her people and as my placement with VSO is in its last few months my heart goes out to everyone affected. It’s easy for me to escape this situation but for many this will change the rest of their lives.
Glossary DoDMA – Department of Disaster Management Affairs.
References ( DoDMA. 2015. Malawi: Floods DoDMA Situation Report No. 02. Malawi_DoDMA_Sitrep_2_Floods_18 January 2015_f.pdf. 18 January 2015. [On-line]. Humanitarian Response . Available from: www.humanitarianresponse.info/operations/malawi . 19 January 2015)