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Malawi, 21 January 2015: School closed, camp for flood victims opened

UNICEF Malawi/2015/van der Merwe
© UNICEF Malawi/2015/van der Merwe
Larry Nkhani, Headteacher, Bangula Primary School.

by Joke van Kampen

21 January 2015, NSANJE, Malawi – For headmaster Larry Nkhani, his 46 teachers and 2505 pupils the beginning of 2015 was business as usual. Just before the school was about to open after the holidays, Nsanje district officials asked Larry whether he could empty one class room to provide shelter for people from a nearby village that was flooded. Larry obliged- after all, this happens every year. The rainy season begins and in some flood prone areas inhabitants to take shelter on higher grounds or in the main town for a few days. After that, they go back to their highly fertile fields, repair a minor damage here and there and continue to grow maize till the next harvest in May.

But after the 5th of January, in Nsanje (the most southern and one of the poorest district in Malawi) it was no longer business as usual. In less than 24 hours, a months’ worth of rain poured down and in a short period of time, flattened buildings, bridges, houses, trees, health clinics and schools alike. Thousands of people picked up what was left of their belongings and ran for their life, to higher grounds.

“After a few days, people started to come in in big numbers. People initially stayed at the district offices but the school already has latrines, whereas other building do not, so they came here and we emptied class room after class room. So here we are, school closed, camp opened.” said Larry.

According to Nsanje District Council as of 20 January Bangula camp, as it is called now, hosts 5951 evacuees from flooded areas. The damage done by the floods is still overwhelmingly visible all over Nsanje district. There are collapsed buildings everywhere and huge areas have been completely deserted. The 100km long road from Chikwawa to Nsanje has a desolate look and it feels as if Lake Malawi has repositioned itself right here. Nsanje is one of the hardest hit districts but in total 15 districts and 121.00 people are now displaced. The number of confirmed deaths is 54 and the number of people reported missing is currently 153 . 

UNICEF Malawi/2015/van der Merwe
© UNICEF Malawi/2015/van der Merwe
Tsala Daudi, cradles her child at Bangula camp.

In many poor households, any adverse event constitutes a crisis, and in Malawi a disaster like this presents an almost impossible challenge. However at Bangula Camp, the Government of Malawi, international aid agencies, UN agencies and NGOs are gearing up to respond to the needs of the displaced. World Vision is distributing maize and MSF is providing medical services in many camps. UNICEF has provided tents and survival kits, and will be providing essential nutrition, health, water and sanitation commodities.

Despite all the relief efforts, there are still acute humanitarian needs at Bangula Camp. The latrines are not adequate for serve the almost 2000 people who now live there. There is food and there are medicines but “not enough, not enough” complain aid workers (Health Surveillance Assistant Bram Makawi) . The displaced keep coming in group after group. They are being rescued by helicopters and boats from the Malawian army from higher grounds where they took refuge when the rains started to wreak havoc on their livelihoods.

Children at the camp look sick, exhausted and in shock. So do their mothers. Tsala Daudi (24) is one of them. “We saw the water coming but finally I woke up at night when the roof started to fall in. I just grabbed the children and went to higher grounds.” The new arrivals at Bangula camp are being registered and brought to the improvised health clinic in the teacher’s office where they get they undergo basic health checks. Within 30 minutes two women with really sick children are referred to the hospital which is located close by, just across the road. One of the children is severely malnourished and gets treatment at the UNICEF supported Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit at the Kalemba Rural Hospital, the other child needs treatment for severe sores all over his body. Henry Namwera, 11 months old and severely malnourished died two days after arrival at the camp.

Other new arrivals go to a tent, or a classroom where they can set up what will become their home for no one knows how long.

“I will have to leave that place” says Tsali, hinting at a problem that only now becomes apparent. This year, people are not away for a few days, they are truly and completely homeless and displaced. There is nothing to go back to. What has Tsali left? “My children” she says, clinging to her two and five year old. She shows a chitenje, filled with a few pieces of clothes and that is it. “But where should I go to?” she murmurs.



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