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Malawi, May 2015: Emergency mode [Field diary]

By Tina Pettersson, ICT officer seconded to UNICEF, Malawi by Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB)

May 2015, Malawi – In January 2015, it was clear from the onset that the annual rains in Malawi had turned into a disaster of unexpected proportions. By mid-January up to 173,000 people in the southern districts of the country were forced to leave their homelands due to the floods.

MSB, Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency is one of the UN’s stand-by partners that receives requests when there is need for emergency staff. Even if Sweden is a country about 10,000 kilometres away from Malawi, the Government did not hesitate to support the ongoing emergency.

After 16 hours on an airplane, carrying 100 kilos of emergency equipment I arrived in Malawi on Sunday February the 8th. After several briefings on the ongoing emergency and the security situation in Malawi I was ready to go to the field.

As a person sent to a disaster zone I can be sure of one thing… The affected people are going through a very hard time. All the consequences of the disaster will have an impact on their whole life, perhaps for a prolonged period or even a lifetime. My task, in collaboration with the UNICEF ICT-team (Information and Communications Technology) was to provide the five UNICEF temporary field offices in the affected areas with practical and critical communication technology, as well as redundant system solutions. Infrastructure was badly affected by the floods and in some areas the power network and the local network providers had completely broken down.
 

Misery and Joy – Does not have a gender, an age or a colour!


 

I was prepared to face an inferno of emotions such as stress, the feeling of not being able to work fast enough, overwhelming circumstances and sorrow. But what kept me going were the efforts of all the people on the ground, such as UNICEF staff and implementing partners, who have impressed me with their beliefs, stamina and desire to make a difference in every way possible. It’s through these emergencies that you realize that at the end of the day, it is our common effort that makes a true difference in transforming the lives of those affected.

But I can’t help asking myself these questions: What makes a person cope when the place you considered to be home is destroyed? How can you provide security for your family? What words do you tell your children about the future? Well, there is no simple answer to these questions. The Internally displaced (IDP) camps in Southern Malawi provide temporary shelter – that’s its basic function. It also offers the possibility for the family to stay together and hopefully access community support in rebuilding their lives. But what is the next step? Despite all the supplies, community-building efforts and high-level discussions – that individual will one day have to take that big bold step into the future outside the confines of the camp.
 

Emergency response in mzungu time or African time?

Time is always a factor that I am reminded of when I go to Africa. Monitoring trends, identifying needs and following-up on UNICEF implementing partners is not as easy as it sounds, especially if the person you are helping is sick or hungry. After all we are human and have a heart. But timing during an emergency is critical. So what is the right time? As a mzungu (bantu language for a white person or person of European descent), it is sometimes difficult to know what is expected. As a 36 year old Swedish woman, “now” clearly defines time and the urgency of a matter. I had to travel all the way to Africa and experience an emergency to extend my vocabulary and understand that “now, now” is even more urgent than “now”! I am not even going to mention the “now, now, now”!


 

But most importantly when it comes to time in this context, it’s essential that we all act in a flexible and respectful manner and keep the actual purpose of our work in mind. Time cannot be changed, but the situation for the people in need can!
 

Malawi knocked on my door!

It’s been three months since I came to Malawi, the emergency phase is ending and the country is moving towards recovery. I will go back to my part of the world soon, but I will keep Malawi in my heart. I have been honoured to meet many Malawians, share values, life and laugh together. It is difficult to work in a new context without comparing the current situation to my previous experiences, both in terms of my personal cultural background and other African countries and disasters. I have to allow myself to admit that a new experience is good in so many ways.

I wish to remind all UNICEF staff and partners (DFID, EU, The Malawi government, Goal Malawi and many others on the ground, that you are doing a great and important job and I am very happy to have been a part of our combined effort in the field. I hope that my support was appreciated in the same way as I appreciated yours. One day I will come back to this beautiful part of the world, and then it is my turn to knock on Malawi’s door…

 

 
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