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Malawi, 18 February 2015: Malawi Queens visit flood survivors in Nsanje

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
The Queens (Malawi National Netball Team) with the netball team of Bangula FP School.

By Zulaikha Sesay

18 February 2015 – It’s been over a month since flash floods created chaos in much of Southern Malawi, leaving behind a trail of destruction that washed away whatever little people owned. Hundreds of thousands have been affected by what has been described as the worst floods since 1964. The numbers speak for themselves: 230,000 have been displaced, 276 are dead or missing.

UNICEF’s humanitarian response was immediately activated and its efforts clearly visible, with teams permanently stationed in the worst affected districts to ensure that the most vulnerable children and women receive the help that they need to ensure their survival needs are met. The education sector has arguably been worst hit by the floods, with over 181 schools being occupied by the displaced, thereby affecting learning for over 300,000 children. Things are slowly going back to normal. Children are returning back to school, but not without the scars from the trauma they have experienced from fleeing their homes and becoming displaced inside their own country.

I remember growing up in war time Sierra Leone and having to leave behind my home, my family, my friends and school, all in a short space of time, not knowing when I would return. It became a defining moment of my childhood, an experience not to be forgotten. Eighteen years later, I am now in the position of working with an organisation like UNICEF, responding to the needs of children affected by emergencies. While particular focus has been paid to the immediate lifesaving interventions, and ensuring the education and protection needs of the displaced communities are being met, attention has now turned to how to restore a sense of normalcy to children’s lives. For many children this involves play and sport, two fundamental rights for children everywhere.

Last year, UNICEF Malawi signed a new partnership with the Netball Association of Malawi highlighting child rights advocacy, as well as promoting sports, especially netball for girls. The women’s national netball team, the Malawi Queens is currently ranked 5th in the world - no mean feat in a country with minimal resources for investing sports especially for women and girls. As local ambassadors for UNICEF, the Malawi Queens joined us on a one-day field visit to Nsanje, specifically Bangula camp which is now home to over 4,500 people, with children representing a significant number of the displaced. We brought the netballers to Bangula so that they could learn more about what UNICEF does on the ground during emergencies, as well as to provide them with the opportunity to bring a message of hope to the thousands of displaced children that look up to them as role models. They are an example of how sports can transform lives and impart valuable skills such as team work, inclusion and confidence, to name a few. I knew that we were in for a long and hot day, full of fun and laughter. Having interacted with the team on a number of occasions, I was confident that they would bring the same high levels of energy to Bangula that they display on court.

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
Friendly netball match at Bangula FP School.

Our day at Bangula started in a temporary learning tent which serves as a Community Based Childcare Centre (CBCC) where over 300 children converge every day to play, learn and importantly eat healthy porridge. The Malawi Queens proved to be naturals at interacting with the young children, playing, singing and dancing with them. It seemed like a visit to a normal CBCC, minus the constant reminder from the sounds of helicopters hovering above, delivering relief supplies to the nearby camps.

Next up was a visit to Bangula School. The school has made the successful transition from hosting displaced people to restoring normal learning, albeit with a larger number of students. The Malawi Queens received a warm welcome from the learners, teachers and headmaster of the school. All the learners, especially the girls, were excited to see their sporting idols. Many young girls in Malawi play netball, in fact it is the national sport. Ten girls had been handpicked to participate in a game with these international netball superstars who have against all odds achieved tremendous success. Most schools in Malawi do not have the equipment required to play netball, but make use of whatever little they have. This match was no different, uniforms were borrowed from the boy’s football team, some had shoes, others were barefooted, however they made the best of it, complemented by equipment provided by the Netball Association. The match which saw the professional netballers and the girls warming up and playing together in mixed teams was eagerly watched by just over 1,000 children, with deafening cheers and applause.

The headmaster later revealed that he had neither seen so many happy faces, nor heard so much laughter at Bangula School for a long time and he thanked the Malawi Queens for holding the match at his school. The match was preceded by an autograph signing session when children brought whatever they had -books, bags, t-shirts etc, to get autographs, a pleasant reminder of such a special day.

When I asked Carol Ngwira, Captain of the Malawi Queens about the experience, she said: “I have an obligation to help my fellow Malawians in whatever capacity. It was a great experience to play with the young girls. This place is quite far and remote and we didn’t really expect to see what we saw. We identified at least four youngsters who can easily be groomed to become part of the future Malawi Queens.”

In recognition of the importance of stimulation and therapy in emergencies, UNICEF is providing 1,000 recreational kits for the 181 schools affected by the floods. These recreational kits will enable children to participate in team sports and games thereby allowing them to forget some of the trauma that they have suffered over the last month.

Having seen the faces of the children during our visit, I’m glad that the Malawi Queens were able to bring joy and laughter through sports and play to those affected by the floods, and more importantly a message of hope for a brighter future despite the current adversity.

Zulaikha Sesay is Partnerships Officer at UNICEF Malawi



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