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Malawi, 6 March 2015: The quiet flood victims: orphans and vulnerable children

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
Families welcoming newly displaced and orphaned children into their community.

6 March 2015, MULANJE, Southern Malawi – In early January, as the sun was rising, the villagers of Matewere and Chabwela in Mulanje district witnessed one of the most horrific events in the history of this small community. They saw two couples and three men embark on a small boat on the Ruo River, bordering Malawi and Mozambique. All of a sudden, there was a powerful surge of water and the boat, which was precariously attached to a pole in the middle of the river, capsized. They managed to hang onto the boat for hours, but one by one they lost their grip and by the afternoon they were all swept away, presumed drowned. One of the helpless onlookers was a teenage boy, who painfully stood by watching the slow death of his parents. On that day, eight children from two different families lost their parents to the raging waters.

It’s two months after the drowning. But today the Ruo River steadily rumbles along – this time graciously sharing her shores with fisherman and bathers. UNICEF’s Child protection team is back in this remote community supporting government Social Welfare Officers to counsel the boy who witnessed the tragic incident, as well as three of his siblings who are also minors. (His name and other children in this story remain confidential in order to protect their identities).

“I watched the whole time. Sometimes I shouted, begging them to somehow swim to shore. I watched my parents get weaker and weaker, then they were gone.”

There are many stories all over Malawi of children who survived the floods but whose lives will never be the same again.

In Nsanje, Agnes (not her real name) sits quietly with her new ‘mother’ Patricia. Agnes was plucked from raging waters in the middle of the night, by Patricia who was huddled on a dry anthill with her two other children. Agnes was soon evacuated to a displacement camp and has no idea where her parents are. Patricia has now ‘adopted’ her as her own daughter, and she eats and sleeps with the new family.

“I am taking her as my own child, I can look after her. Once we go back we can try to find her relatives, but for now, she is part of my family,” says Patricia with a fiercely protective tone.

Brendan Ross, UNICEF’s Child Protection Specialist:

“It has taken a few very challenging weeks to implement the family-tracing and reunification system during this emergency, because the affected children are often dispersed, remote and mobile.Many children are lost, too young to speak, or so psychologically affected that they refuse to talk.”

Across the hill in Mulanje, in neighbouring Matewere village, UNICEF’s child protection team tracked down the second set of orphans who lost their parents to the boating accident. The three children, all under the age of 14, aren’t home. The team is greeted by their elderly grandmother, who is still strong but visibly shaken by the tragedy.

“Most of the time my grandchildren are distressed and break down in tears. Financially life is hard, so the children regularly go out to do piece work in order to get extra money or food.”

In Malawi, even before this crisis, 47 per cent of children didn’t possess 3 minimum required material needs: shoes, a blanket and a second set of clothing. Of the one million already orphaned children, many struggle to get basic care and protection, leaving them vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation.

Martha Ngulube is the Social Welfare Officer for Mulanje district in the emergency effort.

“We do our best with minimum resources. These children that we are tracking today at least have basic care and protection from their relatives, but for many children in the camps, that support system was wiped away with the floods”.

The floods which affected 15 districts of the country, have displaced around 230,000 people with 106 dead or missing. And whilst the waters are receding and camps are closing, UNICEF will continue to support the most affected districts, understanding that the recovery of the most vulnerable children will take a lot longer to achieve. 




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