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In the misery of Malawi’s floods, finding a way forward

By James Elder

Relief efforts are focused on providing life-saving assistance to tens of thousands of people affected by recent floods, but communities are also making their own strides toward recovery.

CHIKWAWA, Malawi, 23 January 2015 – When disasters strike, governments and aid organizations rush in to provide emergency relief by the best available route. Shelter materials and life-saving supplies are brought in by truck or helicopter; essential medicines are biked or boated to those in need; and temporary classrooms are put up where there is shade and safe space.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0047/Chagara
Anita and her grandchildren sit in their collapsed home, which was destroyed by flooding in Chumbu Village in Malawi's Nsanje District

But there is a lesser known, but often more widespread, kind of action in an emergency. It’s the action that comes from people and communities themselves – endeavours in the face of great odds from those whose lives have been turned upside down.

Malawi is a case in point.

Across this landlocked country, people are no strangers to hardship. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in southern Africa. Nearly 50 per cent of children are stunted. More than 60 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day. Malawians understand resilience. They know adversity. And they manage misfortune. But the force of Mother Nature will floor even the hardiest.

Over the past fortnight, Malawi has experienced widespread flooding that has left 200 people dead or missing and 121,000 displaced. The floods turned daily hardship into misery, scarcity into suffering.

Mercy Zambez was asleep in her mud house with her husband and three children when the waters started rising. Outside their home was the family’s livelihood, and their future: They grew maize, sweet potatoes and rice. Not copious amounts, but enough to ensure their children were healthy, in school, uniformed and so on.

And then the flood came.

“Just too many of us”

“It rained all night,” says Mercy, 25. “And when I woke, things were completely flooded and my house started to collapse. I grabbed my children, their health cards and a few pots, and ran.”

This is no mean feat, amid rushing waters and in pitch dark. And Mercy is eight months pregnant.

“Then the walls fell,” she says.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0049/van de Merwe
Families wait in line for access to basic health services at the Sekeni II camp for people displaced by flooding, near the town of Nchalo in Chikhwawa District, Malawi.

Mercy is now one of thousands being sheltered by host communities in a nearby village, with the support of UNICEF and other organizations, who are building toilets, monitoring children for malnutrition and providing clean water. As she speaks, Mercy’s 2-year-old, Mishek, taking advantage of some space, crawls on the floor and giggles. It’s the only chance he has. Mercy and Mishek share their temporary home with 150 women.

The building was meant for surplus food stocks for the village. There is no surplus this season, so it was empty when the floods came. Now it is flooded with people. The space is about 10 metres by 15 metres. Few sleep.

“Really we just sit up all night,” says Mercy. “There are just too many of us.”

“Much to do”

And yet, almost immediately after the floods destroyed their home, crops and livelihood, Mercy and her husband, Evason, were making plans for their family. “My husband found a friend who rents him bicycle,” she says. “He takes people where they need to go on it. On a busy day, Evason can tally $2 a day from the rides, though he must pay $1.50 for the rent. He works all day, every day. And we won’t stop.”

“I have been back to our house,” adds Mercy. “It’s completely destroyed. We are grateful for what people are doing here, but we will work very hard to get back to our homes as quickly as possible. We have much to do.”

Everyone does.


Background: Malawi suffered prolonged heavy rains in early January, leading to unprecedented flooding in southern and eastern districts and forcing tens of thousands of people to leave their homes and their communities. UNICEF is working through its teams on the ground in Blantyre and Zomba to deliver life-saving interventions to those in the hardest-hit districts: Nsanje, Chikwawa and Phalombe. Focused on displaced women and children, UNICEF is supporting the Government of Malawi and NGO partners to provide clean water and temporary sanitation, treat acutely malnourished children, and support mobile health clinics in camps for people who have been displaced.




UNICEF Photography: Reaching remote areas


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