The day floods hit the Lowe Shire Valley remains the saddest for Luka Nikisi, who lives in Mwalija, Chikwawa.
The 36-year-old, from the flood-plain in Traditional Authority Kasisi, recounts the events of March 7 in the village of 362 households.
He paints a picture of the chaos, with violent waters rising fast, homes falling apart, young and old people running for their lives, crop fields being buried in mud, livestock and goods being washed into the Shire River to pave the way for relentless running water.
“It seemed almost impossible to survive the tragedy,” he says.
Nikisi and many community members find it miraculous that they survived to tell their stories. For them, arriving on land not immersed in water that reached waist-high was a relief.
No time to rest
But it was a short-lived relief though, for life at an Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) depot, where they sought refuge, was unbearable.
“The evacuation camp was overcrowded and unsanitary,” says the father-of-four.
Overcrowding at Chikwawa’s largest evacuation camp provided a fertile breeding ground for waterborne and airborne infections. In fact, coughs, malaria, diarrhoaea and pneumonia haunted the flood survivors every day.
“It was as if we had survived the floods just to be finished off by the plague of diseases,” says the man who spent three months at the camp, one of the 37 set up in Chikwawa.
Having to fend off the sad memories of the damage done by floods while trying to survive immensely altered their way of life.
They hardly complained when Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) requested them to relocate from the congested camps and ruins to a higher ground where a new village would take shape.
“It was a relief to move from those camps,” says Kiyasoni Landani, 23, from T/A Makhuwira.
He also survived the devastating rains that preceded Cyclone Idai which affected almost one million people in 15 of the country’s 28 districts.
“The only fear, however, was how to rebuild life. We were in the camps because we had lost almost everything: our crops, the livestock, the homes and even some family members,” he says, looking back to the floods which killed 56 people across the country.
It was at that time that MRCS embarked on what Landani and his neighbours consider the most important form of support—housing.
“Even in the dry season, when one has some resources, it is not easy to build a decent house. It can be costly in a disaster-prone area like ours. It’s almost impossible,” he says.
However, MRCS, with funding from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID) rose to the occasion.
“First, we had to identify a higher ground. Once we found land, with the cooperation of the local chiefs and government, it was not hard to convince the people to move. Unlike the previous years, they were willing to move,” says MRCS secretary general McBain Kanongodza.
The new village is located on a higher ground, different from the camps and wrecked settlements.
“Although it was a matter of urgency, it was also important that the shelter for the flood survivors be of good quality,” he says.
Each of the transitional shelters cost nearly K760 000. They comprise cement floors and corrugated iron sheets.
The walls are made of tarpaulin, a waterproof material to insulate the community from heavy rains and floods.
As life is returning to normal, the villagers are going back to their ruins to salvage a few bricks from rubble and start rebuilding permanent homes on a higher ground where the risk of flooding is significantly low.
Red Cross aims to expand the construction of transitional shelters beyond the 100 houses beyond Mwalija along the Shire River.
A similar project is underway in T/A Nyachikadza, Nsanje, where survivors of Cyclone Idai have agreed to relocate to a higher ground.
Phalombe, another district hit hard by the wrath of March torrents, will also benefit.
“We will extend the project to Zomba as other resources are being poured in,” says Kanongodza.
A stitch in time
In doing so, a few more families who could have been wiped off the face of the earth by floods will survive.
From their high points, the families that miraculously swam to safety in the rain might live to watch raging floods sweeping empty fields that could have been their homes had they stayed put in harms’ way.
As new houses take shape, a consensus is taking root that a stitch in time saves nine—or more. n