Thomas Chafunya had his doubts. He wanted well-wishers to come to the rescue of flood victims in Lilongwe, but using visuals of disasters is often criticised as insensitively using human pain to increase online views and likes.
As Lingadzi River broke its banks on Friday, the former MBC television editor remembered a smartphone connects people and empowers them to help one another.
Phoning a person at a time was going to be too slow to save people stuck in raging waters in Area 49 and the nearby Mtandire slum.
“The people stuck in floods needed urgent assistance,” says the man who streamed the disaster live on Facebook.
His home lies 300 metres from the spot where four neighbours were trapped in houses flooded by overspills from the bursting Lingadzi.
He was out to “calm them down” when he was told him two boys were trapped in the middle of water. Amidu and Isaki Jafali, 14-year-old twins from the slum, dangerously hang on to maize stalks for almost five hours.
The rescuers needed a thick 80-metre rope to fish the boys out, but they could not find any.
Meanwhile, thousands were watching helplessly on the muddy riverbank and nearly everyone was phoning out.
Chafunya says he called Lilongwe City chief executive officer Moza Zeleza who assuredly replied: “Stay calm and keep your phone on; the rescue team is on the way.”
However, desperation kept deepening.
“A miracle was needed,” Chafunya says. “The twins had been in the water for over two hours. I was convinced someone could watch if I streamed live.”
Chafunya finally went live on Facebook.
“The phones started ringing. I had a call every 10 seconds. People wanted to know how they could help,” he recalls.
The callers included a businessperson who offered his boat and Washington Shimizu who bought the rope they needed most.
However, Chafunya was relieved when former commissioner of disaster management Dr Ben Botolo phoned in.
“He was very positive. He said: ‘Rescue is on the way as we’re liaising with the army to deploy a chopper. It was a big relief,” Chafunya recalls.
Helplessnes was heightened when one of the maize stalks the twins held on to snapped.
“Help! Help! Help!”
Almost everyone feared the twins would be swept away in no time.
Firefighters, whose truck was parked far from the muddy river bank, were moving onlookers to a higher places when brave swimmer Shukran Mafuta dived into the water and swam to a wrecked bridge.
The swimmer kept telling the boys at risk to remain hopeful, as fire fighters wanted.
The boys, described as “inseparable” by their parents, were shivering and afraid, but they firmly stuck to each other.
“A miracle” Chafunya prayed for in the video that quickly went viral arrived when a presidential chopper flew by.
Chafunya went live on Facebook once more, capturing the screams of joy, ululation and claps.
The mood dipped into dismay when the military plane flew past to rescue another man caught in floods too.
The video shows three onlookers diving into the water, one is washed away and two dock on a raised spot where they hold the kids as Captain Ziliro Jere and his airborne crew throw down a net to fish the twins out of the water.
The use of Facebook Live to shine the light on the Lilongwe tragedy confirms the power of mobile technologies in disaster response.
“I think phone apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp are changing the world. Anyone with a phone can use these technologies to alert people of things happening around them,” Chafunya says.
With live streaming, communities in trouble do not have to wait for a live television crew to show they need help.
Actually, the State-run MBC television needed Chafunya’s trending clips in their disaster reporting.
That even newsrooms followed a every bit of Chafunya’s live feed shows the disruptive nature of live apps, which enable ordinary citizens to break big news before radio and television stations go live.
Chafunya says: “I knew if I go live, people will see the intensity of the disaster and throw in some help.
“I had the ease to record a video and sell it to TV stations, but I wasn’t looking for a scoop, but it was like: ‘Here we are. Help! Help! Help!’ Lives were at stake.”
This is the power of live streaming.
Two years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg rolled out Safety Check which allows members of the social network to let family or friends see they are unharmed after disastrous events.
This month, Facebook added a feature which helps people lend or get, helping hands after disasters.
When You Tube followed suit, digital marketing expert Fi Bendall said even business captains “should be keen” to explore how streaming live can work for them.
But he warns: “If you are going to attempt to use this platform, you have to remember that Facebook Live is live indeed. That means things could go wrong.
“Think through what you are doing before hitting the button to go live. The ease with which you can go live could lure you into a false sense of security and result in a PR disaster.”
This was the first time Chafunya, a public relations consultant at the Portuguese construction giant, Mota-Engil, was streaming live to his 3 425 friends since he joined Facebook on November 26 2008.