Two huge rocks stand at the foot of Michesi Mountain in Phalombe District. Down the river which cuts across the district’s main town are a myriad of sparkling silver rocks above waters.
Some metres away, a memorial pillar with a list of names stands along the Phalombe-Chiringa Road. It is a symbol of loss, a wellspring of grief and a stretch of sadness.
All these sights are a stark reminder of the terror that nature hurled at some villages through flash floods and a rock avalanche on March 10 1991. Hundreds of people perished, villages flattened and hectares of crops were destroyed.
The United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the death toll to have been between 700 and 1000, with 30 000 hectares of crops swept away.
Stories abound of how the floods swept away a century of livelihood, houses, granaries and trees. Some attest to the sight of floating graves. Yes, the floods and rock avalanche even exhumed decades of peace resting in bones.
The break of dawn on this fateful Sunday was similar to the three days that preceded it. They were dawns draped and drenched in rains that pattered on the shoulders of the earth continuously.
Phalombe, then part of Mulanje District, was immersed in large amounts of rains within four days.
“Continuous rains poured for approximately three days. Then Sunday morning around 8, a rock avalanche erupted from Michesi and Mulanje mountains,” recalls 38-year-old Kondwani Massa from Bokosi Village, Traditional Authority Mkhumba in the district.
He says rocks started rolling down from the hills and mountains, making a loud, roaring sound.
A size of some of the rocks lying at the base of the mountain is scary. They are huge. One can hardly imagine the impact that such a rock would have on life and property.
The definition of this rock avalanche tilts between the scientific and traditional point of view.
The geological perspective regards the rock avalanche as a landslip and massive flooding by the saturation of rocks and boulders on the slopes of a mountain.
Traditional knowledge and understanding has its own explanation though. Locals have a mythological tale narrated over generations and adapted in some literary works. They call it Napolo.
The locals say Napolo is a two-tailed creature that lives underneath the rocks of a mountain. Its migration from one mountain to another is believed to be the cause of flooding and rock avalanche.
“When Napolo moves, it leaves behind a mark. It shakes and breaks the mountain rocks resulting in flash floods,” says 43-year-old Faston Kabichi, one of the survivors of the 1991 disaster.
He further says the movement of Napolo is characterised by ululating-like sound.
“On this day, we also heard a similar sound from the mountains. Those of us who were young that time could not make any sense of it.
“But some of the elders did. These are the people who had lived through the tales of Napolo’s past visits and were familiar with its works,” recalls Kabichi.
According to him, the lucky ones took to the calling of the elders. They scampered to safety high up the land. Most of them were from Bokosi Village, the area that was worst hit.
Fanny Friday, 37, was one of them. On this particular day, she went to Phalombe River to draw water.
“I was surprised to see that the water was dirty and abnormally very cold. Other people came. They told us to run away because there were large amounts of water coming from the mountains,” says Friday.
She was 12 years old then and the wrath of Napolo left a bitter scar in her memory.
“I lost six of my family members-four grandparents, my younger brother and sister,” Friday recalls, visibly saddened by the memory.
Survivors like Friday drown their sorrows in retelling their experience through the traditional perspective.
Yet in the eyes of some, this mythological view is as misty as Mulanje Mountain when it hides its face in the cloudy sky. But it still remains their story. It was the nation’s loss, yes, but it was their great loss, their experience.
But the loss was not in vain. The disaster united the nation, and jolted government into action.
Today, the country has a Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act of 1991. There is also the 2015 National Disaster Risk Management Policy too, albeit coming 24 years later.
From the deep wells of conventional wisdom comes a saying that ‘up from the loud silence of the sky falls the darkest hour, and down from the feet of rising mountains leaps out the new dawn’.
As the country grapples with the effects of climate change which has led to droughts and floods, Malawians can only hope that the two disaster blueprints will help prevent more loss of life from natural disasters. n