Salima is one of Malawi’s disaster-prone districts; if it is not drought haunting it, then it is hailstorms or floods wreaking havoc in the village. Climate change is blamed for these natural occurrences. Bright Mhango was in Odalla Village in the district where he came face to face with the impact of climate change.
Odalla Village is a dusty village in Traditional Authority Khombedza in Salima. The village lies along the so-called Limpimpi River which is just a name for cartographers. There is no water in the river, just a stretch of sand and reeds growing where water should be passing.
Where fish should be swimming, goats browse.
Group Village Headman Odalla, whose house sits atop a cliff of the Limpimpi ‘river’, concedes that times have changed. He said the river used to have perennial running water in the 1980s, but in 2012, the river had dried up by June, soon after the rainy season.
“People struggle here; there is usually a dry spell in February when the maize is at its critical stage. The result is low yields and people depend on manual labour to get by. There is no chance for irrigation because the only river we have dries up too quickly,” said Odalla.
The traditional leader said when drought hits, children from some families face serious problems of malnutrition, including death. Some men abandon their families and bolt to neighbouring districts to look for employment in tobacco estates, leaving women and children to bear the full wrath of nature gone wrong.
Twenty-four-year-old Patricia Gift is one of the women of Odalla Village. Her husband is unemployed and jumps from one piece work to another. Patricia dropped out of primary school after only three years.
At the time of the interview, Patricia was drawing water for someone building a house in the village. She was under contract to supply water from 6am till sunset and get K300 as her daily pay.
“It is the poverty at home that forces me to do this. There is nothing else we can do here and when drought hits and yields fail I have to double my efforts to look for piece work because it’s tough living here,” she said, clasping her baby to her bosom.
Patricia said her husband is supportive of her efforts because he knows that she brings food on the table, but is aware of the threat that she is under if the husband decides to bolt.
“Some men disappear and leave you with kids and if he runs from you when drought hits and no aid organisation comes to distribute food, it can be very tough for some people,” said Patricia.
Odalla said his village has widows from the HIV scourge who have to face each day without support from anyone.
The high population density in the area means that land is highly fragmented among the households. Patricia says she has about four acres of land where she has to plant cotton, maize and groundnuts.
“Sometimes we share one bag of subsidisedfertiliser among four households. Without fertiliser, the yield is low. I only get about four bags of maize from my maize garden. In my family of five, we use two bags of maize per month and that means for the rest of the year up to the next harvest I have to toil,” said Patricia.
The little cotton she grows ropes in about K20 000 per year, with buyers getting a kilogramme of cotton at K80. The groundnuts are also boiled and sold to commuters at the nearby bus stop.
It is tough life, but, sadly, the only one for Patricia.
In the face of the almost constant droughts, a river that cannot bring water when it is needed most, why are the people of Khombeza not migrating to crops that can stand the heat such as cassava?
“We cannot grow cassava here; we have a big security threat and thieves steal it, forcing people to abandon growing the crop,” said Odalla.
But Godfrey Chingo’ma, director of crop development in the Ministry of Agriculture, rubbished the chief’s argument. He said issues of security cannot be the excuse for not diversifying.
People of Khombeza such as Patricia are the face of what climate change can do to a community.
The tragedy is that they did not cause their problems; the whole of Africa contributed only 3.6 percent of carbon emission as of 2006. The rest came from the developed nations.
This means that all the climate change that is hitting people like Patricia is the making of someone in Europe or Japan.
Norway’s Minister of International Development, HeikkiHolmås, on his recent tour of Malawi admitted that one Norwegian emits 100 times more carbon than a Malawian.
Norway granted the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi (NASFAM) $20 million [K6.6 billion] to fund its activities over the next five years, especially to strengthen climate smart agriculture which seeks to beat the harsh climate.
“We [Norway] have developed a strategy to reduce our carbon emission, but at the same time we are obliged to support the countries that are feeling the strongest effects of climate change. That is why we are in Malawi and that is why we are backing smallholder farmers that are working together,” said Holmås.
He said it is smallholder farmers, such as Patricia, that are feeling the effects of climate change the most.
Whether, and how much, Patricia and others in Odalla Village will benefit from such resources remains to be seen.