Australian SRT volunteer, Jeff Barnard from Valla Beach, NSW reports from his first deployment, to flood-hit Malawi.
“Zikomo (thank you) Malawi” for your hospitality and warmth.
The local people I worked with on deployment with ShelterBox displayed a level of generosity rarely seen in people who own many possessions. Days were long, beginning by collecting local Red Cross volunteers and others from Govt buildings and loading up the 4×4 vehicles for the long, rough journey to isolated villages. Working with true empathy for their countrymen’s plight, with little to no financial gain, I have the greatest respect for them all. Malawi, while landlocked in the heart of Africa, is about one-quarter covered by Lake Malawi. The area my team worked appeared to be the flood plain which links the massive lake to the Zambezi river in Mozambique. The level of destruction and need in the small villages is staggering, particularly given the lack of international media attention. I am told, it is estimated that 200,000 people have been left homeless. So many mud homes reduced to a pile of soil, which, for want of a better solution, now supports a healthy crop of corn while families take refuge in the schools and churches. A bag of cement costs less than $1.50 here, but this is a luxury these people cannot afford. Therefore their mud homes, made solely of the silty soil, are washed away by heavy rains and flooding.
Initially, we continued to focus on shelter in the form of camps, often located in the school grounds, due to people’s home sites remaining flooded. However, as the ground dried, the change to home deployment occurred, aiming to free up the schools so that the children may resume normality. While far more time-consuming and physically demanding, locating people at their home sites also saves the long walk to and from their crops each day to tend them. I will remember the huge smiles of stunning women navigating the rough tracks which link villages, often carrying large bags of food balanced on their head, a small child strapped to their backs with a colourful sheet of cloth. These tracks wind through corn fields (the staple food made into a flour, then cooked to become firm, like mashed potato), with occasional tobacco, sunflowers, and rice. Seemingly all small farms with grassed roofed, mud huts dotted throughout. 80% of the population (13 mill) work in this subsistence sector, while the rest primarily in the processing of the crops.
Probably the most obvious shock coming from collecting beneficiary data is the clear effects of HIV on the family make up in many villages. So many single mothers or grandmothers caring for 5 – 9 grandchildren, some sadly also on medication for the illness. The most difficult decision is in determining the most vulnerable as limited shelter will not go close to meeting the needs of each community.
Life is harsh, but people are tough, simple things light up the faces of these poorest of people. A hand shake awakens a grin from the heart and laugh from the belly. Banter between the men and women have them slapping knees and gossiping wildly. An empty 500 ml water container handed to a child makes their week, and has them running to show friends. A boiled egg given to a small child is shared between 6 siblings. I do not remember being asked for anything once in my time there, but the Zikomo,s (thank-yous) were everywhere, along with spontaneous clapping of homeless women realising they may receive shelter.
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