By Rebecca Phwitiko, UNICEF Malawi
Malawi’s border with neighbouring Mozambique has always been fluid. People move freely across the vast land border for trade and marriage. The language spoken in the southern border villages is often a fusion of Sena (spoken by the Sena tribe of southern Malawi) and Portuguese from Mozambique. It is not uncommon to find Malawians in these areas speaking fluent Portuguese and using a Mozambique network on their mobile phones.
For 28-year-old Martha Martin, the journey across this border was a life-saving mission. Three weeks ago, she was at home in Luis village in Mozambique, with her husband and 11-year-old daughter Sarah. Then the floods arrived. “The water came in the middle of the night, Martha recalls. “I woke up to find water filling up the house. It must have been around 2am. I was so scared, I thought we were going to die.”
She and her husband Timothy went outside to find their neighbours scrambling to get up on higher ground. They joined in and eventually found themselves perched safely on a small hill, watching the water rising steadily and houses collapsing around them.
As the sun came up, fishermen came to the hill in their boats. It seemed like a rescue mission but they were charging 10,000 Malawi kwacha ($13.83) to bring people across the border to Malawi. “There was so much water around us,” Martha says. “We could see dry land far out on the Malawian side, but on the Mozambique side the water stretched as far as we could see. So we decided to go to Malawi.”
Unfortunately, the family did not have enough money for all three people. Martha’s husband Timothy made the courageous decision to send his wife and child to safety and stay behind himself. “The last time I saw him, he was on a small hill surrounded by water,” Martha says. “I haven’t seen or heard from him since. I wish we were together now.”
On arriving in Malawi, Martha and 15 others from her village were directed to Bangula Admarc camp in Nsanje, where hundreds of families had started to assemble. The next day 40 more families arrived from Mozambique and more trickled in over the next few days. According to camp manager Isaac Falakeza, there are now over 1,800 Mozambicans and 3,400 Malawians staying at the camp.
“It’s very over crowded but we help people the same way, whether they came from Malawi or Mozamique,” Isaac says. “We don’t discriminate. Our main challenge is food. Every family should receive one bag of nsima [maize flour], but now we only have enough for one bag between two families.”
“Water and sanitation is also a challenge for us,” Isaac continues. “UNICEF has sent us hundreds of buckets, packets of soap, water treatment and eight latrines, which is helping. We are prioritising the most needy families – those who are disabled or with young children.”
There is little comfort in the camp, a former market building that has a roof but no walls. Martha and her daughter sleep with no blanket on the hard concrete floor, alongside the other evacuees. Each family receives a cup of maize flour or rice each day, depending on what is available. “Most of us do not even have pots, so it is easier to cook in groups of three or four families,” Martha says.
There are 187 other camps across 14 districts in Malawi. Families who have lost their homes and crops are staying in schools or churches and need urgent assistance. UNICEF is providing basic water and sanitation (WASH) supplies like buckets, water treatment materials and toilets to affected families in the camps. Martha says the UNICEF toilets have improved the situation in the camps. “Before people would just relieve themselves anywhere,” she explains. “These toilets have really helped us.”
UNICEF has also provided recreational kits and education supplies including tents, notebooks, pens and chalk to affected schools. These include schools that have lost supplies and those that are sheltering displaced families and therefore need additional resources.
“UNICEF’s priority is to help children and families who have lost their homes and are living in evacuation centres or with other families in their communities,” UNICEF Malawi Representative Johannes Wedenig said. “We have emergency supplies pre-positioned in areas that are regularly affected by natural disasters, which allows us to move quickly to meet people’s immediate needs.”
Many at Bangula camp are settling into a routine, trying to make things work under difficult circumstances. Martha’s daughter Sarah is now attending a nearby school, while she fetches firewood from surrounding fields and sells it by a marketplace near the camp. With the little money she makes, Martha buys vegetables to go with the rice and maize flour ration she receives at the camp. “I am happy that Sarah is going to school and doesn’t have to spend the day in the camp,” Martha says. “It’s crowded here and not a good place for a child.”
Martha hopes to reunite with her husband soon and buy some land on the Malawi side of the border. “I don’t want to go back to Mozambique,” she says. “It’s too dangerous when the river floods.” It’s unclear how long Martha, Sarah and thousands other women and children will be in the camps, but they require continued assistance.
UNICEF estimates funding needs of US $8,265,000 to meet the immediate and medium-term needs of children and women throughout the affected areas of Malawi. The organisation also needs to restock supplies in warehouses, in case of another flood or disaster.
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