Cyclone Idai: Why life won’t just go back to normal

Rhoda beside the temporary shelter she has constructed from maize stocks and grass

The spectre of flooding has always hung over Chitsa village (in Nsanje, Malawi), Rhoda Benford says.

A fact of life during rainy seasons, the floods have traditionally always been anticipated during the month of January.

So, when the month of January passed without incident, Rhoda thought the worst was over and started preparing for a good harvest. This year, she says, the crop had been good and she expected a bumper harvest:

I had a good crop of maize, some millet and a lot of pumpkins.

“All has been washed away”

So she was looking into the future with hope. Almost 80 percent of people in the area rely on their small holder farms as a source of income and for their livelihood. So, having a good harvest means much more than just a meal on the table. Rhoda, a widowed mother of five, says:

If I get surplus harvest, I sell some to get money to support my children with their school needs.

But, like many in her village, Rhoda never saw the Cyclone Idai induced floods coming. She says:

These floods were strange. They came at a time when we least expected them and did much damage to our crops and homes. [Now] all has been washed away.

Scavenging for food

Rhoda was forced to move upland to Lalanje camp, which is currently hosting about 254 households affected by the floods. Many other people living in this camp also had their crops destroyed by floods and are desperately in need of food assistance.

In their desperation, they scavenge surrounding fields for crops that survived the floods. This, in most cases, is a vain exercise as many return home empty handed. Rhoda says:

I tried moving around with the hope that I can salvage something in the fields, but there is nothing. Now, I offer myself to do odd jobs here and there in the surrounding communities to get some money for food.

No prospects for the future

Meanwhile, hundreds are still flocking to Lalanje camp putting up temporary structures made of maize stocks and grass. But land in the camp is slowly running out, making people scramble to build on every available space.

And, like in many other camps for displaced people sprouting up in Nsanje, sanitation facilities at Lalanje are failing to cope with the growing number of arrivals.

The camp has only two toilets and two bathrooms. The nearest safe water point is 10 km away, forcing many to use shallow wells, exposing them to water-borne diseases. CARE with funding from USAID, recently distributed water and sanitation equipment to 700 families staying at Lalanje camp. Plans are being made to distribute plastic sheets for roofing of the temporary shelters.

But with their harvests washed away, their homes and farms flooded, people like Rhoda face an uncertain future. Scarred by the memory of last month’s floods, Rhoda has no plans of returning to her farm anytime soon.

She says she doesn’t trust her knowledge of the weather anymore.

By Joseph Scott, CARE Malawi

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.