As Partners In Health continues relief efforts in southern Malawi following devastating downpours earlier this year, personal stories are emerging that show not only the flooding’s severe impact on families and communities, but also the vital support that, in weeks since, has provided hope, helped people rebuild their homes, and sustained livelihoods.
Stories like Maliko Sadzu’s. The 60-year-old described the loss of his home in tearful conversations with PIH teams, and framed the March flooding as the climactic result of three months of near-constant rain. This year’s unusually heavy deluge began in January and relentlessly weakened buildings and infrastructure across Malawi’s mountainous Neno District.
PIH, known locally as Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo, supports two hospitals and 12 health centers in Neno, serving more than 165,000 people. The impoverished region is served by a network of steep, rocky, dirt roads that can become impassable when rains are heavy. Washed-out bridges can also force unexpected detours, increasing residents’ barriers to health care and services.
PIH teams have dealt with those roads and other challenges while providing relief efforts after the disastrous floods, working closely with national and local government to bring emergency supplies and support to more than 1,000 people in Neno. Thousands of subsistence farmers in the district lost all or part of their homes, as the months of rainfall culminated with 84 straight hours of downpours in early March, overflowing rivers and watersheds. Relief packages have included food, materials for cooking and for repairing homes, financial support, and even temporary, one-room shelters that are designed for expansion so families can build more as they’re able.
For many, work to rebuild and recover has only just begun, and wounds—mental and physical—are still raw.
Sadzu said he and his wife Lucia, 50, were sitting by a sheltered cooking fire behind their house in the Neno village of M’mola, as the heavy rains fell on an evening in early March.
“Suddenly, we heard a strange noise like a small quake, as if something heavy had fallen,” he said. The noise quickly was followed by a cry from one of their eight children.
“Amayooo ndikufa ine!” their 18-year-old yelled in Chichewa, the local language. “Mother, I am dying!”
The parents rushed to the front of the house and saw that several walls had crumbled, with rubble falling near their 18-year-old, who was sick and had not gone to school that day. The teenager was unhurt, to their relief. But that night, as the family slept, additional walls collapsed around them. What remained of their kitchen was lost to flooding and rain the next day.
With no place to live and no food, Sadzu was left to wonder how he could build a new house, feed his family, and continue sending their children to school.
“This is too much misfortune!” he said, sobbing openly as he recalled that day. “We have seen strange things this year, a house destroyed by rain and almost killing my child?”
The season’s heaviest rains in Neno were related to Cyclone Idai, which struck southeastern Africa in early March. The cyclone killed an estimated 1,000 people across Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi; affected 1 million; and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. In Malawi alone, the flooding killed 60 people and displaced nearly 90,000 others across 15 of the country’s southern districts.
Just days after the storm system subsided, members of the local village development committee and Neno’s disaster response team visited Sadzu’s family, along with PIH community health worker Mary Velvet. PIH and government partners provided the family with beans, nuts, more than 100 pounds of corn, a litre of cooking oil, a 20-litre plastic bucket for water, a roll of plastic sheeting to help with temporary shelter, and more. The family also received 2,000 Malawian kwacha ($3.50), for transportation costs to haul items to their home.
Sadzu thanked all of them, knowing his family now had a path forward. A rising number of Neno residents now share that hope.
Like Sadzu, Martha Julias lost her home in the village of M’mola. Also like Sadzu, she received a visit from Velvet and government partners after the storm, and was given much of the same items as Sadzu’s family.
For Julias, 19, the items helped her support her brother, a 21-year-old living with epilepsy. Julias previously lived with their parents in Blantyre, the largest city in southern Malawi, but moved to Neno in 2018 to help her brother. Velvet visited frequently and accompanied him to monthly checkups, but until Julias’ arrival, he did not have full-time care.
Julias’ presence might have saved her brother’s life during the rains. They both were outside in their garden at about 9 a.m. on a March day, when three walls of the house fell down—shattering windowpanes, damaging their metal roof, and revealing how the extended downpours had eroded their home’s foundation.
“Imagine if he had been inside the house. What could have happened?” Julias said.
Julias said the emergency support they received gives them hope, and will help them restart their lives in weeks and months to come.
Roda Biziwelo, a 65-year-old widow, also has to rebuild. She lives in the Neno village of Nyakoko with her 25-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy, and her five grandchildren.
Biziwelo lost her home during the rains. She, her daughter, and the grandchildren now are living in a makeshift, thatch-roof shelter. Despite assistance from PIH and partners, she remains anxious about her family’s future. She expects to harvest only two bags of corn this year, not nearly enough to last until the next harvest season.
Her struggles are indicative of the tough months that lie ahead for many Neno residents, and for Malawians across the country. The flooding destroyed many fields and crops just as they were maturing, meaning risks of severe food shortages loom.
“The flooding and destruction of homes and property in Neno District and across southern Malawi have been devastating, especially with Cyclone Idai coming at the end of the growing season when families cannot replant,” said Dr. Emilia Connolly, chief medical officer for Partners In Health in Malawi. “We are so fortunate, with the response from our request for fundraising, to be able to support our community where we live and work to strengthen the health care system through food, household, and infrastructure support.”
To help PIH continue providing emergency assistance to Malawi families and communities in need of food, mosquito nets, supplies to rebuild homes, and more, please consider donating here.