Displaced but determined: Red Cross volunteers lead the way in flood-stricken Malawi

Publié: 26 février 2015 8:56 CET

By John Sparrow, IFRC

Manyowa village has been wiped from the map of southern Malawi. When the Ruo river, a Shire tributary, flooded, the farming community of 3,200 people disappeared beneath the waters, and no one intends to live there again.

Today the survivors, all but six people survived, are camped out on a rain-swept hillside. All that they had is gone. Their homes. Their crops. Their animals. Their possessions. They must start life all over again.

Lingstone Gomes, 34, is one of the farmers, a tall, serious man whose house collapsed around them as he and his wife Bertha tried to save what they could from the relentless flow of the Ruo. He is reluctant to talk about what happened then; the four days they spent in the water, the struggle to save their three children, and how they saved others. His focus is on the present, overcoming the dangers of displacement, and re-establishing Manyowa on a hillside where the villagers have permission to settle.

Gomes is a Red Cross volunteer, one of half a dozen among Manyowa’s displaced farmers, and what preoccupies them now is the safety and welfare of their community in the most perilous circumstances. “It is why we joined the Red Cross,” he said. “Floods happen here and while we never expected something like this, we have been taught what to do in a disaster.”

Widow Margaret Kamangira, 53, a long-serving volunteer, agreed. “We are used to losing our property,” she said, “and even our houses from time to time if the annual floods are bad. But not the whole village. It gives me comfort to help out and be useful.”

The Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) has 30,000 trained volunteers spread across the country and those in the Lower Shire valley are on the frontlines of the worst floods most people can remember. Weeks of heavy rain affected more than a third of Malawi, and weeks more of rain are expected. The MRCS has been operational since day one of the disaster, and, through its volunteers, tens of thousands of people have already been reached with relief: shelter kits, tarpaulins, mosquito nets, blankets, water containers and cooking sets.

Lingstone Gomes knows how much more is needed. People are hungry, poorly sheltered and in danger from disease. Malaria is spreading and a shortage of clean water and poor sanitation heightens the fear of epidemic disease. Cholera is endemic in the Lower Shire.

So the volunteers have been digging pits for latrines, helping out neighbours and encouraging others to do the same. They have helped to erect temporary shelters and are passing on advice about health and hygiene.

“It is important people know how to keep the camp clean, and how they can avoid the risk of disease,” Gomes said.

Saving lives

Were it not for the Red Cross more people would have drowned in the first place. Young and old alike have volunteers to thank for being pulled from the water.

Gomes himself was a rescuer when debris, swept along by the Ruo tide, capsized a canoe packed with children. His own three youngsters were among them and he almost lost his six-year-old son as he carried others to safety.

“We got them into a jacaranda tree that was hanging over the water,” the volunteer remembered. “We told them to cling to the branches.” A seven-year-old girl was lost when she tired and fell but the rest of them survived.

Gomes’ son was also carried away as his father struggled in the water. The man plunged into the stream and followed. By catching the boy’s hand and grabbing onto another tree, the volunteer managed to save him.

He was not the only Red Cross rescuer. Elia Chikoti, 70, from the nearby community of Chiombedza, toured flooded villages in a canoe looking for survivors. Among those he found were a number of elderly people.

Today Vashiku Ross, 96, and wife Betita James, 84, can be found in a small hillside shelter where Lingstone Gomes and his friends keep an eye on them. They have nothing left but their lives and the clothes they were wearing when Chikoti saw them. The couple clung to a pole for hours, they said, and the volunteer arrived only just in time to save them. Exhausted, the woman was already down in the water and soon would have drowned, she said.

Vashiku, who misses his left eye, lost in the Second World War serving with British forces, is frail. He seldom utters a word but his questioning face does his speaking for him. He is confused, and unsure of what will happen tomorrow.

Elderly people, alone and in a precarious state, share his plight in camps for the displaced across devastated southern Malawi. Saving people from the water was just a first step, volunteer Lingstone Gomes said.

An emergency appeal from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is supporting Malawi Red Cross operations to help 42,000 people over the next nine months. The appeal is currently 46 per cent funded.