This isn’t a typical blog, but it’s an important one. Below, you’ll find a message from our Director Vince Owen, who’s currently on the ground in Blantyre, Malawi, where our charity partners do much of their vital work. You may not have heard, but Blantyre has borne the brunt of the disastrous effects of Cyclone Freddy in recent days. Tragically, the storm has resulted in hundreds of people losing their lives, and hundreds of thousands losing their homes.
Read on to hear Vince’s first-hand story of Cyclone Freddy and how Mobal’s charitable giving has helped. We’d also like to draw your attention to our charity partners’ appeals for the victims of Cyclone Freddy. If you feel that you can help, please donate through Cycle of Good (£), or Seibo (¥, $, £).
In 2008 we employed Charles Sakamula to look after our international volunteers here in Mitsidi from where I am writing. Charles is a likeable, hard-working guy and has given real service for over 15 years. Those who have come here will smile at the memory of his rice, beans and his children who have taught many of our visitors to speak Chichewa. He rarely speaks of his own needs, so it was unusual that when I asked him last Wednesday about how his family were coping with the recent storm, he quietly confided that his uncle was still missing, along with his three children. It was a poignant moment, as we both knew that they lived in the area hardest hit by last week’s surprising cyclone, near Mulanje Mountain, where the numbers of those washed away by what has been the world’s longest ever tropical storm was just going up and up. After an anxious day, all three children and his uncle were mercifully found, fit and well, if hungry and cold, having spent a whole day and night up a tree, clinging on for life as water raged beneath where their home once stood. 31 others from his uncle’s village were less lucky.
I’ve spent over thirteen of the last thirty-three years here in Malawi and in that time, I’ve witnessed several droughts, floods and, more often, man-made difficulties in this tough and kindly country, but the last week has been different and, in many ways, worse than ever, especially in Blantyre City. Cyclone Freddy sounds like the kind of cheeky child you’d perhaps warm to, despite his enthusiastic mischief, but there was nothing good about Freddy, he was pure malevolence.
Incremental self-interest over many years has left impoverished townships in a fragile state. Local leaders have long accepted the allure of bribes from people desperate to build in the areas too close to rivers and officials have turned a blind eye to informal, poor-quality housing in densely packed areas with inadequate drainage and sanitation. Years of deforestation on the three main mountains across the city of Blantyre here left them vulnerable. It’s easy to be critical of the deep demands from densely packed populations on the environment but who wouldn’t chop a tree to cook food for their family when there’s no other affordable option? And so, the City’s steep-sided mountains lay bare in the face of biblical storms and historic weather which created massive mud slides that swept homes, possessions, and people away in the torrential rains. Six months of rain fell last week.
Despite being in a lesser-affected area, of our 560 employees in Seibo, the Beehive and Krizevac, 234 have lost walls or their entire homes in the downpours. All of our staff are alive. I rallied the totality of our teams to action during the week and through the profits Mobal and its partner organizations made this year, our Mother Theresa Community Services and Seibo teams were able to buy bales of clothes, plates, cups and food for the makeshift camps which have been formed in primary schools for the displaced and homeless. Our construction team has turned their attention from the building of a college and university and has shored up unsafe bridges, assessed the state of damaged homes and made ruined roads passable once more. Staff in collapsed, rented homes have had cash to sort a new place quickly and those in owned and damaged houses have had plastic sheets and help to fix their places temporarily. Our school’s catering team has equipped kitchens and shown the camps how to feed large volumes of people and our JCB machinery has pulled stranded vehicles to safety and dug ditches and toilets for proper sanitation. The resilience of our buildings and people contrasts with the instability of the majority.
Before this cyclone ripped through the region, we had a cholera epidemic, and the risk remains in the camps with large settlements of people having temporary toilets and inadequate water supply. When I was here in January last year, cyclone Ana wrought its wrath on the deep rural south of Malawi, staying a briefer period than Freddy, but taking out the county’s biggest hydroelectric power station which is still in disrepair. The inevitable consequence has been daily power outages that have become normal for 6 or 8 hours at a time and interrupted phone and internet provision which can seem like a luxury. Ironically, as a way of making money to fund the schools, we have been renting out six excavators for the last six months to fix the broken dam for that hydroelectric station, so we are inextricably absorbed in the problems and opportunities presented by these accumulating disasters.
All of the fine buildings we have erected over the years stand proud and intact and, in contrast to the majority of the closed schools in the region, our Education Director, Fr Felix Nanyallo provides clear-sighted leadership which has ensured that our teachers will begin their day at 7:30am Monday morning when we shall see hundreds of children being well-fed and well-educated.
Your support has undoubtably helped over the last two decades, and yet our efforts to help seem small in the face of such large difficulty. We have spent nearly $25,000 on emergency support so far, but the real help has been, over the long term, to build capability in the midst of fragility and order in the midst of chaos. Mobal’s support has made a big difference here; our teams have fared better than most. If ever using SIMs, WiFi or phones may seem mundane, know that you’ve helped to provide consistency of support when there is no emergency, meaning that we have been well able to help when deep need is upon us.
Grateful thanks on behalf of all here in Malawi!