Cyclone Idai Q&A long read: “They have no homes to go back to” | ActionAid UK

In the wake of Cyclone Idai, ActionAid Malawi’s Chikondi Chabvuta discusses the devastating impact of the disaster, the situation on the ground now, and the ongoing role climate change is playing in Malawian society.

Cyclone Idai: a damaged house in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe
Cyclone Idai: a damaged house in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe

Since Cyclone Idai made landfall in southern Africa on Thursday 14th March, 750 people have been confirmed dead and thousands more have been injured, displaced and left homeless.

Across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi the long process of recovery is only just beginning. Here Chikondi Chabvuta, Thematic Manager for Food Security, Emergencies and Resilience Building for ActionAid Malawi, discusses the ongoing situation in her country. 

She explains the disproportionate impact of the cyclone on women and girls, as well as the leadership role women have played in the aftermath. She reflects on stories of hope she’s seen in the wake of the disaster, and explores the frightening impact climate change is having on Malawian civil society, its people and economy.

What was the situation like for people when Cyclone Idai made landfall?

We had continuous rains for four to five days ahead of the cyclone. In the fifth day, just as the rains were about to subside — that’s when the cyclone hit Beira [city in Mozambique] and parts of southern Malawi. 

We already had devastation because of the floods but then, added to that, because of the cyclone. We had people stuck in areas we could not access with boats — we had to wait for the military to come in with planes, and there was also the South African government that came in with the search and rescue teams, to help rescue people. 

They helped to rescue some, but we still lost many people to the cyclone and flooding. After that, people moved to the highlands — those that survived — and there were camps set up. 

The situation has been very desperate in the camps. They were highly congested, because we have early warning systems in place, so we knew a cyclone was going to hit, but we just didn’t expect it to be at this level. 

And we saw hopelessness among people. Some people were going through trauma due to the loss of their loved ones, but also some because they had lost everything — everything had been washed away, including their livestock. It was a devastating situation. 

After the 2015 floods, we thought we would be more prepared this time. Luckily, because we had good early warning systems in place, the number of lives lost is not as high as it could be, because some people had already moved to higher ground. But those who couldn’t were stuck. 

How have things progressed since the cyclone passed?

The government announced a state of emergency, and also came in to assess the situation and organise camps, so we had camps set up in all the districts that were affected, and there were now mechanisms set in place to try to coordinate the response. 

But the first two weeks were slow. Some of the camps had no food for three days, and it was the neighbouring communities that had to come in to assist with food. 

Since then, now I feel there’s a lot more coordination — more coordinated efforts, and more response coming in, but also local Malawians coming in to assist with whatever they can, either through charity organisations, through churches or mosques, depending on the organisation people belong to. 

We’ve also had an outpouring of support from the international community. Camp management teams are now in place, who are monitoring how many food rations will be available and for how long, and which households have been reached, and which have not. 

We still have challenges, though, in terms of sanitation and with shelter — we still have communities that are lying on the ground at night because there are so few tents available. Of all the problems here, shelter is my biggest concern and it’s often overlooked. 

Some people seem to think ‘We don’t have to create a comfortable situation, people have to move back’, but people are not there by choice. It’s important to understand from a humanitarian point of view that people would rather be in their homes, but they have no homes to go back to.

But I’ve also seen some stories of hope over the last few weeks — one woman gave birth two days after arriving at the camp, and three other births since. Those women could have been washed away, and now there is hope of continuity… of life. 

I’ve seen restored hope when there is food brought to the camps after such long periods of desperation. That brings hope that in the human spirit, after all people have been through, they are resilient. And also seeing some of the children going back to school. Despite the situation that they’re faced with, there’s continuation of life amid the hopelessness that they’re facing. 

Nsange, IDP camp Malawi

What role are women playing in the response to the cyclone?

At the camps where ActionAid is responding, our Women Forums have been activated, who are looking at how food distribution is happening, how transparent the process is, issues of sanitation and ensuring the protection of young girls and women. They’re ensuring non-food items are coming in and being distributed to households — but also, women have started going back to see how they can start the work reconstructing their homes. 

Women are cooking, taking care of children — they’re just trying to bring in hope to the hopeless state they’re faced with. But we’re also making sure women play a leadership role in the coming weeks and months. 

In one camp, for example, a camp committee had been set up, but with only one woman on it. There were issues of corruption being reported; issues of people taking advantage of the situation where women were facing abuses. So we activated a Women Forum and added more women to the committee.

One of the things that has changed — remembering that this is a patriarchal society — is that if the committee still want to have a chairperson as a man, at least the Vice must be a woman, and should be speaking from the point of view of the Women Forum groups. 

The advantage we at ActionAid have is that we’ve already had women’s rights training and grounding within the groups in these communities, so we’re leveraging those resources to ensure we have a woman-led approach in our response. And, we’re ensuring that everything coming in meets the needs of women and children before everyone else. 

What has been your role in the process?

My role has been to ensure that we’re coordinating a response to the two LRPs [Local Rights Programmes] in Malawi, ensuring there are delivery of items, but also assessing the gaps that are there, taking up issues that are coming out, and reporting them to the National Cluster Committees.

For our women-led response, we’ve seen that we’re actually able to influence others, as well, because of our approach. So, my role is coordination, but also it’s about linking up the different sectors, and also updating the ActionAid Federation about what’s going on, by looking at things from the holistic angle. 

What has been the role of ActionAid?

ActionAid managed to provide a comprehensive package to the communities we reached, because we had that women’s rights lens when we were doing our rapid needs assessments

With our women’s rights thinking we were able to cover the basics when we were responding — and I think that’s an achievement. This has actually been reported by the district teams and government — that the comprehensiveness in our response has been replicated to other organisations. 

And, it’s been reported that we’ve managed to ensure children are safe and that young girls are being protected, because now there are Women Forums in place, if there are any issues that are contradicting our principles, the Forums are able to take that up, and the girls know who to go to in case of any abuses that could happen because of the desperate situation

Nsange, IDP camp Malawi

How have women and girls in particular been affected?

I’ve managed to have some meetings with the Women Forums, and to hear from their perspective what they have lost. When such disasters happen, many of them also lose their marriages. There are dynamics that change because of the camp situation, because many of the men have to go away to look for work and opportunities. So it’s like women already have the burdens they had before the disaster, but burdens are now added. 

Women then have to take full responsibility of taking care of their families. But at least when they have the Women Forum they’re able to support each other; encourage each other through the process. 

You hear stories of young girls whose mothers are busy at home breastfeeding, and they have to go and collect food packages on behalf of the family. Some camp members may take advantage of this situation. So there’s a threat of sexual exploitation and abuse when such situations happen — this kind of scenario, the cyclone, has not left that out

Women are also responsible now for looking for firewood and walking long distances for water. In one camp I visited there was no water, so every ounce of water they would find had to be for the children. Some women would go days without bathing because there’s no water available.

It’s not as if they were very comfortable to begin with, but people’s social structures here have been destroyed. All the impacts that are there, the women are feeling them more. 

I’m glad I work with ActionAid, because you can see things through that lens.

How long do you think it will take Malawi to recover from this disaster?

This year, we had really good rains and we were actually expecting a bumper harvest from our crop this year. We were just recovering from an el nino phase — two years of drought — and now you have very good rains. 

Everyone was looking forward to a bumper harvest, then the flooding and cyclone happens, and it all gets washed away.

So, there’s going to be hunger this year, especially if we do not quickly take advantage of the winter cropping. There will now be another situation where we’ll have to struggle to find food to feed the nation. It’s definitely going to leave a long-lasting impact — not just from the cyclone, but from two disasters following each other. 

I don’t know how long it will take us. I’m just hoping for a good year next year. 

Malawi is a farming nation. Agriculture is our mainstay — that’s where most of our income is generated. But most of the effort that was put in…it just gets washed away.

We’re just hoping for a better year, a better winter harvest…a better future. Because as of now, you can see it in people’s faces: the hopelessness. 

The investment they put in got washed away. Maybe, if next year goes well, hopefully in a year we could be in a better place. But it won’t be in the next six months. It will take some time. 

What impact is climate change having on Malawi? 

We never used to have drought consecutively. And we used to have floods, but it was not at this level, where lives are lost on this scale. The changing climate is definitely impacting how we experience these calamities — they’re having an impact on our economy and our livelihoods, but it’s having the biggest impact on women and children. 

For some of the men, they have the leverage to migrate to South Africa — most go to South Africa or towns to look for opportunity. 

The women are the ones who stay behind. They’re the ones who look after the dry foods, who are left to think: ‘What do I do now, since all my crops have been washed away?’

So, definitely this has impacted our social structure. There is now no predictability whether you’re going to have a harvest. If you build a strong house, you’re not sure if the floods will come and wash it away, or a cyclone will blow it away. It’s that uncertainty that’s been created among the population. 

What would you say to people in the UK trying to understand the situation in Malawi?

I think there has been media coverage to depict the situations being faced in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, but going through it on a daily basis is different

When you see a picture — two, three days or so later, there will be another headline. Something else will happen to take the media attention away. 

But the people in these countries are stuck with these realities now. This is the point where we need the international support, and we’re so thankful and grateful for all the efforts being made to ensure that we can respond, and recover. 

I don’t think we could do it on our own, without even South Africa coming in to do the search and rescue — I just cannot imagine how many lives would have been lost in this disaster. 

The international community should continue the efforts…but also the UK audience could understand that this is real. It’s being lived. People are trying to recover, and trying to become resilient, but this is not something that you would wish any other country to go through. 

I feel like we’ve had enough. We need to move on, and we see our fellow countries moving on economically, but for us, every step we make forward, we’re pushed back by a natural hazard that comes in, and turns into a disaster. 

We are a nation and a people that are willing to move forward. The struggle continues. The hope is there. People are looking forward to a better day.

Please donate now to our Cyclone Idai appeal. You could help people in Malawi to begin to rebuild their lives after this disaster. 

Zinyange Auntony/ActionAid; ActionAid Malawi