We visited Mulanje District on our first visit to Malawi and fell in love with its majestic mountains and fast flowing rivers. It made our return visit last Wednesday all the more challenging: to find so much pain and suffering amongst all that beauty, and to find the life giving rivers themselves had turned into the tools of so much destruction.
Together with the General Secretary of Zambezi Evangelical Church, Pastor Luckwell Mtima, the Zambesi Mission Field Director, Pastor Simon Chikwana, and Mrs Rose Chirwa, the Projects Manager for zm in Malawi, we drove down the scenic Midima Road towards the majestic mountain range. The pick-up road heavily over the rough road, backed as it was with maize flour, beans, salt, soup, buckets, cups and plates: the essentials for any Malawi family suddenly deprived of their home.
As we passed on the road bridge over the River Likhubula and on into Chitakale we knew we were entering a troubled land. First it was the stench, reminiscent of our visit in 2013 to a Kenyan game reserve where wildebeest carcasses swept in the current against a natural dam decomposed in the sun. But this time we were told it was the smell of a riverside graveyard that had been overcome by the floods sending coffins and remains cascading downstream. Then it was the school buildings transformed into piles of rubble, the bricks left incongruously bright and pristine while shallow foundations and week mortar had been washed away.
But major NGOs were already at work along the highway and our destination – driven by grass-roots knowledge via the network of ZEC pastors – was to the small community of Mpala some 10km off the main road along rough dirt track. There, we had heard, were a dozen families homeless and in desperate need; over towards where the border with Mozambique is marked by the great River Ruo.
We were greeted in song by church members whose numbers were quickly swollen by villagers keen to see what was going on as Pastor Chikwana gave out the relief packs to the most hard stricken in a village where many had lost homes and – perhaps even more important – fields. In a country where even a good harvest means many go hungry in February and March ahead of the harvest, fields scraped clean by floods at this stage in the year means terrible hardship for over a year.
But it was when we moved on downhill towards the border, and the fields the church members had lost, that we entered a different world. For here Sonjeka Village – nestled in a wide meander of the River Ruo – had simply ceased to exist.
As we walked across thick river silt covering drowned maize fields, and gazed at piles of rubble and thatch where days ago a small market and thriving village stood, the village chief told us how the river had risen over 10M above normal rainy season levels and suddenly one afternoon broken its banks to cut across the meander to first isolate and then drown the settlement. Miraculously no one had lost their life as being afternoon many were on higher ground in their fields, and the rest were saved by heroic canoe owners on the river ferrying people to safety.
But the pain was nevertheless real on the elderly chief’s face as we stood by the rubble of his house and he told us about the graveyard breaking open and skeletons – still wearing trousers – being seen to float through his village that at Christmas numbered 150 homes but now consisted of 15.
And the pain was excruciating as we stopped to talk to the grandmother with her family tearfully looking at the single chair and scrap of thatch left of the home she had known for decades.
We will certainly never forget this visit, and it will take us much much longer than two days to process the questions raised and assimilate the lessons learned. We need to work through the feelings of intruding, of helplessness and of frustration as we faced with such scale of suffering. We need to process the feeling of admiration for such a courageous people who so quietly get on with life whatever it throws at them.
Amazingly, just a few days after the flood the children had already started moving on. The older boys were playing football on the silt as we left, while the younger children laughed and danced behind us at the sight of visitors. But how will Malawi move on from here? Will this land and people with so much potential, a land that has shown itself to truly be the ‘warm heart of Africa’, use this crisis to find its collective soul, its collective strength, and its collective courage?
Certainly we will be changed by the crisis. We have seen this country at its most vulnerable and its rawest, and perhaps we end this week even more commited to serve this nation in the most strategic way we know: by ourselves witnessing to, and by helping others to witness to, Christ as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. For the history of mankind shows that only through Christ’s transformation of each individual citizen’s heart can this “warm heart of Africa” hope to truly be transformed.
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)