By Alick Ponje:
The floods that raged down Mua River in Chilonga area in Mangochi four years ago sent a stark message about how vulnerable Ether Mzimbe and her family were.
They destroyed half of her two-hectare maize field and left the huge expanse a flat stretch of drying stalks and decaying leaves.
Mzimbe recalls that it was as if some divine hand had taken a huge brush to paint a circle around her field and mark it fit for destruction.
“It was devastating. Rains fell continuously one night and the river swelled before its banks burst to let away the strong flows,” she dredges up the bitter experience.
The area, in Traditional Authority Nankumba in the lakeshore district, was once a victim of unrelenting natural disasters which seemed to have instantly realised where they belonged.
As trees in once-dense forests disappeared, strong winds and hailstorms razed houses down. In their absence, some calm would return before violent waters from Mua River and its tributaries discovered their long-lost paths through villages which had been created by redirecting the course of the flows.
“The floods were a big lesson. They destroyed my crops but if you ask everyone in this village, they will tell you the lesson came for everyone,” Mzimbe recounts.
She is small and slightly bent—but always adamant about restoring the lost cover that once fortified the flat area blessed with a few range of hills where indigenous trees are now regenerating.
A casual stroll around Chilonga, an area of 13 villages, also tells tales of a people learning more lessons from their misfortunes perhaps more than anyone else in their neighbourhood.
“Not everyone has been affected by the floods, but they simply remind us that no one is safe. Those with crop fields along the river have suffered the most, but then those of us with ours away have also suffered severe droughts,” Grace Jali, vice-secretary of Chilonga Cluster, a group that is taking a leading role in restoring trees where they have been felled, states.
The cluster has covered severely depleted woodlots with resilient trees which are replacing those cut down by charcoal producers who once found the dense forests convenient spots for their illicit acts.
The charcoal strategy which government launched some three years ago was supposed to clamp down on those who take down the remaining giants in places which are not supposed to be invaded by anyone.
But, as Director of Forestry, Clement Chilima, says, the strategy requires concerted efforts because the destruction of forests is linked to many factors including buyers continuously getting charcoal.
“We understand that disasters that come here because we have cut down trees will not affect people in Lilongwe. That is why we decided to respond right here,” Jali adds.
The verdant vegetation that surrounds homes and crop gardens are a testament of the resolve of people here to reclaim the community’s glory.
Their leader, Group Village Head Chilonga, is at the forefront of conservation. He has seen his people suffer from the effects of terrible natural disasters and does not want this to continue.
“He directed that charcoal production should no longer be happening in his area. That is why you see a few remaining big trees which have been spared,” Jali says.
Following the directive, the 13 villages that make up Chilonga passionately protect trees in the vicinity of their households and plant new others to sustain their efforts to retain the lost green glory.
And there are those that are offering a helping hand.
A chunk of 10,000 seedlings from Malawi Lake Basin Programme (MLBP) which is fortifying communities’ resilience to climate change and support efforts to reduce household poverty is also ensuring Chilonga’s path to recovery is sustainable.
The consortium of Farmers Union of Malawi (Fum), We Effect, Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Cooperatives, National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi and Vi Agroforestry, targets communities in Salima, Ntcheu, Mangochi and Kasungu in its initiatives.
“This location has had severe problems when it comes to rainfall. It would either come in huge amounts and destroy houses and crops or not come at all,” Jali recounts.
She describes their traditional ruler’s decision to ban charcoal production and provide land where to plant new trees as a verdict sparked by lessons which had come for everyone in Chilonga area.
Fum Field Coordinator for Mangochi, Zasintha Namagonya, waxes lyrical about the determination of communities in this part of the lakeshore district who are stopping at nothing to replenish the felled trees and create new woodlots.
“They are doing it for themselves and future generations. The area used to face huge challenges in terms of natural disasters. That prodded them into action and we came in to assist,” he states.
And Mzimbe, together with other locals who have suffered the drastic effects of floods here, wants the lessons that they learnt to continue reminding those coming after them that nature has a way of biting back.
She wishes every household in the country— even without having experienced the effects of ruining the environment—could work to avert possible natural disasters.
“It is possible. Nature responds to how it is treated,” she says, satisfied that her community’s efforts are finally shielding her gardens and houses.