My work on risk reduction has taken me to some interesting places in recent years, but somehow, despite my strong interest in Africa, the opportunity to apply satellite data to increasing the understanding of risk in Africa had not presented itself – until now. My love of Africa is not recent. At 22, I began a doctorate in African studies and studied the transition to democracy of three African nations. Life took me down different paths, but my heart always kept a warm spot for the sub-continent. I knew nothing of the Lake of Stars, of Mzuzu coffee or of Mancome the Malawian musician. I could not know there was a country wedged between Mozambique and Zambia, nicknamed the ‘warm heart of Africa’, that would reach out and pull me back, pull me into a world of smiles and simple pleasures, a world where worry is not understood, where life is a gift, and where instead of demanding more, people count their blessings, and thank God for each one. And they thank him in many different ways, as protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s witnesses and Sikhs. The country is a religious patchwork, and despite this the communities live in harmony alongside each other, at least for now…
Malawi is smaller than most Canadian provinces, and its geography much more diverse. Its landscapes range from plains to jagged ridges, from mountain plateaus to tropical forests and of course the sandy shoreline of Africa’s third largest lake.
As I travelled with my new African friends from district to district, my colleagues on this fact finding mission of risk reduction, I tried not to gape at what I saw – the villages, the markets, the animals that crowded the streets in places. This world was so foreign to me, and yet I was here to bring some element of solution to floods and risks that turned the lives of the people here upside down. I felt humbled by their resilience, by their endurance.
I listened. I waited. The sun rose. The sun set.
There are cell towers in every village, even when there seems to be no power in the houses. Two worlds –the old and the new–stand side by side, and the tension between the two is constant. I discovered a rice processing ‘factory’ where people dole out rice by the gallon pail, after collecting it and drying it on tarps in the sun; we sit around in the unlit hall, on pilled bags of rice, negotiating the price. I wonder suddenly just how my basmati rice is packed in India. I saw a village ruined by flood waters, where everyone lost their house because a dike was built to protect the town on the opposite bank – 198 families. The women there gathered around a World Food Programme distribution truck, each putting a 40 kg maize bag on their head to carry back and feed their displaced families. It takes two men to lift the sack onto the woman’s head. In another village, I stood on a high bank looking at the meandering stream below and listened to an elder tell me how his village was rent asunder by a 7m wave after five days and nights of rain.
This last story touched me very deeply. Standing among ruined houses, along the collapsed river bank, and watching the children run and play with my new friends – young professionals like me, seeking to make a difference for people who have nothing and yet seem completely content – I felt again the tension between the two worlds. They ask nothing, these villagers. I stand on the ledge, looking down to the riverbed, where the village tree lies uprooted and destroyed, a humbled hulk, once the centre of the village.
“The chief used to sit under the tree to hold council with the elders,” the interpreter says to me. “Now the tree is gone, and the other side of the village is far away.” The chief points to the houses on the other bank. There is no bridge. Just a deep gorge and huts in the distance, maybe 300m away. The chief is speaking again.
“What is he saying?” I ask.
“He thanks you for the work you will do to help understand when the waters might come, and where they will go. And he wants to offer you a plot of land.”
“If you want to build a house in the village. You’re welcome.”
The chief is beaming, and I’m flustered. Nothing we will do will bring the houses back, or the village tree. We won’t build a wall that stops the waters, or a channel that holds them for the fields in times of drought. The kids are laughing as they play with the other members of the team. They wave their hands in the air, and shout out greetings.
“Zikomo,” I say. Thank you. He holds my hand a long time and looks into my eyes. I don’t need the translator.
Deep inside, I promise myself that this project cannot be just another project, with a deliverable for the client, a model or a report. These people are special; their sincerity is evident, their need urgent. We can help these people, and learn from them as we do. I’ve seen many nice places, but the honest, unspoiled beauty of this place and its people have stolen my heart. I will come back, for this project, for new ventures, for myself, to listen and learn some more. And a piece of me will stay behind, in the warm heart of Africa.