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From East Belfast to Nsanje

From East Belfast to Nsanje

2015 has seen severe flooding throughout Malawi, displacing thousands of families from their homes. They have spent the past few months living in various camps, surviving on assistance from NGOs like GOAL, as well as the Government of Malawi (GoM) and United Nations.

"The transport plan to distribute more than 60 tonnes of maize seeds to nine different locations in three days"

Although it is only a matter of days, it feels like a lifetime ago I left my home in East Belfast on the long and sometimes confusing journey to Malawi. I am here to support the established GOAL team’s distributions of seeds, tools and what we call 'NFIs'. NFI stands for non-food items, which could mean almost anything. In practice, it usually refers to essential household items, things that people who are displaced often do not have time or capacity to carry with them. In this case, it is shelter kits; things like plastic sheeting, ropes, binding wire, nails and tools, among other things, that will allow families to repair or rehabilitate their homes. However, I get ahead of myself.

2015 has seen severe flooding throughout Malawi, displacing thousands of families from their homes. They have spent the past few months living in various camps, surviving on assistance from NGOs like GOAL, as well as the Government of Malawi (GoM) and United Nations. Nsanje District is one of the 16 districts declared disaster sites as a result of the flooding. Nsanje District is also one of the poorest districts in Malawi and GOAL has been one of the most active aid agencies here for many years. It was to Nsanje that I would be travelling. It was planned that, as the flood waters receded, the provision of seeds, tools and other essential items would facilitate people to return to their homes. Oh, if only it were that simple!

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As well as the unusually heavy rains that caused the floods, the wet season has been shorter than expected. The concern is that we are now in a period of drought. Flood water tends to evaporate in high temperatures, rather than soak into the soil. As a result, residual moisture in the soil is very low and getting lower all the time, meaning that seeds must be planted as soon as possible to have a chance of producing a decent harvest around June. Without this, all those families returning to their homes would be reliant on food aid for the next year.

We always knew that time was critical for this project. As a result, I didn’t get much advance notice that I was coming. My trip was confirmed only two days before I left. I left Dublin on Thursday afternoon, with stops in London Heathrow, Addis Ababa and Lilongwe, arriving in Blantyre about 24 hours later. Andrew, the GOAL driver, was clearly identifiable and he greeted me with a hug as if we were long-lost friends. Maybe we were long-lost friends who just hadn’t met yet.

After a quick briefing, including strong warnings about the heat and the particularly vicious mosquitos, I was off to Nsanje earlier than initially anticipated. The drive from Blantyre was beautiful, at least to begin with. Blantyre is at altitude and you soon descend down an escarpment with beautiful views. The road is good and it took less than three hours to reach Nsanje. Despite being so easily connected to such a decent-sized city of Blantyre, it didn’t take long to see how poor people are in rural Malawi. From the colonial-style buildings, interspersed with more modern constructions, we were among small houses, often of mud-wattle construction.

Everyone in Blantyre had warned me that, in addition to the huge number of mosquitos, Nsanje was hot, very hot. It is at a much lower elevation and very humid. I arrived late on Saturday afternoon and had just enough time for a cold shower before heading to the office to work out the transport plan to distribute more than 60 tonnes of maize seeds to nine different locations in three days. It was quickly apparent that we had a limited number of transport assets to get the job done. Still, we had enough for the first day and I have a few leads for more. Busy times ahead.

So is what everyone said about the mosquitos and the heat true? In short, yes. I am reminded of the late Robin Williams in the film 'Good Morning Vietnam'. “It’s hat, daaang hat!” In fact, it is so hot, even trying to remember the whole quotation is making me sweat!

- Simon Brown, Distributions Manager, Nsanje, GOAL Malawi

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