Malawi quakes: Hundreds of families still living in tents

Hundreds of people affected by the series of earthquakes that shook Karonga in December and January are still living in limbo. Elvis Sukali meets some of them.

Readers may have forgotten about the string of earthquakes that rocked Karonga towards the end of last year and early this year, but for hundreds of Malawians who were affected life has not returned to normal and they are still living in limbo.

Six months after a major quake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale shook the foundations of Karonga on the night of 19 December, 300 families are still living in tents at Mwabulambo Camp, with little hope of returning to their villages.

"The government hasn't told us what will happen next. We don't know whether we will continue staying at the camp," says Duncan Mwandolo, who is acting as village headman Mwakaboko at the camp. "We don't know about the future. We can't go back to the village because our houses were destroyed and the government has not told us whether the earthquake will happen again. It is difficult."

Sitting on a wooden folding chair outside his tent at the camp is Deriko Mwanjasi. "We don't know whether we will go back to the village or not because the government has not told us whether it is safe to go back," he says. "Our houses were destroyed in the village and it will be quite a challenge to start again."

There are signs that their stay at the camp could be a long one: economic activity has increased and a daily market has emerged to provide people with supplies.

The District Assembly, however, says the camp is a resettlement site and government is planning to formally allocate plots to people so that they can build homes.

"In fact, as a district we don't want people to go back to their villages because it is prone to earthquakes and flooding," says Gaston Macheka, Karonga District Commissioner.

He says the Assembly plans to increase the size of the plots at the camp for each household so that they will have space to build houses and other amenities. Each household currently occupies a space of 15 by 30 metres on which they have erected tents, but the Assembly plans to increase this to 30 by 60 metres.

Macheka says a structural assessment survey carried out earlier this year showed that most houses in the Ngerenge area were either destroyed or weakened by the earthquakes that hit the district.

"DfID, through the Red Cross, has pledged to build a total of 150 houses at the camp and rehabilitate 500 houses in the affected villages. CADECOM has also pledged to construct 50 houses," says Macheka. "However, the structural report that we produced showed that we need 10,700 houses so that everyone affected by the earthquake has a good house."

Macheka says his office is waiting for the Department of Works in the Ministry of Transport and Public Works to provide them with recommended structural designs before construction commences.

This could be the answer to Mwanjasi's prayers. He says housing is a major need for people at the camp. "We ask the government to assist us by helping us to construct permanent houses that would be safe when an earthquake comes. We are still living in tents, which are temporary. Housing is our major need now."

In a bid to protect the livelihoods of the people at the camp, the District Assembly is exploring ways of ensuring that the people at the camp continue to own and cultivate their land in the villages.

"We are consulting with the Ministry of Lands to see how best we can achieve this so that people at the camp have titles to the land they have left behind," Macheka says.

This is good news for many of the families at the camp who have maintained strong ties with their village folk. During the day most people at the camp return to their villages to tend their crops or to attend social functions.

Oxfam has been working with local partner organisations to roll out a major public health programme at the camp to prevent disease outbreaks and improve the quality of life for the displaced population.

"Before any organisations came to help us we were experiencing a lot of problems. But since Oxfam came our lives have changed," says Lemisi Mwiba, chairperson of the camp's main committee. "At first, Oxfam brought pails and constructed toilets and this helped to stop the bad odour that was all over this place."

Together with Water Missions International, Oxfam has erected a water tank at the camp, sunk boreholes, constructed toilet and bathing shelters, and used drama and song performances to promote good hygiene.

"Before Oxfam provided us with the bathing shelters, life was difficult. We used to go into the bush to relieve ourselves and we would wait until dark to take a bath. But now we have better toilets and can bathe anytime," says Mwandalo.

"Oxfam also provided us with mosquito nets, condoms and soap for bathing and washing. We are now living a hygienic life because we bathe with soap and wash our clothes with soap."

But can this be sustained? A health centre is located nearby, but there is a shortage of health personnel and the medical assistant only calls twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. Mwanjasi is concerned that this could lead to the spread of diseases. "Because the doctor doesn't stay here, it means that infectious diseases, especially coughing, easily spread because if one persons falls ill they will have to wait for Tuesday or Friday while the disease passes on from one person to another."

"Now that the government has decided that Mwaulambo Camp is a resettlement site, it is imperative that it informs the people at the camp and surrounding villages accordingly so that they can participate effectively in the whole resettlement drive," says Sanjay Awasthi, Oxfam Country Director.

The Karonga District Assembly could also call on its development partners to play their part in meeting the housing needs of people affected by the earthquakes.