A rough earth track leads 30km from Zomba, the former capital of Malawi, to Nyangu village, on the shores of Lake Chilwa. It is an idyllic scene of rice fields and fishing boats, beyond which the lake — Malawi’s second largest — stretches an equal distance to mountains on the border with Mozambique. The water is clear and the surface sparkles in the sun.
But life in the village is hard. Although the rains have come, Malawi is still in the grip of a hunger crisis, caused by a succession of severe droughts in 2015 and 2016. Water levels in the lake are far below pre-drought levels and fish stocks have dwindled. When the harvests failed, many farmers migrated to the lake in search of food, putting increased pressure on existing fishing communities.
Ronald Bamus, 14, lives in Nyangu village with his parents and five siblings. He dropped out of school during the drought and now helps his father fish. “I go into the lake with my father and help him pull the net,” he says. “When we go fishing I am happy because I know my father will give me fish to cook when we get home. I like fish so much!”
Ronald also helps his mother plant rice and his father set traps for fish in the rice fields. “When I’m not working I like playing football with my friends,” he says. “If we have a little money, we play pool in the market. When I grow up, I would like to be a soldier.”
Ronald’s father Smart makes a living from fishing in the lake. He is one step up from the poorest villagers — although he has no boat, he owns a large fishing net and a wicker trap. He hires men from the village, and they wade into the lake to catch fish by hand using his net.
“Before the drought, we could catch 5,000 kwacha [around $7 USD] of fish in one day, working from 4am to 5pm. I would take half the money and split the rest among the hired hands. But during the drought, this dropped to 2,000–3,000 per day. Now, the government has closed the lake to allow fish stocks to recover, and I can only fish in the rice fields or try to get odd jobs elsewhere.”
At times, things became so hard that the family were reduced to eating non-traditional foods such as grass. “It has been very hard for us,” Ronald’s mother Modester says. “We would go into the forest and pick a type of grass with seeds. We ground up the seeds and ate it like maize. Even then, we could only have one meal a day. Two of the children got swollen bellies from malnutrition, and we had to take them to the hospital. It pained me so much, but there was nothing I could do. I was helpless.”
Due to the pressures on the family, the children dropped out of school one by one. “We could not afford school uniforms or supplies,” Smart says. “Whatever money I could earn, we spent on food. That was our priority.”
The arrival of farmers looking for work increased the pressure on local resources. “There were many conflicts,” Smart says. “But I understood their situation — they also need to survive. We built a dam and told them ‘don’t fish in this part of the lake, you can fish outside’. Still it made a difference and the catch went down.”
In the time of cholera
With the arrival of farmers seeking jobs and food, came another deadly visitor — cholera. The migrants lived in temporary villages far from the water pump. They often drank untreated water from the lake, which was also used as a toilet by fishermen. There were several outbreaks of cholera among the migrant community, which quickly spread to the fishing village. With 87 cases, it was the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded in the district.
Samson Mangirini, 39, is one of the migrant workers affected by cholera. Originally from a farming village on the other side of Zomba, he left his family and came to the lake in search of food. “We used to harvest eight to ten bags of maize a year, plus peanuts and pigeon peas for sale,” he says. “But last year this was down to three bags of maize. The peanuts and peas all died. I have six children and I couldn’t feed them anymore, so I decided to come here and try my hand at fishing.”
Life at the lake was hard for Samson. He faced hostility from many fisherman, but others were sympathetic to his plight and taught him to fish. He was able to get work pulling nets like Smart’s and earned enough money to survive. When people from his village came to trade for fish, he gave them money to take home to his family.
Then cholera struck. “I used to drink water from the lake, but it became contaminated and I got very ill,” he explains. “I was taken to hospital and stayed there for five days. I was so worried. If I’d died, there would have been no-one to take care of my family. I am deeply grateful to the health workers who came to get me — they saved my life. Now I only drink water from the borehole in the village.”
UNICEF is working to meet the needs of children affected by the hunger crisis. We identify and treat cases of malnutrition, provide safe water and sanitation, immunize children, protect them from abuse, and help them continue their education. In Zomba district, including Nyanga village, we are working with the district health authority to manage cholera outbreaks.
“During the hunger crisis, cholera has been a constant threat to lakeside communities,” UNICEF Emergency Specialist Willis Ouma Agutu says. “It can kill within four hours and is highly contagious, so it’s essential for health services to respond quickly and effectively.”
With support from UNICEF and funding from UK Aid, health services in Zomba district identified and treated cases of cholera immediately, vaccinated people in the surrounding area, supported safe water for households by distributing water filters and chlorine, and trained local communities in good hygiene. “It’s a testament to the district authority’s work that they contained the outbreak,” Willis adds. “Of the 87 cases reported, there were no deaths. This is very impressive.”
The next stage of UNICEF’s work, which will also be funded by UK Aid, will involve conducting community radio campaigns to promote disease prevention practices, health and hygiene education in communities, training health surveillance assistants to treat childhood illnesses, and prepositioning supplies to prepare for future outbreaks of cholera.
For Ronald’s family, the worst has been avoided. During a previous drought in 2010, his mother caught cholera and almost died. But this time around no one in the family was affected. The rains have now come and farming has restarted, so many of the migrant workers have returned home. When the lake reopens in March, Smart and Ronald can start fishing again.
“I hope when the lake opens we will return to the good old days of 5,000 kwacha catches,” Smart says with a smile. His children’s future depends on it.
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times