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Cyclone Freddy - why don't we know?

The family home of Edward, one of the Medic to Medic students, in the Southern Region of Malawi

Tropical cyclone Freddy is the longest-lasting and most powerful tropical cyclone on record. After travelling eastwards across the Indian Ocean for a month, it first made landfall on February 21 in Madagascar. From there, Freddy moved on to Mozambique and then back out to the Indian Ocean, before making landfall a second time via Mozambique on 11th March. Over the next few days, Malawi was the hardest hit, with prolonged, torrential rain, floods and strong winds. Over 1000 people are known to have died. It was with the greatest sadness that our volunteer CEO, Dr Tamsin Lillie, learnt that Bertha, who was the maid in the Medic to Medic house in Blantyre, had died, together with her daughter, Bridget, when their home was washed away.

Here is Tamsin’s blog piece about what has happened:

I was having a fairly good day in New Zealand, where I currently reside, on a March Monday three weeks ago. I’d spent the day with a good friend, gone out paddle boarding, for only the second time that summer and was enjoying a bit of down time from allotted shifts and Medic to Medic work, fundraising initiatives and others. I had just finished collecting recycling from a local hairdresser on my way home (one of the Terracycle schemes that we do for fundraising here) and checked my phone “Bertha is no more”, Helen had written to me. The message appeared to have dropped off midsentence halfway. What did she mean? I replied immediately, “Do you mean Bertha has died?” No double ticks, meaning the message had been sent but not received, the office phone battery has likely run out, what do I do now? Then another message from Pauline, one of our students, staying at the Medic to Medic house came through. I knew she had become good friends with Bertha. “We received sad news that Bertha is no more, her house fell on her while she was sleeping, heavy rains in Malawi…cyclone.”

I’d heard about cyclone Freddy, I knew it had hit Madagascar and Mozambique and hadn’t let myself think of the destruction for Malawi, in the hope that Malawi may be saved. I was there for cyclone Ana the year before, experienced the 4 day blackout and the week long period without running water in the commercial capital Blantyre. But never did I ever imagine devastation would hit so close to us like this.

“Do you want the funeral insurance for your workers and up to 4 family members?” asked Old Mutual. Old Mutual are a scheme that collects pensions for workers in Malawi. We had finally managed to get our account set up with them to support our workers with pension saving schemes. All of this being entirely new to me. The previous eight months of living in Malawi had taught me a lot. Employers, particularly international NGO’s, are expected to provide their workers with a lot, something which with the small size NGO of Medic to Medic we struggle, at times to meet expectations. Salaries are small and employers’ responsibilities are high. I’d always been one to want to give people a living wage, not just what the law says we should. How on earth can people get the step up they need, lift themselves out of poverty without a fair chance? And we do give a living wage. But, I’d also learnt that people expect to get loans amongst many other things. So, I answered “yes, that’s probably a good idea.” More to protect ourselves from requests with the expectation of always giving.

Now I found myself in the unbearable situation of needing to use the funeral cover within 6 months of starting the policy for our youngest team member and her 14 year old daughter. Then searching for questions, “why didn’t Bertha stay at the house?”, the Medic to Medic house is safe, in a good area. What happens next? “Helen, please tell everyone, all the workers, all the students, they must stay at the house if they are unsafe where they are”. Contacting Old Mutual, how does one even go about actioning funeral insurance? Funerals happen within days in Malawi, does one need a death certificate, does her family have a bank account, contacting our trustees in Malawi, can they attend the funeral as M2M representative, what else do we as an employer need to do, and then stop, cry uncontrollably to my flatmates as they ask “how was your day?”. How could you describe that day? The unfairness, the injustice, the devastation from thousands of miles away in a different time zone protected from it all.

Then Bertha’s face pops into my mind. Her voice echoes in my ears. I feel desperately painfully the injustice of her death knowing that she will not be in Malawi when I travel again. She is survived by her parents, her sister, two brothers and her youngest daughter. She was the main breadwinner for her family. The unfairness and devastation hits me again as it will for many more days to come.

I remember our team meetings every Monday. Bertha bringing up about someone stealing the sugar. Her great support of Helen – how she gave up her day of worship once a month on a Saturday to help out at Blantyre farmers market for fundraising. How she was helping us make plastic mats to sell. I’d walked in and she was ironing crisp packets together, like I had done. I hadn’t asked her to do it, but she was doing it anyway. Her sharing her lunch with Sparkles and Timmie our office cats. Her learning to love the animals and the cats “training” her (as they do) to sit beside them whilst they ate. How she handed me tea, me thinking it was for someone else and her says “no for you”, insisting that I stop and drink something inbetween my meetings and never ending to do list. Her cooking me dinner and leaving it on the side. She knew I loved eggs and soya. Me grabbing her to help me with a zip in a chitenje dress that I couldn’t get on. I didn’t want to ask Helen, Bertha and I were the same age and wanted to see if she could help first. We went out to a hotel before I left last time, I took Helen, Leonard and Bertha to Amarylis – a posh hotel in central Blantyre. Their meal was a sixth of their monthly income. In Malawi, you may have a job, but you’re still poor. Her smiles and thank yous as I gave her money for school fees for her children, the foam mattress (she had never slept on a mattress before), the electric stove, the pocket radio, the kitchen pots, the kettle, the sewing machine. Her playing with Sootie as she greeted her each morning. She really was the best, she never asked me for anything, unlike others who always ask. She was a gift to Medic to Medic.

I didn’t hear from Helen for a few days. I got a message out via the students asking them to reach out to Helen on her Nokia line. I suspected that the blackouts meant smart phones were not functional. She managed to reply. She was at the mass burial happening in Blantyre. Seeing pictures was confronting. Knowing that it wasn’t just Bertha and Bridget but repeated to many families, many times over, some entire families just wiped out in the blink of an eye made death less personal, but all the more devastating.

And then the wait came interjected by more and more pictures from our community. Messages from my friends in Mulanje saying that they were safe at the moment, but didn’t know how much longer they would be because it was still raining and they couldn’t get to any higher ground. Is this the last message I’m ever going to get from them? Trying to be functional at work, but how could I keep my mind on anything else? Malawi doesn’t deserve this. Who’s coming, who’s coming to help them? Surely DEC would start an appeal? Surely there would be national condolences, outcries? Humanitarian campaigns promoted. As the days passed none happened and none came. I knew that we had a community behind Malawi, donors who would be willing to show their support and solidarity with a humanitarian emergency. Medic to Medic are not a humanitarian relief organization, but with no humanitarian relief organisations doing anything. Maybe we should? And so we did. It gave me something to focus on, something to use to have the power to support Malawi in the smallest drop possible to what is required through this crisis.

And when the appeal page has been shared, when conversations have been started, the response “Why don’t we know about this?”.

Malawi hasn’t hit the global conscience, it seems when your home is a mud hut and washed away, the difference between that and no home is very little and so your suffering is not worth reporting.

I’ve experienced two cyclones this year… many friends contacted me when I was in New Zealand experiencing cyclone Gabrielle, “stay safe, hope you are ok”. The Princess Royal visits Wellington coordination centre, the King shares messages of condolence through the social media pages, it’s given international air time. Yet Cylone Freddy, the longest and strongest cyclone on record lasting over 34 days, starting before Cyclone Gabrielle, now causing the deaths of over 1000 people, displacing over 500,000 during the worst cholera epidemic in 20 years and a currency devaluation of over 25% to the poorest people in the world isn’t worth mentioning?

It got a 6 second clip in New Zealand on the 10 o’clock news. I wasn’t allowed to share the Medic to Medic appeal with humanitarians because it would conflict with the humanitarian response done by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (what are they doing then?), not mentioned in the council for international development newsletter for over two weeks, no communication from charity services despite having Malawi listed as a country of operation. Nothing.

It’s embarrassing how little coverage this humanitarian emergency has had. But, we will keep reporting on it, keep sharing the appeal and the stories because Malawi needs us, now more than ever and if the international media, humanitarian relief organisations aren’t going to share it, then who is going to advocate for Malawi if we don’t?

Within the week, I realized the team needed me on the ground. The messages from the office “things are still bad”. So I gave my workplaces a week notice and booked my flights. I’ve been on the verge of tears for most of the last three weeks. Of devastation, sadness, grief, but of anger too – why doesn’t everyone know about this? How many more humanitarian emergencies are happening right now that we know nothing about?

Malawi is prone to climate injustice. The climate is changing. This is going to keep happening to Malawi. Malawi should not have to bear the burden of the worlds climate greed. It does not have the resilience to bear it’s challenges, let alone be a country that has contributed to the problem. To us, climate injustice has a name. And it’s Bertha and Bridget.

So, if you’re reading this, I challenge you to tell everyone you meet today about Cyclone Freddy. It can start with a simple have you heard of Cyclone Freddy? Do you know the devastation it has caused in Malawi? Because, if our community won’t share this – then who will?


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