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Phalombe Disaster: 25 years later

Two huge rocks stand daringly at the foot of Michesi Mountain in Phalombe.

Down the river which cuts across the district’s main town are a myriad of sparkling silver rocks above waters.

Some metres away, a memorial pillar with a list of names stands along the Phalombe-Chiringa Road. It is a symbol of loss, a wellspring of grief and a monument of sadness.

All these sights drip memories. They are dark memories, memories that measure the length and breadth of plunder and destruction that befell the area.

They are a reminder of the terror angry nature hurled to some villages through flush floods and a rock avalanche on 10 March 1991.

In the disaster, hundreds of people perished, villages flattened and hectares of crops destroyed.

The United Nations Department o f Humanitarian Affairs estimation the death toll to be between 700 and 1000 and 30,000 hectares of crops swept away.

Stories abound of how the floods swept away a century of livelihood, houses, granaries and trees. Some attest to the sight of floating graves. Yes, the floods and rock avalanche even exhumed decades of peace resting in bones.

Twenty-five years ago, 10 March was on a Sunday. That’s when the floods hit. It may be a long time to some, but to the survivors it is not. The engravings of this day on their memories are as fresh as of yesterday.

The break of dawn on this fateful Sunday was similar to the three days that preceded it. They were dawns draped and drenched in rains that pattered on the shoulders of the earth continuously.

Phalombe, then part of Mulanje District, was immersed in large amounts of rains over four days.

“Continuous rains poured for about three days. Then Sunday morning around 8, a rock avalanche erupted from Michesi and Mulanje mountains,” recalls 38-year-old Kondwani Massa from Bokosi Village, Traditional Authority Mkhumba in the district.

He says that rocks started rolling from the hills and mountains. They roared and rolled down Michesi and Mulanje mountains in all sizes.

The sheer size of some of the rocks that the gushing waters uprooted from the mountain makes one recoil in disbelief. They are huge, larger than a house. One can hardly believe how limbless water pushed them down the mountains.

The definition of this rock avalanche tilts between the scientific and traditional point of view.

The geological perspective regards the rock avalanche as a landslip and massive flooding by the saturation of rocks and boulders on the slopes of a mountain.

Traditional knowledge and understanding has its own explanation. It borders on a mythological tale narrated over generations and adapted in some literary works. They call it Napolo.

Locals say Napolo is a two-tailed “animal” that lives underneath the rocks of a mountain. Its migration from one mountain to another is believed to be the cause of flooding and rock avalanche.

“When Napolo moves, he leaves behind a mark. He shakes and breaks the mountain rocks resulting in a gush of water, causing floods,” says 43-year-old Faston Kabichi, one of the many survivors of the 1991 flood disaster.

He further says this movement is characterised by ululating-like sound.

“On this day, we also heard a similar sound from the mountains. For us who were young that time, we did not make any sense out of that.

“But some of the elders did. These are the people who had lived through the tales of Napolo’s past visits and were familiar to its works,” recalls Kabichi.

According to him, the lucky ones took to the calling of the elders. They scampered to safety high up the land. Most of them were from Bokosi Village, the area that was worst hit.

Fanny Friday, 36, was one of them. On this particular day, she went to Phalombe River to draw water.

“I was surprised to see that the water was dirty and abnormally very cold. Other people came. They told us to run away because there were large amounts of water coming from the mountains,” says Friday.

She was 12 years old then and the wrath of Napolo left a bitter scar in her memory. Napolo had the wrath of a sledge hammer; everything on its way including human souls looked like a frail nail.

“I lost a total of six members from my family; four grandparents and my little brother and sister,” she recalls.

A thick and dark cloud of sadness enveloped her face as she recounted the story to Malawi News Agency (Mana) in an interview. It was the face of agony, chained to the experience of a harrowing tragedy.

Survivors like Fanny Friday drown their sorrows in retelling their experience through the traditional perspective.

Yet in the eyes of some, this mythological view is as misty as Mulanje Mountain when it hides its face in the cloudy sky. But it still remains their story. It was the nation’s loss, yes, but it was their great loss. It was their experience.

They lived the tale and they will live to tell the tale. Their experience commands our sympathy and therefore our respect too.

For those innocent souls that took to the sky 25 years ago, their flight to the distant horizon summon our reverence, adoration and praise to them. Their departure united a nation, for action.

Today, the country has a Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act of 1991. There is also the 2015 National Disaster Risk Management Policy too, albeit coming 24 years later.

From the deep wells of conventional wisdom sprout a say that up from the loud silence of the sky falls the darkest hour, and down from the feet of rising mountains leaps out the new dawn.

As these souls—plus those lost in subsequent natural disasters— continue to rest in eternal power and peace, they can take refuge in that their departure bred two blueprints intended to minimise losses in flood related disasters— or so the nation hopes.

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