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It has been almost a year since Malawi experienced Cyclone Freddy, one of the deadliest winds we have encountered recently. Ask every Malawian where they were the week of March 11th, 2023, and they will give you a vivid answer. Although Cyclone Freddy is not discussed as much anymore, it claimed numerous lives. Family lineages were wiped out with no traces of the bodies, while others had to be dug out from the earth just to be given a proper burial.
The trauma the cyclone inflicted on the country is too big to dismiss. I used to love sleeping during rainy days, but recently, I have realized that I have a fear laced in my heart when it comes to the rain. This has been resounded by others, which made me realize, that it is a trauma that will take time to erase.
I wanted to share a story of the most excruciating moment of Cyclone Freddy with my family and me. A moment that me fear death the most, especially the thought that my child might be gone.
Cyclone Freddy and its Horrors
Tuesday, March 14th, 2023, the heavy rains and strong winds were not showing signs of letting up. They kept intensifying with each passing minute. We would take turns checking the roofing because the metal sheets would rattle as if the nails had unbuckled, and were ready to fly off. Each time we did check on the roof, we would sigh of relief to know it was still intact.
In the four days that the rains and winds had started, my son had become restless too. He would wake up and look around in fear, then clutch to my body for dear life, seeking protection. There was a sweetness to it, but it also saddened me how scared he was of the weather. At the same time, I had to maintain a persona for him when I was just as scared of what was happening outside.
On that Tuesday morning, our neighbor had come to our house early in the morning to ensure we were all okay. This had become an unwritten rule during those days that we both needed to check on one another thrice a day like a dosage. We wanted to ensure that if any harm had happened to the other, we would render help immediately.
She entered our house, her body half-drenched, like she did not use an umbrella to shield herself. As usual, we started complaining about the anguish of Cyclone Freddy and updating one another on what the weather department had said. We showed each other Cyclone Freddy’s movement and how close he was to Mala
Talking about the weather was not as boring as people said it was, we had this talk each day with all seriousness. Each one of us would show eagerness to know, and it had become normal.
When all that was done, she shared some devastating news. A house near ours had half of it caved in the middle of the night, the bricks had fallen on the owner’s son. At that moment, an ambulance had just picked them up, and they were rushing to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. This was the seventh house in the night to have fallen.
Another victim was the woman who occasionally came house to do our laundry, especially our beddings. Her house too had let up, the incident had happened as she had gone to look for relish for herself and the kids. Fortunately, the oldest of the kids had gone outside to relieve himself and noticed that the cracks of the house were pushing in slowly. Like a ninja, he immediately took his siblings outside and carried the little they could from the house.
After taking out the last item, which was his mother’s clothes, the house just caved into the ground.
We agreed that we would visit the house of the boy who had gotten injured when the rains had calmed down, and that we would also take a few food items to the woman who was now staying with her friend while waiting to find shelter.
The whistles of water, the fear of death
Later that day, we heard the famous village whistle that was instructed by the chief when someone had fallen prey to death. The boy in charge of spreading the news stated the family’s name that had the loss. Unfortunately, the boy had been pronounced dead upon arrival at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.
Immediately, my mom took her wrapper and left for the funeral home. While there, the few people who had come out were struggling to find a place to sit due to the damage that had happened. They bundled in one corner so they would not get drenched from the raging rain.
The main topic was Cyclone Freddy. Everyone was sharing the people they knew had been affected by the rains, and how many deaths had happened in their villages. It had become a normal topic, but underlying it all was a sadness that each one was carrying because no one knew if they were next to be affected or their families.
Then they discussed how the boy’s death had happened. The bricks had completely covered his head when the house caved in. He was crying out for help when the ambulance pulled up, he was asking his father to take away the pain in his head. The father held onto him for dear life during the drive, but as they neared Limbe, he had suddenly gone quiet.
The father tried screaming to him to wake up and keep his eyes open, but at that point, his breathing had already started slowing. The father pleaded with the driver to drive a little faster, to get to the hospital a little quicker, so his boy could be saved. But the driver knew exactly what was going on. As they were passing by Chichiri, the boy gave out a big sigh and that was it.
There in his arms lay his boy, blood oozing out from his head, his soul long gone. He cursed Cyclone Freddy.
As the story was being shared, a group of people were running. The women were more frantic, yelling for their children to hasten. They were screaming “napolo akubwera, napolo akubwera” meaning that water had burst from the nearby mountain, sweeping everything in its path.
At this exact moment, I was putting my son down for his afternoon nap. He had just gotten into a deep sleep, and I was trying to leave him to nap by himself. We could hear nothing from the house, we were oblivious to the commotion that was happening a few meters away. The rain had become the perfect silencer.
All I saw was my mom running in the rain together with my neighbor. Both of them being mixed race, and their faces were red, I could not tell if it was from crying or the hard water beating their skin like drums. There were different emotions plastered on their faces, but the one shining was fear.
She stood by the veranda, and out of breath, shared the news that the women and children had told them. Immediately I heard the news, I sprung into action. I ran to my room, picked my son up, tied him tightly on my back, and carried an umbrella.
Anger rushed to my face when I saw my mom still stuck on the veranda, just looking at the mountain atop. I was angry that she did not see the urgency of the situation and that we needed to move as soon as possible. I did not have a plan of where we were supposed to go, but I needed us to leave and find somewhere safe. The biggest fear was that right behind our house was a stream, and my worry was the water would make it bigger thus affecting our house.
Deep within my anger was fear, fear for death, the pain we would have to endure during the death, and the thought that my child would not grow into the man he is intended to be. I feared for him the most. He had not experienced life, I felt helpless and numb.
While my fear was urging me to run, the same fear made my mother completely freeze. Like a robot, she said, “olo tithamange, napolo sachedwa kufika. Ngati waphulikadi, bwezi pano atafika kale” (The water that bursts from the mountains moves faster, if the rumor was true, we would have already been washed away).
As we were having this conversation, my neighbor had already gathered her two children and maid and had left the compound. They went a kilometer away and stood by a closed shop waiting to hear if it was all true or not.
Thirty minutes passed by, and our feet were still glued to the floor. My mom confidently said that it was not our time to die yet. That broke the spell we were all under, and we immediately went inside the house with relief on our faces. After an hour, I saw my neighbor come in, she and the kids were drenched and shivering, but there was relief on her face too.
It truly did feel like we had escaped death.
Due to the lack of electricity, we had no privilege of learning that the water had burst but a couple of kilometers away from our home. Houses had been washed away, there were human body parts as well as those of livestock being found in different areas. The actual owners of the parts were not known, but bare assumptions based on the houses affected.
I visited the place a couple of days later, and what I saw was shocking. Check the video below for the damage.
I think of those days now, and I am shaken by all that took place. The death toll kept rising like they were counting beans, images of coffins waiting to be buried. But perhaps the most sadness I get is the fact that the man who lost his boy, later on found out that his whole village in Chiradzulu had been washed by the water. His only surviving family were his two brothers who stay in town.
That was the wrath of trauma that Cyclone Freddy had unleashed on Malawi.