Matiti River had always been within their community. It was, just like trees around, part of their natural inheritance.
Besides being a body they could bathe, wash clothes and, sometimes, draw water from, none in the village envisioned that one day they would turn to it with empty bellies—begging it to help produce food for them.
After all, with rains, though erratic and unpredictable over the years, they still received enough to help them produce their food. They were living in comfort.
But not until March this year.
“As a maize farmer, I planted by early rains of December. Every year I harvest, at least, 40 bags. I can tell you I have never complained of being without food at my house,” says Dyton Mateyu from Makwinja Village, Traditional Authority Chiwalo in the district.
Then hell broke loose.
“Between January 9 and 15 this year, we saw unrelenting rains pouring from the skies without a sense of abandon. We saw paths and roads and dry streams swelling into vast rivers that flooded our villages and turned them into a sea of sorrow. This is something I haven’t witnessed since I was born,” says 47-year-old father of three.
Just like thousands sharing his tragedy in the country’s 15 districts, Mateyu’s garden was buried with sand, all the crops gone with the raging waters. He did not give up, though. After the rains had simmered he went back to the garden and replanted hoping to take advantage of the warmth of the soil. It did not help. The rains had completely recoiled. The scorching sun ruled, wilting his crop to death.
“I only managed a single bag. This hasn’t happened to me in all these years I have been a farmer. I harvest, in a good year, close to 60 bags. This year is devastating,” he says.
For a breadwinner whose livelihood solely depended on agriculture, coming to reality with the befallen tragedy sent Mateyu and fellow village folks into soul-searching. They had—apart from engaging in various pieceworks to find money to fend for their families—to find somewhere to grow some maize, their staple. They felt that solely relying on buying was not sustainable. The answer was irrigation.
By then, Mateyu and 30 other villagers were already doing small-scale irrigation along Matiti River. However, it was completely small-scale; in fact, they only cultivated vegetables. They used watercans and could hardly imagine exploiting the banks of the river for other crops. They were safe in the comfort of rain-fed food production to look for other alternatives.
“But the tragedy this year taught us to rethink how we had been using this river. We thought of exploring how best we could use the perennial river and its fertile banks to grow some crops which would keep us afloat until the next growing season,” he says.
Indeed, where there is a will there is a way.
As locals began to mobilise themselves in how they could benefit from Matiti River’s perennial blessing, the Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom), a developmental arm of Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), was already in the district implementing resilience projects with funding from Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
One of the projects is the Central Emergency Relief Fund III which looks at providing agricultural inputs and related capacity-building initiatives to households affected by floods that occurred earlier this year. Cadecom secretary for Blantyre Archdiocese, Peter Pangani, says the project aims at saving lives by ensuring minimum food availability and access by 5 000 vulnerable households in Phalombe through agricultural input distribution while ensuring that basic methods of conservation agriculture and climate smart agriculture are applied.
“The project is targeting households from the five traditional authorities namely Mkhumba, Chiwalo, Kaduya, Jenala and Nazombe. Indeed the project beneficiaries have benefited from this project as evidenced by the fact that 5 000 households have received maize seed, bean seed, assorted vegetable seed, treadle pumps and fertiliser for the maize which is under winter irrigation. The beneficiaries are yet to receive livestock such as goats and chickens which are under procurement that will be produced under the pass on scheme,” he says.
A project being implemented in Chiwalo’s area in the district with an aim of building the capacity of most vulnerable households to meet their basic needs and withstand shocks (by resisting or adapting their livelihood.
Cadecom national secretary Casterns Mulume says the project is running from October 2014 and is expected to run through to December 2015.
Mulume also indicated that the project purpose is to build resilience of most vulnerable households and communities through a coherent, programmatic and holistic approach.
The project is being implemented in nine group village headmen (GVH) and targeting 28 villages in the form of Farmer Field and Life Schools (FFLS) each with 30 members making a total of 840 primary stakeholders.
Adds Mulume: “The farmer field and life schools are a learning point of modern agricultural technologies and various agricultural skills”.
“After learning in these schools, the members/farmers replicate what they learn in their respective households by practising the same and that farmers are acquiring capacity and skills in modern agriculture techniques through various trainings that are being provided to them,” he says.
These projects are helping the communities in Phalombe become self reliant and resilient to climatic shocks that are always prevalent in Phalombe particularly T/A Chiwalo.
It is evident that the communities are excited and eager to because the time this reporter visited the project impact area, it was observed that they were taking part in a number of agriculture related interventions such as organic manure making, vegetable production using different ways of cultivation as part of research to determine the best approach, establishment of village savings and loans groups which are operational, irrigation, agro-processing and aforestation and tree planting interventions.
Thirty-seven years old Dorothy Kansungwi, a divorced mother of three, is one of 150 households who are benefiting from Cadecom’s gesture in Phalombe District.
When The Nation visited her at her maize farm along Matiti River, she had her last born child, Elufe, on her back pushing the treadle pump while her niece directed the water into her maize beds.
“I have hope, great hope,” she says, adding: “it is an early maturing crop so, in the few months, I will have something for my children.”
All along, she adds, we have been making serious mistakes borne out of ignorance.
“We live in area where flooding and its opposite, droughts, are frequent. In fact, when people ask us what our major problem here is when rains recede, we say: water.
“Now I know we have been fooling ourselves. This river has always been with us, beaming with high levels water all year around. We could use not to the best of its capacity. The challenge is not that we do not have water. But we did not have the simple technology that is efficient, not labour intensive—one that can water our gardens,” she says.