While the world is fixated by the horror in Haiti little attention has been paid to at least 30 earthquakes that have rocked Malawi in the past month — the largest measuring 6,2 on the Richter scale.
Scientists are calling the quakes in Karonga — along the Great Rift Valley on the Tanzanian border — an “earthquake swarm” and are conducting geological assessments to ascertain if more are on the way.
The town of Karonga tells the story: collapsed houses, roofs fallen in and huge gashes in the road where the earth has split apart. Children are now taught under trees instead of in classrooms and most homes have a makeshift shelter of straw and plastic outside: the prolonged intensity of the quakes has made people afraid to stay indoors.
“The first one came at night on December 6, but we didn’t know what an earthquake was. Even our old women didn’t know; they have never experienced this before,” said Rachel Kasambala.
“The house was shaking like it was being carried on a big lorry,” said Caroline Malema. “I had such a fright I rushed out of the house and forgot my grandchild inside.”
The second quake destroyed Monica Muhango’s house. Luckily, she and her family had been sleeping outside since the first disturbance, or they would have been killed.
Just as people were beginning to hope that the crisis was over and had started to rebuild and move back into their homes, the big earthquake, measuring 6,2, struck on December 20.
“It was 1,15 in the morning and we were all asleep. We had moved back inside because it was raining very heavily and we couldn’t keep the children outside in the rain,” Muhango said.
“It was like we were in the sea and the waves were pushing us up and down and we couldn’t get out. It lasted for half an hour, but it was shaking so hard we couldn’t even find the door.
“The houses were cracking and the bricks were falling. Some people even ran out of their houses naked.”
Once the tremors stopped, the families had to sit outside in the rain all night, too afraid to move in the dark or to re-enter their houses to collect clothes or blankets.
Malema and her family are still sleeping outside, fearing the worst. “We don’t think this is finished, there are still lots of small shakes. We don’t know why this happens — is it climate change or is God doing this?” Malema asked.
The uncertainty is affecting villagers’ ability to earn a living, because women are loath to leave their children alone while they go to buy fish at the markets near Lake Malawi.
The Malawian government and NGOs have set up a camp for displaced people, catering for about 7 000. But many refuse to move into the camp and desert their homes.
“People don’t want to leave their land,” said Colins Kamuloni, the camp manager from the health ministry. “They tell you: ‘Our parents died here and their graves are here. Where should we go?'”
Most need to stay and tend their fields to ensure they have a harvest to show for their labour. Said Kamuloni: “If they don’t work in the fields now there will be hunger next year.”
Those who do move to camp face overcrowding and a shortage of water and sanitation facilities and run the risk of malaria and dysentery.
Cossan Munthali, of a community-based Oxfam partner organisation, is working to install water and sanitation facilities, but he is clear that living in the camp is not a long-term solution.
“We don’t want people to become dependent on aid,” he said. “We need to be clear about how decisions will be made if people are to be relocated. Decisions need to be made quickly and with a clear plan of how people will survive if they have to leave their land.”
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Malawians are living in limbo, unsure if they will be able to inhabit their homes again, and waiting for the results of the geological survey, which will determine whether the area is safe for human habitation.
Nicole Johnston is regional media coordinator for Oxfam Great Britain