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Cut off by cyclone, Malawian villagers face hunger, perilous journeys

Mulanje – A husband holds his heavily pregnant wife’s hand as the two wade across roaring floodwaters in southern Malawi.

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She is due any moment but their village has been cut off by Cyclone Freddy, leaving them no other option than to make a perilous 15-kilometre trip to the nearest clinic on foot.

“We will find a way to get her to the hospital today,” Pilirani Aironi said as his wife Mercy, in a traditional yellow and red dress, stands barefoot by his side.

Freddy hit the southern African country last week, triggering flooding and mudslides that swept away homes, roads and bridges.

People cross a flooded area in Muloza, Malawi on March 18, 2023, in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Picture: Esa Alexander REUTERS

It dumped so much rainfall– about six months’ worth in six days – that new waterways have appeared in some areas.

When AFP met them on Saturday, Mercy and Pilirani Aironi had already crossed three such streams.

“We know there are more rivers along the way but we have no choice,” he said

Their village in Muloza, near the Mozambican border, was badly affected by the cyclone, which has killed 438 people, injured 918 and displaced more than 345,000, according to the latest Malawian government update.

Located on a mountain side, it was almost completely wiped away by a rockfall unleashed by floodwaters.

Today, large white boulders, sand and floodwaters cover the area where homes once stood.

An aerial view on March 18, 2023, shows some of the homesteads which were damaged in Muloza during Tropical Cyclone Freddy. Muloza is about 100km outside Blantyre, in Malawi and on the border with Mozambique. Picture: Esa Alexander/ REUTERS

The injured also had to be taken to the hospital on foot. Among them were eight of Winditoni Makava’s relatives.

“We carried them on our shoulders or on some stretchers,” said Makava, 75.

Nine other members of his family died in the flooding. Only five of their bodies have been found so far.

Leaving town is difficult – and relief is also struggling to come in. AFP reached the area on an army helicopter that delivered vital medical aid. But food is scarce.

“We are surviving by the grace of God,” said local traditional leader Manuel Nachidwa. “Most of us are surviving on the bananas that” are left on the trees, he said.

Cyclone Freddy, which has dissipated after a record-breaking rampage, has caused more than 570 deaths in southern Africa.

In Malawi it affected more than half a million people, according to the UN.

The storm first struck southern Africa in late February, hitting Madagascar and Mozambique.

It then moved back out over the Indian Ocean, where it drew more power from the warm waters before making a rare course reversal to slam into the mainland a second time.

At least 89 people died in Malawi’s Mulanje district, according to government figures. But locals say the actual toll is much higher.

“A lot of people are still buried under these rocks,” says Nachidwa.


A drone image of Mtauchira village on March 16, 2023 shows the destruction caused by a mudslide where many people lost their lives, in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy in Blantyre, Malawi. Picture: Esa Alexander / REUTERS
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