‘I have no safe place to live’: Erosion plunges Malawian village into crisis

Amidst the commotion of a busy fishing beach, an advancing duo weaves their way along Lake Malawi’s shoreline. With the midday sun reaching its peak, hovering over Mozambique’s peaks to the east, the two men seek solace from the piercing glare. The pace is relaxed if a little frantic. Softly lilting reggae soundtracks a vibrant scene.

But Joseph, the tallest of the pair, wears a pained expression. ‘This place is my home, and I love it very much,’ he says.

The 62-year-old refers to Mchenga Wa Moto, a small village on the northern tip of Senga Bay. He and his friend Chris climb a slight incline until they reach its centre: a ring of homes overlooking the lake below. Goats, chicken and dogs roam freely. Distinct cooking aromas herald the lunchtime rush for nsima, cornmeal porridge ideal for energising hardworking fishermen. A friendly welcome – as befitting ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ – is never far away.

Mchenga Wa Moto, though, is suffering a very real crisis. Joseph points to its source: a giant fissure stabbing the village’s heart. Technically the cause is gully erosion, the result of excess water eroding soil along drainage lines. The more pressing issue is the havoc it wreaks.

Life still goes on in Mchenga Wa Moto regardless of the damage caused by erosion

Life still goes on in Mchenga Wa Moto regardless of the damage caused by erosion.
At first, the villagers paid no heed when small sinkholes appeared in 2007. But over time they mutated into a single entity. Homes, livelihoods, memories: this impassive force devours them all. Every rainy season, from February to April, the crack swallows a little more land, feasting on the villagers’ hopes of a painless resolution.

Joseph feels this more than most. One night in April 2017 his home was claimed by the crack. ‘It was a very, very big sound,’ he recollects of the water washing away the soil. Joseph and his family scrambled to safety. Their dwelling was not so lucky.

‘Because of the Will of God, I escaped,’ he reasons, surveying the wrent. Its jutting incisions create the impression of a prolonged assault. ‘We’ve got a very big problem and we need help,’ he adds. ‘My life is not well now because I have no safe place to live.’

Chris, the village’s chief liaison officer, continues the story. The crack’s slow-motion devastation has hit him hard. ‘Everything is falling down,’ he says despairingly. A nearby electricity pylon, its foundations dangerously loosened, teeters in the breeze.

Rudimentary repairs achieve little more than slowing the crack’s advance in Mchenga Wa Moto

The villagers make efforts to stall the erosion, using and repurposing whatever tools they can find as impromptu obstacles. Makeshift dams litter the area, while pockets of shrubs and vetiver grass attempt to bind the soil. But this is no permanent solution. The dams collapse, the shrubs wither, goats devour the vetiver, as though an absurd and farcical spectacle illustrating the situation’s futility.

The destructive pattern is very hard to escape, says Chris. ‘Once the house breaks, you change your budget to maintain the house. This means you are taking the budget for the food. In Malawi, when a house falls down, it’s like somebody has died because it takes so long to build again.’

He gestures towards an abandoned home’s skeletal remains. On the verge of collapse, it unerringly symbolises Mchenga Wa Moto’s grave predicament.

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