It’s been over a month since flash floods created chaos in much of Southern Malawi, leaving behind a trail of destruction that washed away whatever little people owned. Hundreds of thousands have been affected by what has been described as the worst floods since 1964. The numbers speak for themselves: as of 18 February 230,000 have been displaced, and 276 are dead or missing.
When the flood happened, UNICEF’s humanitarian response was immediately activated, with teams permanently stationed in the worst-affected districts to ensure that the most vulnerable children and women received the help that they needed. The education sector has arguably been the worst hit by the floods, with over 181 schools being occupied by the displaced, affecting learning for over 300,000 children.
But things are slowly going back to normal. Children are returning to school though not without the scars from the experiences of fleeing their homes and becoming displaced inside their own country.
I remember growing up in wartime Sierra Leone and having to leave behind my home, my family, my friends and school, all in a short space of time, not knowing when I would return. It became a defining moment of my childhood, an experience not to be forgotten. Eighteen years later, I am now in the position of working with an organisation like UNICEF, responding to the needs of children affected by emergencies. While particular focus has been paid to the immediate lifesaving interventions and ensuring the education and protection needs of the displaced communities, attention has now turned to restoring a sense of normalcy in children’s lives. For many children, this involves play and sport, two fundamental rights for children everywhere.
Last year, UNICEF Malawi signed a new partnership with the Netball Association of Malawi highlighting child rights advocacy, as well as promoting sports, especially netball, for girls. The women’s national netball team, the Malawi Queens is currently ranked 5th in the world – no mean feat for a country with minimal resources to invest in sports.
As local ambassadors for UNICEF, the Malawi Queens joined us on 12 February on a one-day visit to Nsanje, specifically Bangula camp which is now home to over 4,500 people, many of them children. We brought the netballers to Bangula so that they could learn more about what UNICEF does during emergencies, and to give them with the opportunity to bring a message of hope to the children. The ‘Queens’ are an example of how sports can transform lives and impart valuable skills such as teamwork, inclusion and confidence. Having met with the team on a number of occasions, I was confident that they would bring the same high levels of energy that they display on the courts to Bangula.
Our day at Bangula started in a temporary learning tent which serves as a Community Based Childcare Centre (CBCC). Outside of the emergency context, CBCCs offer Early Childhood Development (ECD) services to children who are not yet old enough to attend primary school. At this CBCC in Bangula, over 300 children converge every day to play, learn and importantly eat healthy porridge. The Malawi Queens proved to be naturals at interacting with the young children, playing, singing and dancing with them. It seemed like a visit to a normal CBCC, if you could block out the sound of helicopters hovering above, delivering relief supplies to the nearby camps.
Next up was a visit to Bangula School. The school has made the successful transition from hosting displaced people to restoring normal learning, albeit with a larger number of students. All the learners, especially the girls, were excited to see their sporting idols. Many young girls in Malawi play netball, and it is a national sport. Ten girls from the school had been handpicked to participate in a game with these international netball superstars.
Most schools in Malawi do not have the equipment required to play netball, but make use of whatever little they have. This match was no different – uniforms were borrowed from the boy’s football team, some girls had shoes, others were barefooted; however they made the best of it, with equipment provided by the Netball Association. The match, which saw the professional netballers and the school girls playing together in mixed teams, was eagerly watched by just over 1,000 children, with deafening cheers and applause.
The headmaster later revealed that he had not seen so many happy faces, nor heard so much laughter at Bangula School for a long time and he thanked the Malawi Queens for holding the match at his school.
When I asked Carol Ngwira, Captain of the Malawi Queens about the experience, she said: “I have an obligation to help my fellow Malawians in whatever capacity. It was a great experience to play with the young girls. This place is quite far and remote and we didn’t really expect to see what we saw. We identified at least four youngsters who can easily be groomed to become part of the future Malawi Queens.”
In recognition of the importance of stimulation and therapy in emergencies, UNICEF is providing 1,000 recreational kits for the 181 schools affected by the floods. These recreational kits will enable children to participate in team sports and games allowing them to forget some of the suffering of the last month.
Having seen the faces of the children during our visit, I’m glad that the Malawi Queens were able to bring joy and laughter through sports and play to those affected by the floods, and more importantly a message of hope for a brighter future despite the current adversity.
Zulaikha Sesay is a Partnerships Officer at UNICEF Malawi