Voices from the Future | Reija Nykvist
The Event: In early March 2019, a tropical disturbance was building over the Indian Ocean, close to the southeast coast of Africa. As it traveled, the mild storm grew, and by March 5, it reached its full power as a tropical depression with winds as high as 35 miles per hour. The storm moved inland, pummeling Malawi and producing heavy rains that spawned deadly floods in the southern part of the country. The rains and rapidly rising floodwaters affected more than 45,312 Malawian households, and 226,560 people were displaced, according to the spokesperson for Malawi’s Department of Disaster Management. The country lost 28 people, and 124 people were injured.
“The heavy rains started on Monday,” Reija Nykvist explains. Her family lives in a suburb about 4.5 miles outside Malawi’s second biggest city, Blantyre. The heavy rain was increasing as the days went on, but she thought that was normal. “But there was no mentioning in the news that something unusual was going on.”
Each morning, she and her husband left for work, and their two daughters, ages 11 and 12, went to school.
“I didn’t take the rain very seriously, because if you haven’t lived in that kind of environment before, you really don’t know what to expect.”
On the third day, though, the phone rang at Nykvist’s work.
“My daughters called me at work and told me that the wall in their room had collapsed. First, I did not believe them. Then they sent me a picture. It felt so unreal.”
That was the first wake-up call.
She and her husband quickly drove home from work to make sure that the children were safe. They were lucky — just minutes after they left their room, the playroom wall collapsed.
“They had noticed that the sand started to leak into their room first. That’s why they weren’t in the room when the four-meter-high wall collapsed because of the floodwaters. They could have been buried beneath it.”
On Friday, after five days of heavy rain and flooding, the Malawi government finally declared a national emergency. The day before, the Nykvists had taken their girls to a nearby village where their grandparents live on the hillside. Their home is a modest traditional Malawian dwelling — with a straw roof and clay walls. By the time they arrived, however, the still rising floodwaters had caused significant damage.
What makes everything worse is that there is no sewage system in place, Nykvist notes. “All the village houses and toilets were collapsed, and the whole place had flooded.”
The main dirt road that runs through the grandparents’ village was swamped by 10 feet of water.
But it’s not that the Malawians are unaccustomed to severe weather — the sky unleashes during the rainy season, which begins in November and ends in February.
“The older people in the villages were especially resilient this time,” Nykvist says. “They always rebuild and stay, even though the village chief told them to leave. And despite the fact they told me that the rains have become heavier than before over the last two decades.”
And she’s well tuned in to Malawi’s older population and their thoughts about the changing climate. As a project coordinator for the non-governmental Malawi Network of Older Person’s organization, she’s regularly and deeply entrenched in that world.
“There is also a lack of government money to do much of any kind of disaster relief,” she says. “We are dependent on international help organizations like World Vision, the Red Cross and Islamic Relief, as well as their local offices.”
Indeed, Nykvist’s perspective on climate change draws on multiple experiences. She’s a European who lives in Africa, working on a daily basis to implement programs that promote and protect the rights of Malawian elders. She also is the mother of two daughters, and both of them have now experienced a serious natural disaster.
“The last floods were in 2015,” Nykvist says. “The problem is that they cut all the trees on the hills. Nothing keeps the land in place. The water just flushes through. In some places that flooded in 2015, the riverbeds have raised so much that more areas around them are getting flooded than ever before”.
Nykvist also focuses on Malawi’s longest river, the Shire, which is primarily used for fishing. It runs 250 miles from Lake Malawi to Mozambique.
“There are lots of crocodiles,” she says. “When it is flooding, the crocodiles are able to come out of the river and eat people.”
Nykvist’s family also talks about climate change at home. They live by the belief that the earth’s resources are limited.
“We’ve become even more conscientious,” she says. “We’ve been vegetarians for a long time. We have solar power, we recycle, and we do not use plastics. Because of what happened to us in Malawi, I think my children also think differently. They don’t want to use plastic things, and they want to change to plant-based meals.”
According to Nykvist, the children also feel more sympathy and empathy toward other people than they did before. They feel that their situation — that collapsed wall — wasn’t bad at all compared to other people who lost their homes.
“We have money to repair it, but most people don’t,” Nykvist recalls her children saying.
Nykvist and her husband aren’t planning on moving, either. Instead, they’re putting their effort into projects that, hopefully, will prevent or diminish the impact of future weather disasters. And they’re rebuilding their 50-year-old house to make it more sustainable.
“We’re trying to build these passages between the houses so that the water will go somewhere else and not be stuck near the house,” she says. “We have been discussing this with our neighbors and encouraged them to do the same. Our houses are really close to each other.”
And are the children’s coping mechanisms for the future?
“They check YouTube videos about climate change, and of course they are very worried because it is reality for them,” Nykvist says. “It wasn’t reality for us when we were young. But it is reality for them. It’s really happening.”
— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss