by Stephen Harper
Stephen and his wife, Gail, have been engaged in missionary work in Central Africa for over 20 years.
In March 2023, Cyclone Freddy made history as the most powerful storm ever recorded, gaining Category 5 strength twice during its remarkable five-week journey across the vast Indian Ocean, from northwest Australia to East Africa. The cyclone’s catastrophic impact on Malawi left over a thousand people dead and displaced more than a million from their homes. As communities struggled to recover from the devastation, heartwarming stories of survival and resilience emerged, testifying to the grace of God amid nature’s fury.
A Trail of Destruction
Over the weekend of 12 March 2023, Cyclone Freddy unleashed a deluge of rain, amounting to six months’ worth in just three days. The southern region, particularly the city of Blantyre, experienced powerful mudslides, with boulders the size of buses, that swept away entire communities, causing immense human suffering. However, amid the tragedy, stories of miracles began to surface.
The Miracle on Lisao Mountain
A few miles away from the city’s devastation, my dear friend Harold and his family experienced miraculous preservation when no fewer than nine mudslides cascaded down the slopes of Lisao Mountain, where their home stands. Two mudslides narrowly missed their dwelling, avoiding a catastrophic outcome by a mere 100m on the left and 150m on the right. Later, Harold, still traumatised by his ordeal, opened his home to those less fortunate, providing food and shelter to several families whose homes had been destroyed.
Stories of Survival & Loss
Other stories of survival and heartache emerged in the aftermath of Cyclone Freddy. One young family in Njuli was miraculously preserved when a mother braved the wind and rain for a few minutes to accompany her young children to the outside bathroom. They returned to find their meagre dwelling swept away. An elderly sister, persuaded to stay the night elsewhere, escaped certain death when her home was washed away. Tragically, some were not as fortunate with horrific accounts of entire families being lost, leaving behind tales of loss and sorrow. In Mbayani, a township I’ve visited with the gospel, scores of people perished in the mud.
The Impact on Infrastructure & Agriculture
Aside from the human toll, Cyclone Freddy wreaked havoc on vital infrastructure. Roads and bridges were destroyed, cutting off many remote villages from essential aid for weeks. In Blantyre, a gaping canyon remains where once there was a major road connecting the city to the airport. Additionally, the cyclone obliterated thousands of acres of ready-to-harvest maize, pushing already vulnerable communities into further hardship and distress.
The Call to Aid
As news of the disaster spread, numerous humanitarian organisations and concerned individuals swiftly responded to the crisis. Hearing the desperate voice message from Harold, I knew I had to go to Malawi to support our friends and colldemonstrating God’s love and helping people to rebuild and find
comfort in the Lord.eagues there and help coordinate Salt’s (Southern Africa Literature Trust) relief effort. By God’s grace, within a week, I was on the ground, grateful for easing winds and rain that enabled incoming aircraft to land.
Harold, still traumatised by his ordeal, opened his home to those less fortunate
Continuing wet-season rain brought fresh difficulties daily. Despite the challenges posed by damaged roads, aid slowly began to reach villages in dire need. Although we could only help a fraction of the displaced population, our aid brought some hope and a little relief. Across the region, school buildings converted into makeshift evacuation camps sheltered over a million people but the government eventually closed most of these camps in June, forcing many to return to their still-devastated homes. We were glad to be able to help a few affected families.
Making a Difference
During my brief time in Malawi, we made our first relief visit to the evacuation camp at Lisao. The team’s relief efforts were always met with gratitude and hope. Over the following couple of months, approximately 1,000 individuals benefited from the aid with around ten villages receiving assistance. Immediate emergency relief included plastic sheeting for shelter, around 13.5 tons of maize flour, 670kg of beans and around 2,300 bars of soap. Moreover, efforts to construct around 15 new houses for vulnerable individuals, such as widows and those caring for orphans, continue, leaving a lasting impact on the affected communities.
A Message of Gratitude
One of the most profound blessings amid this crisis was the ability to share the gospel. Our goal is always the gospel, front and centre. Our team was embraced with warmth and gratitude, particularly as we helped irrespective of the religion of the beneficiaries. We believe their presence and support had a profound impact on people, we trust leaving an enduring testimony of the love of God and the power of the gospel. I was personally deeply moved by the privilege of being able to share a message of hope and salvation to hundreds so recently affected by trauma and loss. One message of gratitude we received roughly translates as, ‘We want to thank you for the help you have given without respect of religion…the people are very grateful because you have helped more than all the other help we received and also because of the good news, which you sowed.’
Since 2020, Salt has gradually been acquiring land for the development of a gospel outreach centre at Saidi, near Thondwe, a busy trading centre situated between Zomba and Blantyre. So far, in addition to a multi-purpose msasa (thatched shelter) we have constructed offices and stores, from which we carry on the ever-expanding literature ministry, with a print workshop, garage and additional stores also almost complete.
A further six acres have also been set aside for farming and as the Lord provides, we intend to expand this further. Our plot is adjacent to a further four acres which are sadly underutilised. There is a good groundwater supply nearby and we are presently investigating the costs of a drip irrigation scheme, which would enable us to grow crops during the dry season as well as the wet. Being able to produce two crops each year, from a larger acreage, would facilitate our feeding programmes, and greatly increase our capacity to help in crises like Cyclone Freddy. Furthermore, it will mean our ability to help will be much less vulnerable to the vagaries of changing commodity prices. It will also enable us to help our community with much needed employment opportunities and exposure to simple, reproducible improvements to their own farming techniques.
Compassion & Faith
Cyclone Freddy’s relentless fury etched its place in history as one of the most energetic storms ever recorded. The devastation it caused along the coast of East Africa in general, and Malawi in particular, tested the resilience and strength of its people. In the face of adversity, acts of Christian kindness, compassion and faith emerged, illustrating the triumph of God’s love and grace. The ongoing need is simply enormous but as the affected communities continue their path to recovery, here and there they find solace in the knowledge that they are not alone. It is our privilege as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to stand with them in their journey to rebuild and heal.