Lake Chilwa is the second largest lake in Malawi. Often overshadowed by Lake Malawi, few tourists even know of its existence. It borders the Zomba region to the north, south and west, and Mozambique to the east, but is so large you can’t see to the other side. There are small villages situated on the two islands in the middle of the lake who live much as they did a hundred years ago. Their villages are among the most remote communities on the whole continent. Here is a BBC article from 2000 about those living on the island: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/999173.stm
I got to visit the lake while working on a project for a local NGO. As we drove up, I kept thinking that the scenery looked like coastal Carolina with green reed grasses and colorful fishing boats bobbing in the water. The main difference would be the large mountains on the island in the middle.
The scene was picturesque: children were splashing around, fishermen were hauling in their catch, assessing each others’ success, and women were sitting beside their sleeping babies in the shade, waiting for customers to buy dried fish from the small neat piles in front of them. Fishermen still out on the water were casting their nets, and the sun glittered off the small, peaceful waves.
Despite its beauty, the lake area faces many challenges. There is no river leading out, so the water remains shallow, salty, and stagnant. The water levels fluctuate dramatically depending on rainfall. Back in Livingstone’s time, the lake stretched all the way to the foothills of Mt. Mulanje, adding an addition 30 sq. km to its area. The 60,000 Malawians who live on its shores and islands use the lake for fishing, a water source, and often for washing and a bathroom. This leads to year-round cholera outbreaks and other water born diseases. The waters risk being overfished, and the globally-significant wetlands are endangered.
The project I was researching focused on the promotion of correct and consistent use of health products, such as water treatment formulas and oral rehydration salts. The project also disseminated messages on sanitation best practices. In the project, volunteers go out into their communities, dispel myths, demonstrate correct use of products, and show how a simple hand washing station can drastically reduce the risk of disease.
One volunteer, George, has been very successful in encouraging change in his communities. He has made many changes in his own household and become a role model. He has even convinced his chief, Esther (in Malawi, chiefdoms are hereditary – the oldest child assumes the role, regardless of gender), to adopt healthy and hygienic practices.
Volunteers like George are helping to protect his community from deadly diseases and improve life for those who live around the lake. It was exciting to see him take initiative as an unpaid volunteer to work towards a healthier Malawi. It was also hopeful to hear that people are responding positively. Slowly, with people like George and Esther, and with the help of NGOs, people can protect themselves and live longer, healthier lives.