Want to understand the trauma of climate loss and damage? Listen to the voices of Southern Africans who are living it

Juliet Suliwa Kasito Climate Change, Events, Research

With world leaders at COP27 under pressure to act on loss and damage finance, Juliet Suliwa Kasito shares insights from conversations in Malawi and Zimbabwe – and draws out recommendations for policy makers, including to focus more on ‘intangible’ damage, such as psychological distress

People talking
Allan Kaiton tells his story to a researcher at Chilindiine Village, Chikwawa, southern Malawi. His house was destroyed by Tropical Storm Ana. (Picture: Thoko Chikondi)

“Everything that I had such as goats, chicken and guinea fowls was washed away by the floods, and I have nothing to rely on,” says Joyce Luka. “My life is at risk in the sense that we are approaching the rainy season but I am still yet to find my own accommodation. I also don’t see myself being able to build a new house any time soon.”

This testimony from Joyce in Malawi is just one of many stories we heard in our conversations with people in Malawi and Zimbabwe about their experiences of extreme weather events linked to climate change such as cyclones and storms. Their testimonies helped us to build a powerful picture of the lived experience of loss and damage. (You can also watch a series of videos of our conversations here.)

Their accounts show how climate loss and damage takes many forms: psychological, cultural, social, economic and environmental. A headline insight from these conversations is how loss and damage has intangible aspects – such as psychological distress, and cultural and social disruption and dislocation – as well as the tangible loss and damage of lost lives, property, belongings and livelihoods. (You can read an explainer of the issue of loss and damage here.)

In this blog, we’ll highlight three themes that emerged from our conversations and share recommendations based on our work, aimed at African leaders, civil society groups, activists and those involved in international negotiations around loss and damage, including at this week’s COP27.

1. There are many complexities and long-term effects around loss of lives

Our conversations revealed how the death of family, friends and community members in terrifying circumstances brings many complexities that impact people’s long-term psychological well-being.

Innocencia Njoringo of Chipinge, in Zimbabwe, talked about the trauma that hit her own family after Cyclone Idai in 2019.  Many people there did not get the opportunity to pay their last respects or bury loved ones swept away by the floods. “I lost several relatives including the wife and child to my brother,“ she said. “My brother was saved by holding onto a rope. He is now in bad shape and no longer mentally stable. A local NGO collected him last week and went with him to a rehabilitation centre in the city for counselling.”

In Malawi, Isacki Makina explained how the loss of gravestones, washed away in storms and floods, can add to the pain of grief for past deaths. “I had a child whom we buried at the grave, I had plans to unveil the tombstone but I failed because I can no longer identify the grave. Because people do not know which grave belongs to their relations, they end up preparing other people’s graves,” he explained.

Where the bodies of loved ones are lost forever, mourning and burial rites may not take place or be limited in ways that inhibit recovery and closure. In some places, where there is no body, the law may require a period of up to ten years to pass before a person can be registered dead.

2. Loss of property, farm land and livelihoods also hits mental wellbeing

In Zimbabwe, interviewees told us they felt that the floods brought acidic rains that affected soil fertility. The floods also deposited sand, stones and huge boulders onto their fields, affecting the quality of farm land. In Malawi, people talked about loss and damage to crop fields, livestock, roads, houses, graveyards, and drinking water. Most of the support they received was one-off, and not enough to help them recover: they wanted more support for rebuilding their houses using stronger materials to withstand the flooding.

But, beyond such tangible losses, most of our interviewees had also not recovered from their trauma and shock. “I was greatly affected by the loss of family and belongings and went into a depression that resulted in blood pressure getting too high, resulting in a stroke. My left side was affected and because of that I can no longer work for my family as I used to do before. I am now permanently disabled due to the impact of the Cyclone Idai,” said Gift Zikuyumo in Zimbabwe.

People spoke about being very uncertain about the future and afraid that extreme weather events would be repeated. Weather such as strong winds and thunder now trigger memories of destruction and interviewees highlighted the need for counselling to help community members suffering from post-traumatic stress. “Since Cyclone Idai, strong winds and thunder still terrify us,” said Innocencia Njoringo in Zimbabwe.

Woman crossing river
Elida Maungu, crossing a river on her way from a waterlogged field in their village in Chikwawa, Malawi. (picture: Thoko Chikondi)

3. Children are particularly badly affected

People in both countries talked about the lasting impact of extreme weather events on children. Those that were orphaned in the floods face a litany of problems, interviewees in Zimbabwe said. Chief among them is the lack of answers to their questions about what happened to their parents. Local cultures often do not encourage speaking about death to children, so these children have to find out what happened from friends at school, causing further social and psychological challenges.

Joyce Luka in Malawi explained the trauma in the aftermath of the cyclone for two local children who lost family members. “The boy stayed for two weeks without going to school,” she said. “He only started when the teacher promised to give him an exercise book and a pen. Later on, when we received money from well-wishers, I bought him clothes and we also bought some food. I have been encouraging him to go, it was difficult at the beginning but eventually, they got to understand. The girl is affected more, because when it happened, she was on her period, so she had difficulties taking care of herself. But we tried to help her.”

How to respond to the full spectrum of loss and damage

So how can we address the full spectrum of loss and damage, including intangible damage such as psychological distress? Our report makes the following recommendations:

  • African leaders, civil society groups, activists and negotiators should build their in-depth understanding of the lived experience of people suffering tangible and intangible loss and damage. Such real-life evidence from the front line of climate damage should help to influence decision-makers and partners.
  • Intangible loss and damage needs to be described, acknowledged and integrated into policy. Such policy must also take into account the diversity of different experiences of loss and damage.
  • Finance to address loss and damage is urgently needed at scale and should go towards both tangible and intangible loss and damage. That includes funding for responses to trauma, psycho-social healing, and cultural and social restitution and renewal. 
  • African countries must work together to shine a light on the stories of African communities most impacted by loss and damage, so that these stories are at the heart of international climate negotiations.
  • There should be more investment in research to explore intangible loss and damage, how it persists over time and its cumulative impact on people, their livelihoods, their coping and adaptive capacities and their well-being.  This research should focus on enabling people most impacted to describe their experiences and on identifying solutions that can be funded via loss and damage finance.

Juliet Suliwa Kasito

Juliet Suliwa Kasito is Climate Justice Programme Advisor at Oxfam GB, based in Lilongwe, Malawi

You can read our new leaflet here sharing some of the experiences of interviewees and watch video stories from the communities here. The full report on this project will be released in the coming weeks on Oxfam’s Policy and Practice knowledge hub.

We are indebted to the people of Mbweza, Joliji, and Chilindiine villages in Chikwawa, Malawi, and Ndiadzo village Wards 9 and 10 in Chipinge, Zimbabwe, for sharing their stories and experiences.

Research team: Lesley Macheka, Loveness Msofi, Rosta Mate, Admire Nyamwanza, Sandra Bhatasara. Oxfam team: Juliet Suliwa Kasito, Helen Jeans, Lyndsay Walsh, Leonard Unganai, Fred Perraut.

For more information, please contact: Juliet Suliwa Kasito at Oxfam GB: JSuliwa@oxfam.org.uk