Long queues in the dark. Lengthy waits for on-off flickers of hope. No time to doze off.
Sleepless nights bring to light the suffering Malawians are enduring as they line up all night-long for a turn in maize mills that go all day without power.
As lengthy and frequent blackouts dim the country’s fragile economy, The Nation has established that some rural dwellers are spending nights waiting for electricity at the grinding mills.
On Saturday around 10pm, we arrived at Muhiriri Maize Mill in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kasisi in Chikwawa, we found 16 people, three of them men. Bags of maize and sorghum were in a queue, waiting for the return of power.
“I came here around 7am, but there has been no power since last night,” said Ezelesi Stanton, 60.
The woman was depressed, tired of waiting and not sure when power would be back. Still, she had to wait.
“I left my husband and children home. I will wait till power returns. There is no food at home. Since I was born, this is the first time we are spending a night at the maize mill,” he said.
These uncertainties and desperate crowds mirror the gravity of the worsening power shortage as Electricity Generation Company of Malawi (Egenco) only generates just about half the power it needs to keep those connected to keep on-grid supplied.
Some areas go over 24 hours without electricity.
For Eleni Kalavina, from Chikalumpha Village in the remote locality, that was the fourth time this month she had to sacrifice her sleep just to have her maize ground.
On arrival at Muhiriri, the woman and her seven-month baby lay in the open until 11pm, with a thin wrapper covering them.
The baby wept. Only his cry tore the stillness left by the grinding machines that roared no more.
Kalavina, who left her husband and two children home, is convinced the country is sleepwalking into tougher times.
She feels helpless, saying she is safer dead because life could be less dim in the afterlife.
At times, her husband stops her from spending nights at the maize mill.
“He thinks I may be going out with other men, but it isn’t true,” she said.
Around midnight, a man came to where women were resting in search of his wife who left home at daybreak.
“Is my wife here?” he enquired angrily as he edged closer.
Davie Kachiza, 49, from Josamu Village in T/A Katunga, had walked seven kilometres in search of his spouse.
“I have been waiting for her all day. I have been looking for her since 9pm,” he said.
Back home, their children—aged nine and 14—were left alone.
Kachiza urges government to eliminate power challenges facing Malawians because they have the potential to wreck marriages and fuel wife battering.
“I have never slept at a maize mill throughout my life. Is the President [Peter Mutharika] not working closely with the people at Escom [Electricity Supply Commisssion of Malawi]? Why did we have power in all administrations apart from this one,” he wondered.
Village head Zakaliya fears for the well-being of his people.
Zakaliya villagers do not have an alternative, since a diesel-powered maize mill is located 17 kilometres away.
In Thyolo and Ntcheu, people are also spending similar nights of despair.
Joyce Magugu, from T/A Masasa in Ntcheu, wants an end to the power crisis.
As the country faces more dark nights, Egenco warns that the prolonged blackouts will continue until March next year.
The generators, likely to drive up electricity tariffs, represents a costly stop-gap and shift.
President Peter Mutharika made an ambitious promise to end the power problems by next month, but Malawians hit hard by the crisis wish it was gone sooner than later.