At first, the image looked somewhat familiar: Almost five people were standing in the dark, keeping their bags, baskets and boxes at arm’s length as they waited for Chitipa-bound taxis and minibuses.
But the silhouettes illumined by dewy headlamps of approaching vehicles, seen around 4.30am in Karonga, had a twist: five years ago, the ‘Bus Stop’ would have been overcrowded with uncertain travellers.
The upgrading of a winding dusty road solely connecting the town on the northern shoreline of Lake Malawi with Chitipa Boma on the north-western hills has brought good news.
Fish-monger Ellen Mwanyesha calls it “an end to lies and broken promises”. Since the start of self-rule in 1964, promises to tar the road had become a political cliché.
The woman, who vends basketfuls of fish from the continent’s third-largest freshwater lake, neither endures sleepless nights nor wakes up unnecessarily early to get to Chitipa on time.
“In the past, people travelling to Chitipa used to spend all night worrying about dust, bumps, slopes and scarce vehicles on this road,” she said.
For the population in the border zone between Malawi and Zambia, a new era has already begun.
“With the tarmac road constructed by our friends from China, we will be in Chitipa while the fish is fresh. I will be there by the time the market gets back to business at 6am,” said the fish monger when asked about the 97-kilometre Chinese-built road in 2014.
The Karonga-Chitipa Road has significantly reduced time spent on travelling between the two districts along Malawi’s border with Zambia and Tanzania.
The journey, which farcically spanned more than five hours, now takes about 90 minutes.
The locals remember agonies of sleeping in thickly forested slopes of Mutuwang’ombe, Tenenthe and Mzgoka where only unroadworthy vehicles passed.
Following the $70 million upgrade, the the Bingu Highway is straighter, smoother and shorter.
The number of buses is increasing on the landscapes where travellers endured fierce scrambles for overloaded trucks.
In fact, the five travellers suffered no hustle to catch a ride.
Numerous vehicles haul passengers and goods on the new road which symbolises Malawi’s ties with China.
They seemed at ease, certain to catch a minibus or taxi of their choice.
Three were seen waving away an overloaded minibus whose conductor screamed for “just one or two passengers”.
For them, getting to Chitipa is no longer a matter of ifs, what-ifs, buts and maybes.
They only wait because they want to travel safely, in comfort and arrive alive.
“We don’t want to compromise our safety as if this is the only vehicle going to Chitipa. We are well past that desperation,” says Inesi Msukwa, who was going to buy vegetables and fruits at Kapoka, almost 20 kilometres from Chitipa.
She offered flashbacks to the “dark days” when a narrow road dangerously meandered past the hilly stretch.
Then, a 112-kilometre trip sometimes spanned all day. It was not peculiar for travellers to sleep on the way.
“With the bumpy road, Chitipa was going nowhere,” says Fraction Sinyiza in an interview at Mwapu Bridge. “We were left behind, stuck in the dark where we felt excluded from the rest of Malawi.”
A poor transport corridor not only subjected the excluded population, estimated at almost 250 000, to risky and unpredictable travels, but also alienation bred by inequalities.
“We were second-class citizens. We wished we belonged to Zambia or Tanzania nearby. Our country seemed not to care about us until the Chinese came to our rescue,” said Msukwa.
The tarmac road, once hard to imagine, has become a monument of Malawi-China relationship following a switch from 42 years of bilateral ties with Taiwan in 2007.
A roadside campsite, where construction equipment discarded by Chaser Construction Company from Taiwan has been rusting due to disuse since 2008, bears testimony to the sudden goodbye to Taipei.
The shift was confirmed by Joyce Banda, then Minister of Foreign Affairs in January 2008.
Her successor Francis Kasaila terms the Karonga-Chitipa Road a “testimony of true friendship” between Malawi and China.
Said Kasaila: “For some of us who have been on that road before the upgrade, it is difficult not to appreciate the transformation that has taken place. Every day, thousands of people are travelling between Karonga and Chitipa, meaning more money is changing hands and trickling into the economy faster than before.
“The road needed to be upgraded a long time before, but we are grateful to China for supporting the project in the first year of our bilateral relationship which is growing from strength to strength. The road is a symbol of good relationship.”
The footprints of Chinese investment in Malawi include the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) on former president Bingu wa Mutharika’s Ndata Farm in Thyolo.
Others are the Parliament Building, Bingu International Convention Centre, Permont Presidential Hotel, Bingu Stadium, Presidential Villas and Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe.
Kasaila described these facilities as monuments of “a decade of fulfilled promises” and “development partnership without any conditionality”.
“The good news is that the government of China has accomplished all projects in the first phase. We are looking forward to more in the second phase,” he said.
But Sinyiza and locals call the Chinese “friends indeed, saying: “China intervened when we needed the road most.”
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.