It is 10am in Balaka town and women are scrambling to fill their buckets at a public tap sticking out of a brick fence. “Madzi ndi Moyo,” reads the writing on the wall. Yes, water is life.
The women queuing for water have grown up hearing this slogan, but water has become scarce since Mpira Dam run dry seven months ago.
Taps dried up in June weeks before the closure of the depleted dam, affecting almost 50 000 people in Balaka and Ntcheu.
Now, many people rely on unpredictable rations from Southern Region Water Board bowsers and boreholes where laying a hand on just 10 litres is survival of the fittest.
“When the bowser arrives, it vanishes in no time—leaving multitudes without water in their homes. The worst hit are poor people who cannot afford bottled water,” says Elifa Mwale, a mother of three.
Balaka residents feel government’s response has been scanty and slow.
But the overcrowded tap near Balaka Market is a well of hope in the middle of despair. It exemplifies how one businessperson has taken it upon himself to ensure every person has safe water as the crisis pushes desperate families towards polluted wells and streams which expose them to the risk of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
Many call him Mr Fourways after his two maize mills, but his friends say he is Patrick Simon.
The man drilled deep wells and installed electric pumps which push water to the tap sticking out of the fence.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us had Mr Fourways not intervened using his personal money,” says Anita Phiri, filling her bucket.
Her family comprises five people. Every day, they have to do with just two or three bucketfuls instead of six or seven.
“The situation was worse before the Good Samaritan stepped in. Those who could not stand the scrambles in public boreholes—which are few, far apart and overcrowded—were spending days without water, ” says Phiri.
Water prices in private residences have skyrocketed to K200 per bucket. This means 15 to 20 litres is selling at the same cost as a 300-millilitre bottle on the shelf.
“It’s amazing this man is giving us free water at a time wealthy people are cashing in on growing desperation,” says Yohane Likoyo.
Women and girls mostly bear the brunt of the water crisis. They usually wake up as early as 2am to search for water.
To them, Mr Fourways is “a good man” in a town struggling with the worst water crisis.
Filling up a stack of five buckets in the queue, Fatima Pitala says: “I’ve never experienced such a crisis since I arrived in Balaka in 1978. May God bless the good man who is sacrificing a lot to supply water to the needy.
“At first, we thought he wanted to contest as a member of Parliament in May Tripartite Elections, but he has not expressed any interest.
When we phoned Mr Fourways, he declined the interview “because I’m not doing this for fame”.
We passed through his wife, posing to be business clients. Only then did we get a brief peek into the 40-year-old man behind five taps in Balaka town.
Refusing to divulge his name, he stated: “I am not doing this for personal glory, but I don’t want women to suffer degrading experiences. Dear Malawians, we need to love each other and realise that wealth is nothing without helping those in need. I don’t have much, but I can’t enjoy riches while my neighbours are experiencing hardships I can help solve.”
What can Malawians learn from his contribution to strengthen the town’s resilience to the water crisis?
He pauses for a minute as if the phone is cut.
When the voice returns, he is candid: “When people are suffering, we need to act swiftly to lessen their plight.
“I don’t have any political ambition and I will never join politics. One doesn’t have to join politics to assist those in need. Where we can help, let’s help.”
His friends described Fourways’ gift of giving as inborn. According to them, he has five siblings and he assisted them in attaining education, maize mills, vehicles and homes.
One of them said: “Our friend pays over K300 000 in his mission to provide water where it is needed most. Recently, Escom disconnected power in his home, but no single public tap stopped providing water due to unpaid bills.
“In a way, he is telling us: I cannot sleep in peace if people in my community live without water.’ This is the reason he is talk of the town.”
But what would life in the aided communities be without Fourways’ taps?
Tamara Phiri, who has lived in Balaka for 18 years, hazards a guess.
Washing a heap of clothes at a public borehole, the mother of eight stated: “We would be wasting the whole day searching for water. Currently, I wake up around 2am to go to the water point only to fill up five hours later, depending on the length of the lines.”
“Its survival of the fittest. Some families, especially those with cars, bring 30 or 40 buckets and stack them in the queue. When their turn comes, they fill all of them without consideration for the person at the tail of the line. Children go to school late and adults go to work late. It is not easy.” n