Makhanga, a food basket in Nsanje, remains cut off two years after floods destroyed roads and railway infrastructure in the Lower Shire Valley.
The setback is slowing down their rise from the impoverishing effects of the January 2015 disaster.
“People are sliding into abject poverty. Businesses are collapsing,” says Mlolo Area Development Committee (ADC) chairperson Hastings Tembo,
The locals struggle to transport potatoes, fish, maize and other goods to Blantyre, Thyolo, Mulanje and beyond.
“Transport costs are rising. We no longer profit from our toil since the railway and the earth road to East Bank were washed away,” he says.
Makhanga became “an island” when Ruo River burst its banks at Osiyana Village and flooded Chuluchamkango on the way to Shire River.
Then, the East Bank Road was already bumpy and neglected. However, the floods further damaged the earth road, pushing travel costs up.
Farmers say they are being ripped off by vendors from Blantyre, Thyolo and Mulanje who buy farm produce at low prices.
“We sell our produce at a loss, but the vendors say it is not cheap to transport goods from here,” says Tembo.
With time, the business hotspot near the confluence of Ruo and Shire has become a ghost trading centre.
Farmers and agribusiness community are being reduced to begging.
“Many are discarding farming due to poor prices,” says Karim Kansima, explaining: “Others have abandoned irrigation farming. Despite high cost of inputs, there is no gain,” says the farmer.
Poverty is deepening in the area with fertile wetlands and crop fields.
The damaged transport system and shifting of the river have left incomes and livelihood falling.
Aida Kumizinga, a member of a safe motherhood committee, says pregnant women and critical patients are dying of treatable diseases because Makhanga Health Centre rarely receives basic medical supplies.
“Since 2015, the health centre has been struggling to provide vital services. Most drugs and medical supplies arrive at the riverbank at night. They wait for canoes until the next morning. This gives room to theft,” she says.
Group village head (GVH) Kalonga says nearly all patients are referred to Trinity Mission Hospital at Fatima, which is costly for the poor.
“Transport costs are already high, but they get higher when pregnant women and patients need emergency care at night. We pay K6 000 to get to the river, K1 000 to hire a canoe to the other side and another K6 000 to Fatima,” said the traditional leader.
At the Catholic-owned hospital, patients have to foot medical bills.
Before the river changed its course, they used to pay K1 000 for the 30-kilometre trip to and from Fatima.
Now, it is worth up to K18 000 if one uses bicycle or motorcycle taxis.
Education is equally hit as schools in the rural setting have no up-to-date books and learning materials.
Ruo River marks the border between Malawi and Mozambique.
Rocks and debris chocked the river, forcing it to change course.
In Mwanavumbe Village, where the original course has run dry, Light Dinala, says Malawians live in fear of unrest and nightly raids as Mozambicans easily hop in to steal livestock and other movable goods.
“The floods destroyed the boundary which kept us safe during the civil war in Mozambique. Now, they walk in at will and steal livestock and other goods,” he says.
There is no police unit and officers in sight.
Security is in the hands of community members with no training and arms to stop armed invaders and robbers, locals say.
“When our cattle, goats and horses cross to Mozambican side, they are detained until we pay K60 000 per animal,” says Tembo.
He admittedly paid K120 000 to redeem his cows. n