Maria James cried out loud in excruciating pain. She was in labour for two days, with no medical attention on an overloaded dinghy boat that had no life jackets on board.
“I thought I was going to die. It was the worst two days of my life as I was lifted onto a canoe with a tiny little head of my child between my legs,” she said, narrating her ordeal to Nation On Sunday.
James said there was only room for standing in the weighed down boat and no one, not even children, was wearing a life jacket, a risky proposition on a part of the lake known to be stormy and rough during the rainy season.
Maria made it but her child did not. The small boat was the only transport available on an eight-hour journey from Likoma Island to the mainland where she was rushing to give birth because her pregnancy had serious complications.
This was around September last year, she recalled.
Today, Maria, 17, still has scars of her near death experience. She has recto-vaginal fistula—a condition in which a woman passes urine and faeces through the vagina caused by long and obstructed labour.
“No one wants to eat with me or eat the food I cook because I smell and I fear my husband may leave me,” she said, in intermittent sobs.
But thanks to UNFPA, Maria’s condition could have been worse. She managed to undergo two surgeries in Thyolo and Mangochi.
Nation on Sunday tracked down a clinical officer who on two occasions worked with doctors brought in by UNFPA and tried to repair her condition.
“Many women in Malawi suffer from this condition and I remember Maria James because her condition was so bad. She came with two other women from Likoma,” said Alex Sembo, a clinical officer at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital.
“We repaired the other two with no problems, but failed with Maria during the first surgery because her vaginal tissues were so bad. We did a second repair and she is now a bit okay but not fully recovered,’’ said Sembo.
Maria’s sad experience provides insights into what happens when a government fails to address basic needs of the people. It also brings to the fore untold stories of the suffering of the island people of Chizumulu and Likoma since the MV Ilala, their only reliable mode of transport, was withdrawn for repairs in June 2012.
Her ordeal brings to light a safety hazard that is being ignored as the sick, the old and children jump into any boat they can find in desperation to reach the mainland for food and access to health and education.
Likoma Island sits with its companion Chizumulu in the north of Lake Malawi surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters.
The two islands, with a combined population of about 16 000, have for the past one year been denied access to health facilities, education and food and the result has been devastating on the population.
Angry with what is happening, concerned people who come from the islands, but live in Lilongwe and Blantyre, formed a group to push government for immediate intervention.
“The people of the islands are now facing myriads of problems like [Aids] patients no longer having access to ARV drugs. Medical referral cases, including safe motherhood, to the mainland hospitals cannot be done and at present there is no maize on the islands and there is no ship to transport the maize,” said Reverend Michael Mkoko, an Anglican priest who is chairperson of the group.
He said they wrote the Ministry of Transport on October 8 2012 on their plight but nothing concrete has come up apart from the Secretary for Transport detailing the progress on maintenance of the ship.
“On October 10 2012, we met [officials from] the Office of the President and Cabinet [OPC] and again nothing came up and we are now tired. On November 18 2012, we sought audience with the President, but there has been no response to-date,” he said.
“We want to plead with Her Excellency for an immediate solution to this precarious problem at hand before loss of lives and property. The situation is no different from those the government declares time and again as “disaster” to mainland areas and government resources are pulled out from all sources to save the lives of the affected people.
“Why should people from Likoma and Chizumulu Islands be treated differently?” the group said in one of the letters to OPC.
District commissioner for the islands, Charles Mwawembe, sums up the situation when he says the situation is dire.
“The islands have no drugs, no food despite our efforts to make sure that this is addressed. On Tuesday this week, we lost about 280 bags of maize destined for the islands when the boat lost its engines.
“We offer services to the people of the Island as a government, but we have been failing when we want referral interventions at the mainland and this has compromised us, and led to some preventable deaths,” he said.
Mwawembe told Nation on Sunday in a telephone interview that the bags of maize that sank were meant for the people who have run out of food.
“We had the first consignment of 750 metric tons from Admarc in Nkhata Bay delivered in December to run up to January when our expectation was that maintenance works on the MV Ilala would be completed,” he said.
But, he said, that was not the case.
“These are the issues that are compromising our livelihoods and people have the right to start complaining because they are so desperate,” said Mwawembe.
But he said he was optimistic that the situation will improve soon.
Mwawembe said last week he checked on the MV Ilala and was assured that the ship should be ready by end of March or early April.
“We have not abandoned them,” was what Deputy Minister of Transport Chimango Mughogho said yesterday when asked why government has not moved in quickly to help the islanders.
“This ship has never undergone full service since the 1950s and for more than 60 years it has only been going for minor service. This time around we thought that it needed full attention and taking out of the whole engine…the maintenance is almost complete,” she said.
The minister said government provided some small boats as alternative transport between the mainland and the islands, but admitted that people have been overloading them, raising the possibility of loss of life on the lake.
This is good news to the group that is desperately seeking intervention to save the lives of many pregnant mothers who should not lose a child like Maria did and become another statistic, in a country where 16 women die every day from preventable pregnancy related complications said to be the second highest in Africa after war torn Sierra Leone.