Clocks were ticking closer to midnight when we arrived in Nthalire on July 5. This was no ordinary tick-tock. The chime in the dark marked the ending of a countdown to the 53rd anniversary of Malawi’s independence. The national commemoration of the historic breakaway from Britain was slated for the next day at Bingu International Stadium in Lilongwe where sirens, huge crowds, a brass band, waving flags, military honours and a football match awaited President Peter Mutharika.
There was no pomp and grandeur when the bumpy trip up and down the hills between Chitipa Boma and Nthalire ended. Seven years ago, Mutharika’s brother, former president the late Bingu, replaced the rising sun on the national flag with a full sun to show the country was “transformed beyond recognition”.
But, there was nothing much to smile about the July 6 ceremony after the 115 kilometres (km) rumble in the endless jungles split by the narrow, rocky road with gullies eroding its bumpy finish to pits.
A world in the wild
No fireworks. No jubilation. Just darkness and dejected faces of destitute travellers dimly lit by flickers of open fires.
These people, including the sick and pregnant women, had waited all day for transport to Chitipa where they access health and vital services. But the only minibus likely to free them from the long wait was a rickety one we had overtaken on the slow ride to the hard-to-reach rural growth centre. Chief Nthalire calls it “an island in the middle of nowhere”.
“There is no easy way to get here,” he says. “Ask yourself: what did it take to get here? Is there anything to write home about?”
Not much, except swirling dust, frequent bumps and a rural growth centre stifled by the neglected earth road. At the trading centre, the patient, who had been carried on the back for almost 35km from Mahowe, groaned in pain as there was no vehicle to take her to Chitipa District Hospital, which has just two functional ambulances for a population of almost 230 000. The one meant for Nthalire Health Centre had been recalled to cover the gap.
The minibus would only arrive two hours later, but it was filled with Chitipa-bound passengers who hitched on the way. There was no space for the sick woman and Nthalire Community Day Secondary School students dying to get to home for end-of-term recess. From the fireside, they sighed as the eagerly-awaited bus roared away. As the flames flickered to death, we asked the travellers what all the buzz about independence meant to them.
“A waste of time,” said a granny, in her 70s, who was watching over the sick woman. She asked: “Are we independent? What is independence when we are still in the dark like fire flies as it were when Britain ruled us? What is there to celebrate when many Malawians are still waiting for better roads than we inherited in 1964?”
Born to suffer
The story of wasted decades conforms Nthalire’s unenviable standing as a rough world in the wild-somewhat forsaken and largely excluded. And the stranded students, yawning in the dead of the night, rued growing up in the underdeveloped setting which they reckon does not count in the eyes of leaders of independent Malawi. “We are being punished for being born in the remote locality. We are accustomed to sleeping in the open when the academic term is over. We did not choose to be born here,” bemoaned Jestina Mtambo.
But the long wait was not over yet. The schoolgirls, from Kapirinkhonde, were standing in the sun when we departed Nthalire on Independence Day around 3pm.
“We spent the night in the cold. There were two lorries in the morning, but the driver refused to carry us. He refused to waste space on a K300 trip when those destined for Chitipa are ready to pay K3 500 to K5 000 to Chitipa,” she lamented.
But the transport cost is five times the K1 500 passengers pay on the 93km Karonga-Chitipa tarmac which was worse than Chitipa-Nthalire Road 10 years ago.
Due to scarcity of vehicles, transporters asked the girls from Kapirinkhonde to pay K5 000 for the trip 17 times cheaper. “We have no money. We have been standing here since 4am and we do not know if we will leave before sunset,” said Mary Chakanda.
Weeping no more
These uncertainties, heartbreaks and travel problems also affect traders. A Seventh Day Pastor, praying at the funeral of Traditional Authority Nthalire last week, knelt at the feet of Minister of Transport and Public Works Jappi Mhango in a desperate plea for a better road to unlock the far-flung population. “Think about the people of Nthalire,” the clergyman told the minister, saying he arrived here “looking like a gule wamkulu mask dancer.” His lamentation was the crux of a Facebook post of the Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya.
The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) vice-president and Karonga Nyungwe legislator reckons upgrading the Rumphi-Nthalire-Chitipa earth road to a tarmac would open up the food basket on the border between Malawi and Zambia as well as the postcard tourism attraction that is Nyika National Park.
Acting chief Nthalire says Malawians in the remote locality are speechless with government’s unresponsiveness to their cries for a better road Mutharika and his predecessors repeatedly promised.
“Upgrading the road will open up this area,” said the traditional leader. “We weep no more. We have said all we can say. We have been crying for years. Maybe authorities do not think the road is as important as we think.”
In January last year, the then Minister of Transport and Public Works Francis Kasaila affirmed that government intends to improve the 262km Rumphi-Nyika-Nthalire-Chitipa Road to “bitumen standard” because it is one of the most important roads in the country. It passes through the country’s largest national park atop the stunning Nyika Plateau in the middle of fertile farmlands of Rumphi West and Nthalire. Farmers experience untold hardship to transport their produce to markets.
When Kasaila and Roads Authority (RA) officials travelled nearly a 60km trip from Rumphi to the gates of Nyika at Thazima, he reiterated Mutharika’s promise to tar the road. “We are just waiting for a no-objection from Badea [the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa] who are willing to fund the project. Meanwhile, government will construct the road bit by bit using local resources until we unlock Nthalire and reach Chitipa,” said Kasaila. He now heads the Ministry of Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development.
But only a two-kilometre stub at Bumba on the outskirts of Rumphi has been tarred so far. It would take nearly 131 years to construct the promised 262km at the snail’s pace.
But Mhango, who succeeded Kasaila at the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, urges people along the rutted dusty road not to despair as government finally got the nod from Badea. “We got the no-objection from the financiers and feasibility studies are underway between Rumphi and Nyika. The findings will help the RA come up with designs and costs of the road which will gradually be extended to Nthalire and Chitipa,” said the minister.
According to Mhango, President Peter Mutharika believes good roads are vital to unbolt the economic potential of rural areas. “After the late Bingu wa Mutharika upgraded the Karonga-Chitipa Road with a grant from the Government of China, government moved fast to improve the roads to Misuku and Nthalire to ensure farmers have access to markets for their crops,” he explained.
But the 93km Karonga Road largely benefits roadside communities. Far-off localities, like Nthalire, still endure impoverishing travel setbacks.
Besides, deepening potholes on Chitipa-Nthalire Road, which had its rough finish graded and slippery slopes sealed with a cement layer three years ago, have re-emerged with no maintenance in sight. The road was recently repaired with funding from the World Bank through the Agricultural Sector-wide Approach.
Motorists bemoan frequent breakdowns, rapid wear and tear as well as body aches. “These are not potholes, but drum holes,” said a transporter who hauls tobacco to Lufita Karonga-Chitipa tarmac when asked about the gullies.
Away from the wide tar, it is still hard to transport goods from Nthalire and other rural localities to hotspots where farmers market their produce.
Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn) district coordinator Sidney Simwaka says it is pathetic that Malawians in Nthalire and many rural areas are stuck in preventable poverty because political promises to upgrade the road have become songs and lies.
Said the activist: “Nthalire is an agricultural hotspot with unlimited business potential. It has fertile soils and dedicated farmers, but it will not grow as long as the road remains neglected. Even the rural growth centre is not growing. It has stagnated, with many facilities lying idle.”
Some residents described the rural growth centre, with tarmac roads going nowhere, as a white elephant.
This view is exemplified by a modern bus depot where no passenger vehicle goes while travellers hopelessly wait to hitch minibuses and lorries in the shadow of shops and trees.