A boat trip from Monkey Bay Port to Mbvunguti, an isolated community of about 6 000 inhabitants some 20 kilometres (11 nautical miles) on the western part of Lake Malawi’s southern-most tip is a tricky one, especially for first-time travellers.
Just two to three kilometres from the shore, the hitherto serene waters of the lake suddenly turn violent, the waves rising high, then low, hitting the side of the boat with a ferocious resolve as the boat engine raves to tear apart or surmount the tendons of the angry waters.
“In 1993, a boat carrying 54 people sank around that place. All the people, except one woman perished and their bodies have never been found,” quips one elderly man almost half-way through the trip as he points at a turbulent spot filled with swirling waters between the lake and a huge rock jutting out of a hill bordering the waters.
“That place is very deep!” The unsolicited comment melts some hearts as seen on some of the faces of the travellers.
As the waves well from the “dangerous spot”, the boat is pushed up, then thrust down.
Sometimes it darts furtively forward against the onslaught of a high wave as if to hit back in revenge, then it recapitulates and retreats following a sudden thrust backwards against the push of the engine. Hearts melt again.
This persists for 30 to 40 minutes before rising smoke and human movements on the western side of the lake rekindle the hope of reaching the shore in one piece.
And suddenly, the water becomes serene again as the visitors dock on Mbvungunti Beach in Monkey Bay Constituency in Mangochi. A sigh of relief.
Happy faces of jubilant youth greet boat-loads of travellers as they make their way out of the cold lake waters.
However, looking at the celebrating faces, one gets the feeling that visitors, especially government officials, rarely visit the area.
To make matters worse, the first person one greets and attempts to strike a conversation with bares it all: Mbvunguti is an abandoned place with no public school, no hospital, no mobile phone network, no gardens. Not even a graveyard to bury the dead. Nothing.
The only practical mode of transport are commercial engine boats that ply their trade between Monkey Bay and Mbvunguti.
However, few people who loathe travelling on water endure a more-than-one-and-half-hours walk through deserted mountainous jungle adjacent to Lake Malawi.
“When one of us is sick, we take them by boat to Monkey Bay Health Centre for treatment. There is no hospital here. The situation becomes tricky when it is a pregnant woman, an accident or any other serious illness,” narrates village head (VH) Kankuta, adding that in such a situation, the patient’s family is forced to hire a boat to transport them to the mainland for treatment.
However, she says an Islamic organisation, Mehbub, sends health personnel every Monday to Mbvunguti to treat people.
Kankuta adds: “If a patient we took to Monkey Bay Health Centre dies, we bring the dead body here for funeral rites after which we take the body back to the mainland at Monkey Bay for burial. There is no grave here.”
The VH also says junior primary school learners in the area go to Mulungu Apatsa Private Junior Primary School where they learn for free.
“A public full primary school is located at Zambo [another isolated place along the lake about 10 kilometres away], in this same village. But for secondary school education, leaners from here, Zambo and Chizale, have to go to Monkey Bay,” she adds.
Kankuta further says the inhabitants of the area are longing for the day the area will have mobile network to allow them to make calls to the outside world and to use mobile money services.
“When one wants to make a call, one has to climb the nearby hill to hunt for the network. That’s one of the biggest problems we have here,” she says.
Commenting on the history of the area, Kankuta says the Lake Malawi waters in the area were once infested with a lot of fish, especially in the 1960s.
She adds: “So, fishers from different places such as Usisya, Nkhata Bay, the Central Region and other parts of the Southern Region came here to fish.
“Later, the fishers started docking here, erected shacks and that is how this village came into being.”
The traditional leader also says different cultures and languages such as Chichewa, Yao, Tumbuka and Tonga are spoken in the area.
She stresses with a voice full of emotion: “What we want here is a public hospital. That is our greatest need.
“Apart from that, we need electricity and mobile phone network. We have suffered enough!”
A 21-year old young man Custom Kawowa says growing up in the marooned community is a painful experience.
“Life is tough here. People depend on the lake as the sole source of their livelihood, so when there is no fish in the lake, we suffer a lot. What pains me a lot is that most households do not have enough food to eat since there are no gardens here and we buy all the food we eat.
“What I remember most growing up here is the pain of hunger. We wish we had gardens here to supplement what we get from fishing,” says the Form Four self-boarding student at Eagles Private Secondary School at Monkey Bay.
Ray of hope
However, a ray of hope has finally appeared on the horizon for people in the community, at least as far as mobile phone communication and electricity are concerned.
Mbvunguti has been earmarked to benefit from government-funded Last Mile Rural Connectivity Project that will see 136 towers erected in areas that have no network across the country.
In the 2018-19 and 2019-20 financial years, government allocated $5 million (approximately K3.7 billion) and $1.3m (about K949m), respectively for the project.
So far, 28 towers have been erected and 15 were already on air as of mid-June 2020 using total funding for the two fiscal years.
“Through this project, government wants to ensure that areas where our mobile network providers, TNM and Airtel, may not be there to provide towers, we should come in so that we construct these towers for them to come in to set up their equipment for the people to benefit,” said Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mark Botomani when he visited Mbvunguti earlier this month to launch the project.
Botomani, Minister of Transport and Public Works, who is also Mangochi Monkey Bay legislator Ralph Jooma and Minister of Lands Kamlepo Kalua went down Mbvunguti book of records as the first Cabinet ministers to have ever visited the deserted fishing community where no head of State has ever set foot.
Said Jooma: “People here are fishers and when their relatives go out to fish and they have got challenges there, or when the weather has changed, they have to communicate to their friends at home.
“It has always been difficult, we have lost lives without knowing and sometimes we may not know where the people who went fishing ended up. Sometimes they go to the other side of the lake without us here knowing.
“So, with the coming of this network, people will be communicating to their relatives and the rest of the world. This network will help a lot in the economic development of the people of this community.”
Senior Chief Nankumba hailed government for the project, saying Mbvunguti will no longer be the same.
“Through the connectivity project, this area will be connected to the rest of the world. It heralds development. I thank government for the initiative,” he said.
The boat trip back to Monkey Bay is less dreadful, especially to people who knew nothing about a whole generation marooned in an isolated community along Lake Malawi.
As the duel between the boat resumes, fear of the ferocious waves is replaced with anger, remorse and frustration.
The mind is so preoccupied with hopelessness and before one knows it, the captain announces arrival at Monkey Bay Port. Phew! Back to civilisation.