It is like watching a Vietnam War movie; the narrow strip of planks laid out over a gorge overlooking dangerous looking waters. The bridges in Vietnam movies are dangerous and usually the only way. Now transfer that Vietnam-Cambodia scene to the heart of Malawiâ€™s capital, Lilongwe. Bright Mhango gives us the real picture
In Vietnam movies, the bridge would be a scene of some serious gun battles, in Lilongwe the bridges are manned by young men who are not looking for Americans, but collecting fares from anyone who crosses the bridge.
Yes, there are private bridgesâ€¦with banners loudly announcing in red paint: â€œPrivate Bridge, K15 No Staff.â€
Each person going to cross the bridge coughs K15 to a boy who sits with an old soap carton sliced in half. There are hundreds of assorted coins and bank notes carelessly crammed into the carton.
A soldier stopped to pay; while a bouncer stopped to part with his K15. The only person that did not pay during the two or three hours I spent there was a mentally challenged woman. She was in song, ignored the fee collector and galloped past the bridge without bothering about the notice or being bothered by the bridge owners.
In the annals of Lilongwe, two minutes walk from the biggest shopping mall in the city, there lies a market which has been dubbed Lizulu Market because it principally sells agricultural produce and hence reminiscent of Ntcheuâ€™s popular Lizulu market, where almost every crop is perennially available.
Standing on the edge of Lizulu Market, one faces Tsoka Market which has clothes, hardware and other assorted items. These two are basically one market, only that Lilongwe River separates them.
Without the bridge, for one to commute from Lizulu to Tsoka market, they have to go round Shoprite area, past the town hall, and pass over the public bridge before branching into the market again. This takes a good 20 or 25 minutes for an average walker.
It is a case of hard place and a rock for most customers; either they go round or use the bridge.Â Jameson Chibwe took his concern to Facebook saying: â€œPlease, please, please, may the Lilongwe City Assembly consider us, we are being extorted and we may one day fall into the water.â€
Steven Gwazani, 35, a calm and approachable sturdy young man whose body build has just passed the athletic point, claims he started the whole idea of private bridges.
He sits five metres away from where his employee collects money from bridge users, possibly watching in case the boy is sending some cash to the wrong pocket.
â€œIt was in the year 2005 when the City Assembly had just chased us from vending in the streets. I tried selling Irish potatoes but it just could not work. I tried setting up a private toilet, but that too could not work.
â€œThen I saw an opportunity, people from Tsoka market could not interact with those from Lizulu market. So, I went into the water to test the current and then put logs across it. People were stepping on the logs and making it across. But it was not safe. So I saved some money and bought planks to construct this bridge,â€ said Gwazani.
A few friends copied Gwazaniâ€™s idea and built their own bridges. After nine were built, all within a space of 100 metres, the bridge owners formed a committee that barred newcomers.
Gwazani played down the accusation that the bridges rip people off. He said their initial motive was to connect the two markets.
â€œThose selling clothes and hardware at Tsoka Market need to buy potatoes from this market and they need this bridge. Again there is lots of parking space here, so people going to Tsoka market park here because these bridges make the route very short. This is more than a bridge,â€ said Gwazani.
Each year, when the rains come, the bridge is washed away and thus has to be rebuilt when the rains start to die down.
The bridge is a mass of planks laid on poles and nailed together to form quite an impressive feature for a makeshift structure. It stands up to six if not 10 metres high. A chest-high railing is available to assure the passers that they will not fall over.
Ten people, some carrying heavy luggage file along the narrow bridge, but it does not move one bit. Much to the advantage of Gwazani who boasts that despite peopleâ€™s fears, there has never been an accident on his bridge or any of the private bridges.
â€œAfter all, the one that is collecting fares there acts as a life guard in case something happens,â€ said Gwazani.
Sitting by the bridge and counting the number of people, it is easy to see that there are big moneys being made. In 10 minutes, more than 30 people have passed through the bridge. But still Gwazani insists he does not cart home a big load of money.
Gwazani says there are nine shareholders in the bridge investments. Each of them has to get a share at the end of the day and the fee collector also has to get something.
â€œOf course, if I say that I fail to buy a packet of sugar, I would be lying. But then, the money is not big. Sometimes I can go home with about K700,â€ said Gwazani.
With a wife and two kids, Gwazani also has another business going at the market, but it is easy to see that he spends more time near his bridge. Apparently, the bridge is his biggest earner.
Lilongwe City Council, through its spokesperson Tamara Chafunya, admitted that it is aware of the bridges between the two markets. She said they are actually illegal owing to their weak and makeshift nature.
â€œThe City Council realises this and there are plans to build a stronger and safer bridge, but that can only happen when funding is available,â€ said Chafunya.
She said people using the private bridges are doing it at their own risk as the Council has a bridge next to the Town Hall which people can use.
Gwazani said the question of the City Council deeming the bridges illegal does not arise unless they step up and provide a bridge for people to use.
â€œLet them provide a bridge first, people were struggling here. We provided a bridge and to declare it illegal is just inhuman,â€ said Gwazani.
Gwazani bemoaned the spirit of jealousy among Malawians, saying they tend to copy other peopleâ€™s ideas or are quick to point at other peopleâ€™s mistakes and setbacks.
He claimed that he inputs a whopping K200 000 to rebuild the bridges after they are washed away by rains. He literally counted the poles, the planks, the nails and the labour.
He also complained about the behaviour of some law enforcers who use their uniform to cross the bridge without paying. He said he doesnâ€™t confront them for fear of being targeted; after all he doesnâ€™t pay tax for his unregistered investment. He, however, said some are very humane and pay like everyone else.
Gwazani said for those that are new to Lilongwe or are broke, they are always allowed to pass after all, he said, the bridgeâ€™s initial goals were to help people. He vehemently shook his head when asked about allegations that people who donâ€™t have money to pay are assaulted when they cross the bridge.
The fare was raised from K10 to K15 per passage per person. As much as people frown and post angry status updates of Facebook about it, the fact remains that Gwazani and company saw an opportunity and cultivated it. The anger, the money and the impending eviction will only serve as the returns on the investment.
Asked what the â€œNo Staffâ€ in his banner means, he said it means that even the shareholders have to pay.
People actually own bridges in public spaces and charge to use themâ€¦only in Lilongwe.