When construction works started on the Thabwa-Fatima Road in 2018, people of the Shire River’s East Bank in Nsanje and Chikwawa were excited; But now they feel sad as floods pose a threat to delay its progress.
By now they think much more should have been done. So far two bridges standing over Nkhate and Livunzu are nearly complete.
This 60-kilometre (km) road starts at the foot of Chikwawa mountains on the M1 Road where Thabwa Trading Centre lies. It branches to the left, down to Fatima in Nsanje passing through Mapelera, Nkhate, Livunzu, Kambenje and Mitondo.
Upon reaching Thabwa from Blantyre, immediately kabaza (motorcycle taxi) operators come in sight, either roaming helplessly or waiting for people going to the East Bank. Occasionally, minibuses or matola park on the roadside, especially in the morning and late afternoon.
They are better forms of transport compared to kabaza, according to people. They say travelling by car is cheaper than kabaza.
From Fatima to Blantyre it costs K5 500 on a minibus while on kabaza the cost is K5 000 to Thabwa.
Twenty-five-year-old Piro Chikalo, from Fatima in Nsanje, commutes weekly to Blantyre to buy bales of second hand clothes for his kaunjika business in Fatima.
“The high transport costs affect us; we don’t realise much profit as we don’t overcharge our customers,” he explains.
Chikalo has no choice on the form of transport to use. Minibuses and matola are too few to meet the demand on the road. So, he just goes for any form of transport available, notwithstanding the costs.
A teacher at Mitondo Primary School, Joyce Mapira, prays for the road construction project to end quickly as she says she is tired of paying high travel costs.
“During rainy season, we pay higher than the dry season as the road almost becomes impassable. I had to spend K10 000 from Blantyre to Mitondo on kabaza during the week of the floods because no vehicles could move on the road,” she says.
The lack of a good road has also got some farmers from the East Bank worried as the cost of transporting their farm produce is high.
“I have always wanted to take my rice to Blantyre myself, but every time I think about transport, I just sell it to vendors here,” complains one farmer from Fatima.
Apart from farmers, business people trading in fish from Blantyre are singing the same song.
The Shire River in Nsanje is home to makakana and catfish among other species which are caught all year round. So, vendors from Blantyre travel on the road to places such as Fatima and Makhanga to buy the fish.
“During rainy season, we sometimes spend days trapped in Fatima with our fish. We can only wish the construction works to end soon,” says Leman Chiwaya, a vendor from Makata Market in Blantyre.
Since 2016, the construction works have included upgrading the road up to Mitondo, putting up low-lying concrete slabs over some rivers and two bridges on Nkhate and Livunzu.
Yet, once completed, this will be one of the most enjoyable roads. From Thabwa the road rolls on gentle terrain, all the way down to Fatima.
It also passes through a land of beautiful scenery. The perennial rivers descending green mountain ranges of Thyolo in the east dissect the rivers, flowing down to the mighty Shire away in the west.
Most importantly however, the new road will cut travelling hours. Now it is two and a half hours on a kabaza and two hours on minibus or matola.
Former Mitondo South Ward councillor Manik Ganet thinks the road is unnecessarily taking too long to finish because the construction works started three years ago.
“We want the road completed soon because mobility is difficult. For instance, people from Mitondo have to travel 26 km to Fatima or another 26 to Livunzu on foot to a health centre.
“If the road wears tar, there will be minibuses, making travelling easier,” he says.
The health centres grapple with transport challenges when they refer sick people to Chikwawa District Hospital, 49 km away from Mitondo.
Chikwawa East former legislator Rodrick Khumbanyiwa is equally worried with the slow progress.
“The absence of a good road has made people pay more on transport. I expect the road to be completed faster,” he says.
But the East Bank Road is not the only one whose progress is too slow for some people’s liking. Roads Authority (RA) in a press statement released on April 7 listed 16 roads including the Thabwa-Fatima Road whose construction work is still ongoing.
The authority says the rehabilitation of this road is being implemented in phases.
“Phase 1 is part of the Malawi Flood Emergency Recovery Project (MFERP) under World Bank Funding,” reads the statement in part.
However, the progress will be undermined by floods that washed away some culverts and bridges.
This draw back worries Minister of Transport and Public Works Jappie Mhango who said repairing the damaged infrastructure on the road will cost a lot. n