Some places are uniquely hot while others are cold. Their respective weathers and climates become the emblems that ultimately define them.
Others still have one inimitable, particular thematic narrative that describes the essence of life there.
But Neno – bordering Blantyre, Mwanza, Ntcheu and Balaka – draws different superlative descriptions: a mixture of pride and repulsion, all bundling themselves on top of a place which once belonged to another.
When former president Bakili Muluzi declared the mountainous area a district 12 years ago, effectively detaching it from Mwanza, the publicised rationale was quickly disproved through actions.
And up to now, Neno remains the only mainland district without a tarmac road – with dust rolling and settling on every structure at its main administrative centre, and vehicles stuck in muddy ruts during the rainy season.
And the people in this place sometimes have feelings rated at both extremes: some are happy that they found themselves here while others persistently frown at fate for ‘dumping’ them in a district which they argue is still searching for a redeemer.
“Life is a bit cheaper here if you compare with other so-called advanced districts. I am saying life is cheaper because I am looking at the basic needs, especially food. Most people here are farmers, so prices of farm produce are a bit cheaper,” says Mathews Chikho, a civil servant at Neno Boma.
He, however, contends that groceries, garments and other processed materials are expensive because they are mostly purchased in bulks from Blantyre which is more than 100 kilometres away.
“The two main roads from Neno to the M1 road to Blantyre are in pathetic conditions. The terrain is very uneven, very mountainous, and the roads are not tarmacked. So most transporters shun them and a few that use them charge exorbitant fares,” adds Chikho.
He, however, sees in what others describe as a backward society a blessing in disguise – a kind of beauty safely tucked in simplicity.
Chikho says just like any other place in the world, Neno has its own tides, billowing at a moderate rate that does not destroy human life, even though they continuously threaten it.
At the district’s main administrative centre, government and other public structures – some constructed just recently – are covered in dust, some even surrounded by bushes, occupied by officers who are adamant about their calling.
Other buildings, which were reportedly constructed during the colonial era, are falling apart but they are still being used to offer social services to Neno’s citizens who continue struggling to equal other mildly-attractive parts of the country.
One prominent structure which was constructed during the colonial era and now houses a nursery school and a youth organisation has cracks all over, part of its roof blown away – generally a monstrosity that must have reached the end of its usefulness decades ago.
A teacher at the nursery school says the building was once used as a police station before it was turned into a hospital, but now – even though it is home to two institutions, its outlook is that of an x-marked structure awaiting demolition.
“We are teaching the kids in this structure because we are passionate about their education. We know it isn’t fit enough, but we will soon be moving out,” says the teacher, adding that the proprietor of the school is a businessman who does not care much about the institution.
Another teacher at the same school argues that they continue working even though they receive peanuts and use a dilapidated structure because they need to earn something with which to feed their families.
“Imagine we arrive here very early in the morning, sometimes at 5 o’clock because we also clean the surroundings and the classroom apart from teaching. We stay very far away and we always start off around 4am,” complains the teacher.
And the kids themselves, buoyed by the determination of their teachers, respond with satisfied vigour when greeted.
However, their voices are marred by persistent coughs and sneezes due to the dust from a road nearby which easily finds its way into the classroom through the cracked doors and windows.
Their teachers are worried that after the structure is finally
demolished by Partners in Health, who acquired the site on which they intend to construct a proper building,
pupils will have difficulties finding preparatory education elsewhere.
And the demolition is apparently set to start taking place very soon.
Some two hundred metres away from the falling structure is Neno District Hospital which was constructed recently and is yet to be officially opened.
The health facility itself has its own share of mixed fortunes. It suffers underutilisation, low staff morale and challenges in effecting referrals to the nearest tertiary facility, Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre.
Patients from far-flung places often nurse their ailments at home, taking unapproved drug dosages, certifying themselves fit afterapparently being cured, quietly and slowly pinching off their lives.
All this is because of the district’s poor road network.
Neno District Health Officer (DHO) Stanley Mwalwanda, whose concern over the poor road network is echoed by DC Memory Montello, says thepoor conditions of the district’s roads further exact a heavy toll onambulances.
“We incur a lot of costs in maintaining the ambulances which easilybreak down, and most of them are grounded, especially during the rainy season. We really need help from government,” says Mwalwanda.
According to the DHO, the condition of Neno, which makes it practically detached from its neighbouring districts, further demoralises hospital personnel.
He says: “When people are posted here, only one out of five remains in the district because it is like a neglected district. Since its establishment [as a district] we have never had any tarmac road. Even staff houses are very few.”
And Chikho, who has been in Neno for more than 5 years, claims that in the midst of its underdevelopment, the district’s citizens could bethe freest in Malawi.
“We don’t worry much about insecurity here. Perhaps we have nothing that robbers can target. Maybe they are afraid they will be caught easily due to the poor road network,” says Chikho.
“Well, we need development just like anyone else. The truth is there is no joy in poverty whatsoever. There is no satisfaction in being stuck in the past.”
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