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A village lost and forgotten

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The ills that characterise Makaula are many.

From food shortages, lack of potable water to a lack of electricity and from lack of health facility to government neglect, the village has witnessed it all.

Makaula, a forgotten giant of a village tucked beneath the gigantic Mount Mulanje, almost six kilometres away from the district’s headquarters, is a sorry tale of sort. Of course, the village, heaving with its five thousand plus population, lives a life too miserable to tell.

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First, its occupants have had no electricity from time immemorial.

“Electricity is only found at Lauderdale, just three kilometres away,” Village Head (VH) Makaula says. “It’s where we go to mill our maize, to have our hair cut and shave our beards and to buy soft drinks, especially when we get paid at the tea estate. “

The estate in question is Lauderdale Tea Estate. The presence of the estate, admits one resident, Antony Banda, is a blessing and a curse.

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A blessing in a sense that most of the villagers depend on the estate for their survival. The estate employs a chunk of the villagers to work on its plantation. On every fortnight, they receive their wages, and get by.

Then the estate’s bluegum trees are a ‘goldmine’ of sort. The village’s carpenters and cooking-stick makers plunder the resources for their livelihoods. A few unlucky ones are, at times, caught and thrown into police custody. They are just fined, and escape jail, something which never deter would-be offenders.

While the villagers steal trees, and smile all the way to the market, the estate itself mourns its heart out.

“We lose out when these people illegally harvest our trees,” says Gedion Mothisa, Human Resource Manager for Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM) Limited, a largest tea company in Malawi.

“We use these trees in the chain of our production. Depleting our forest means a huge loss to our production and, ultimately, benefit.”

And pressure on the estate resources is bound to increase in the face of a booming population in Makaula and other surrounding villages.

VH Makaula shares EPM’s lament. He himself is a worried man. His subjects are, in his words, an “unthankful” lot.

“My subjects wantonly cut down estate trees, literally biting the estate finger that feeds us. One cannot even defaecates in the water that helps oneself, can you?” Makaula says, cataloguing a litany of projects that the tea company planted in the village. He cites, among others, wooden bridges as a good example of the estate’s part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the community.

That aside, the estate is, at least in the eyes of some villagers, a curse in itself. The ‘land curse’, as the locals put it, is a recurrent grievance. Sixty-year-old Alindiine Thunga recalls how her husband, Lewis, and fellow villagers fought the estate over land some 15 years ago.

“My husband was involved in the land battle, and, unfortunately, I lost him,” mourns Thunga, adding:” But we managed to get back a piece of our ancestral land.”

In 2001, people from Makaula, Ngwezu, Chipoka and Mikundi villages in Traditional Authority Mabuka battled EPM guards in fierce skirmish over land that the locals claimed to be ancestral then. People from Makaula only managed to wrestle 80 hectares from Lauderdale Estate.

Months later, government moved in by resettling peasant farmers from the landless areas into far-flung places such as Machinga and Mangochi under a $28 million World Bank-sponsored project dubbed Kuzigulira Malo Programme. The programme, however, was fraught with trouble. It left the new settlers hopeless and destitute. Certainly, life in the ‘promised land’ was difficult. Challenges of lack of water and other basic amenities were insurmountable. Many settlers, as a result, had returned to their ancestral homes, facing the very old problems which they had escaped from.

And the water problem in Makaula has its roots in the EPM’s history. In 2005, the company pledged to provide potable water to the whole village. Initially, it planted a water tank in the village and laid down pipes from the river source up to the tank. The project, however, stalled much to the surprise of the community. This, of course, gave the village’s vandals advantage to steal the pipes.

According to Rick Tilley, the then Managing Director of EPM, the company abrogated on its obligation because the pipes had been vandalised, a sentiment shared by Mothisa.

“People of Makaula are very difficult to understand….They vandalised all pipes for the project, making our progress difficult,” said Tilley in an interview, adding the company would make its promise good “as soon as possible”.

Several years down the line, no progress has since been made up to date. Tellingly, the estate’s CSR appears unrealistic. But it is not all lies and blame at the estate door.

Four years ago, EPM stretched out its helping hand to the village’s primary school. It provided potable water to the school to ease its school-feeding programme. Here, the company took credit then. And it is still promising to resuscitate the dying project.

“We have not completely abandoned the project. We’re planning to bring it back to life,” stresses Mothisa, a former Mulanje district labour officer.

Mothisa says digging channels remains a key to keep the water project up its feet.

“We’re asking the villagers to re-dig the channels that were buried with the passage of time. Then we’ll come back and fulfill our obligation.”

Communities in Makaula, like elsewhere in Malawi and Africa as a whole, rely on companies for the provision of social welfare because government has so often failed them.

Companies contribute to government taxes, which can in turn be spent on anti-poverty measures.

Makaula is still a tale of despair and frustration. Many, in fact, struggle to get answers to their grievances. Will the answers come from the estate or government?

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