Banished to the edge of a forest

POWERLESS—Mgwede (right) and Mapiko

In Traditional Authority (T/A) Chitekwere in Lilongwe Rural, two villages, once mighty, lie side by side, now shrivelled into anxiety, fear and hunger. People there are nursing hopelessness.

Mapiko and Mgwede villagers are unable to put off their sad faces even when strangers visit them.

Their great grandparents originally came from another area in the same district and settled in the two villages during World War I.


Now they have been chased to a small spot outside Thuma Forest Reserve after their safety was constantly under threat and because that is where they can easily access wild tubers that make their daily meals.

For two consecutive years, they have failed to till their fields and grow crops; thus, there is no single grain in their granaries.

There is no reliable water source in their neighbourhood. The nearest well is unprotected and unsafe, but that is still their source of hope.


These people further spend hours sneaking in and out of the electric-fenced forest reserve to dig up tubers, locally known as mpama, which they cook and eat like cassava.

On lucky days, so they say, they have different meals of banana roots which they first dry in the sun, pound and cook to make porridge.

Children in the two villages do not go to school while men move in groups for their safety. Some of them sometimes go to bed on empty stomachs and their miserable appearances attest to the fact.

It all started in 2017 when two villages they share boundaries with turned against them and demanded that they vacate the areas they had occupied.

“They called us foreigners. After two years of verbal battles, the situation turned violent. One day in 2019, men from the two villages descended on us, demolished our houses and physically assaulted us,” says Village Head Mapiko.

“They also snatched our belongings including livestock. The situation was tense and we ran for our lives and spent a night in the forest. Luckily, no one was attacked by wild animals,” he adds.

Since that day, some people from the two villages have been living outside the forest while others, mostly those who just came to marry there, escaped and left their families behind.

Despite settling close to what can still be called their land, they are unable to work in their fields. If they attempt to do that, they are beaten up, their hoes are confiscated and sometimes they are even physically attacked.

“Life is tough. We don’t have food; we can’t work and we can’t send our children to school. We have been reporting this matter to authorities who have turned a blind eye to our plight,” Mapiko laments.

Village Head Mgwede chips in: “We are surviving on wild tubers.”

According to the villagers, a man who refused to vacate his house when the rest of the victims were being driven out of their homes in 2019 lost his life. He was attacked at night and died days later.

“One day, I was working in my field when a group of men from the other villages came. They beat me up. I got hacked in the arm in the process, but I managed to escape,” narrates 50-year-old Bamusi Kachisale.

He is among men who are living with scars from the fierce battle of people who had lived together in harmony for a century.

“When our children try to go to school, they are turned back or beaten up by men from the other two villages,” Kachisale says.

Even now, when their enemies decide to descend on them again, Mgwede and Mapiko villagers seek refuge in the protected forest.

For some, marriages have crumbled because of the crisis as men leave behind their families while seeking to pursue their livelihoods elsewhere.

“My husband left me with my five children. I am struggling to feed them every day when I cannot work in my gardens,” says Margareta Mulenga, 39.

At the time of the interview, around 3 in the afternoon, her children had not eaten anything since morning. She hoped to get some wild tubers from the forest later that afternoon.

The two villages had close to a thousand inhabitants. The attacks have shrunk the number to about 250 after some of them fled.

Even persistent reports to T/A Chitekwere, Nathenje Police Station and the District Commissioner (DC) have failed to yield anything positive.

The victims have even thought of presenting themselves to Dzaleka Refugee Camp, believing they would be accommodated there.

T/A Chitekwere says, after a careful analysis of the situation, he reached the conclusion that the villagers who had been attacked should have their rights protected.

“I made a decision that the two villages should be given back their land but the village heads in neighbouring areas ignored my verdict. They are arrogant. I presented the matter to the DC,” he says.

Our efforts to cross into the other villages were blocked by ad hoc barriers made up of huge rocks and logs.

The phone numbers of the village heads that stand accused could not get us through to speak to them while authorities at Nathenje Police Station referred us to the DC.

Lilongwe DC Lawford Palani acknowledged receiving information about the matter but indicated that he invited all concerned parties, with the accused villagers failing to turn up.

He said there was a time some of the accused villagers were arrested and brought before the court where they were handed jail sentences only to be released in a bid to decongest prisons as a preventive measure against the Covid pandemic.

Apparently, the pardoned convicts went back to their old ways of chasing the villagers who had been forced to the edge of Thuma Forest Reserve.

Palani says land officers from the council visited the villages and that his office has engaged lawyers on how best to resolve the wrangle which has made some people homeless in their own country.

“It is sad to note that people from the affected villages do not use their fields. They will be stricken by hunger; they will not have food because their neighbours chose to chase them from where they were living,” Palani states.

Meanwhile, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director, Michael Kaiyatsa has called on the government and the Malawi Police Service to swiftly take action and rescue the suffering villagers.

“The matter needs urgent attention. People’s lives are at risk because they are not able to farm and harvest food. They are starving and these are clear human rights violations,” Kaiyatsa says.

He further challenges the government to find solutions to land wrangles that have been reported in other parts of the country including Nkhata Bay and Dedza, where villagers descended on their neighbours who they accused of being strangers.

For Mulenga and other villagers who have been pushed to the edge of Thuma Forest Reserve, nothing short of a place where they can peacefully sleep is going to put their minds at ease again.

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