It is market day at Mphompha, an area some 30 kilometres east of Rumphi Town largely inhabited by smallholder farmers.
The market’s patrons are confident they will meet their targets at the gathering that comes every Friday. Second-hand clothes dominate the exchange.
Residents speak highly of the area as a food basket of potatoes, legumes, plantains, fruits and vegetables.
Traders travel from Mzuzu, Karonga and Rumphi towns to sell their merchandise and, in turn, buy the agricultural produce on their way back.
The area, apparently, was also once a vibrant grower of coffee and has the potential of producing the high-value macadamia nuts and wheat.
But the 17-kilometre stretch from Thumbi, a road connecting to the main one to Mphompha, erodes the area’s economic potential.
Watson Chirwa, a transporter who ferries businesspeople from Mphompha to Rumphi Town every Friday, rues the road’s poor condition which often worsens during the rainy season.
“Transport fares rise because of the condition of the road. In fact, driving on the road is a risky venture; if you are not careful, you may damage your vehicle,” Chirwa says.
On our way to Mphompha, we found some vehicles stuck in muddy heaps while a lorry had tipped over to the side of the road.
Chirwa believes constructing a new road would highly motivate farmers who seek better markets but fail to access them due to the road’s condition.
One such farmer is Fikani Khonje, who grows beans, irish potatoes and maize. He is worried that vendors take advantage of the condition of the road to reap off farmers who can hardly transport their produce on their own.
Khonje invested over K350,000 in beans farming alone but his instincts are already telling him he will not be able to reap according to the toil.
“The alternative is to take the produce to Rumphi Town even though prices are not that better there. We just grow crops because it is our tradition. Our area is rich in soil nutrients and commercial farming even at large scale is possible,” Khonje says.
The poor condition of the road to Mphompha hits hard the area’s health centre, as well.
Kumbukani Kasiyamaliro, a Senior Medical Assistant, who is also in charge of the facility, recounts a litany of challenges workers there face.
“Sometimes, when we have serious cases that need to be referred to Rumphi District Hospital, a patient would take up to eight hours to reach the hospital. This is often the case during the rainy season.
“Our ambulance is grounded, so we have to call for one from Rumphi District Hospital, hence prolonging the delays,” Kasiyamaliro states.
Travellers would spend just 40 minutes from Mphompha to Rumphi District Hospital if the road was in good condition.
But the road’s condition is not the only cause of worry for Kasiyamaliro when it comes to patients’ welfare.
The health centre that he oversees has one ward only which is shared by male and female patients, thereby compromising their privacy.
“Newly born babies are also at risk of contracting infections because the room is shared with adults and not fully conducive for babies’ welfare,” Kasiyamaliro says.
Mphompha Area Development Committee chairperson, Kingsley Kondowe, does not understand why the area is sidelined in many aspects of social and economic development.
Kondowe’s sentiments are shared by Sub-Traditional Authority Chivwenene who is pleading with the government to uplift the livelihoods of his subjects.
“What we need is an upgraded road. Once that is done, the area will be opened up to the rest of the country. Development will easily follow,” the chief says.
Member of Parliament for the area, MacDowel Mkandawire disclosed that he approached the Roads Authority to upgrade the road and that the response has been positive.
Mkandawire adds that on the list is also the Phwezi- Uzumara Road which was equally brought to the attention of the Roads Authority.
On the Clinic issue the Rumphi Central lawmaker said they will use the next chunk of money in the Constituency Development Fund to build another ward to ease congestion and privacy challenges.
In the meantime, the challenges abound and the affected locals are unwilling to smile at promises. They are not new to them and, they say, only concrete action will invite their acclaim.