Former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika once said a good road network is the backbone of national development.
People of Chitipa District totally agree with this line of thinking, especially when they use the 102-kilometre newly-constructed road that connects Karonga to Chitipa, fondly known as the Bingu Highway.
It was a blessing for the people of Chitipa to have the tarmac road after the Chinese government pumped in over K10 billion for its completion. This came after the Taiwanese government abandoned the project following a diplomatic row with Malawi.
Travelling between the two districts takes about two hours, assuming one is travelling at the speed of 50 kilometres per hour.
Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwaulambia is full of praise for the road, and acknowledges the positive role the road plays in the day-to-day activities of the people there.
“We are farmers who depend on selling our produce in Karonga District. Before the road was constructed, we used to spend two days on the road in the course of travelling between the two districts. Now travel has been made easy, so much that we eat fresh fish from Karonga,” Mwaulambia said.
However, despite some people from Chitipa and Karonga praising the government for constructing the tarmac road, some people in the area have serious reservations on its durability and its adverse impact on their lives.
They are aware that poor road conditions such as pot holes and faulty designs can be the cause of car damage or even pose the threat of injuries to drivers.
Indeed, a visit to the road reveals that, four years after the road was handed over to the Government of Malawi, it has developed many pot holes.
I personally counted the pot holes and discovered that the 22-kilometre stretch constructed by the Taiwanese government has holes.
I met Thoka Siyani, one of the minibus drivers, who plies his trade on the Bingu Highway.
He said it is a nightmare to use the road as it is in bad shape and prone to accidents.
“The road is badly designed. Pot holes are everywhere. Driving on the road is at owner’s risk; otherwise, you can find yourself in one of the pot holes. The road looks like it was constructed many years ago. You cannot believe that it was constructed four years ago.
“The dangerous thing is that the road is prone to accidents,” Siyani said.
But Chitipa police has its own version.
Chitipa police spokesperson, Gabriel Simwaka, said frequent accidents that occur on the road cannot be attributed to pot holes but reckless driving.
“The accidents are caused by the reckless driving of some drivers. They forget that the road belongs to everybody. It is not about pot holes. Therefore, our advice is that drivers should drive safely on the road,” Simwaka said.
But some local people in Karonga are convinced that the road was poorly designed.
Kampbel Kaponda stays at Karonga Boma but frequents Chitipa using the same road.
“We have the Karonga-Songwe Border Road, which was constructed by the Bakili Muluzi administration; it is intact. If anything, the Karonga-Songwe Border Road has minor problems. We have Karonga-Chitimba-Mzuzu Road, constructed during the Kamuzu Banda regime; it is still stronger than Bingu Highway,” Kaponda said.
Kaponda’s sentiments were echoed by Karonga Youth for Justice and Development Executive Director, Steve Simsokwe, who believes that the Karonga-Chitipa Road has a short life span.
“We questioned its durability before the contractors completed the works. But we were given the label of people who were against the Democratic Progressive Party administration. Look now; the road is not strong and pot holes are everywhere. What does that mean?” Simsokwe queried.
Efforts to speak to National Construction Industry Council (NCIC) Chief Executive Officer, Linda Phiri, proved futile
Meanwhile, Councillor for Zambwe Ward in Chitipa, Newton Sibale, has said the government should admit that the road is in bad shape and needs urgent attention.
“We ask the government to start maintaining the road; otherwise, it is prone to accidents due to numerous pot holes. We are saying this because this road is a source of development in Chitipa District,” Sibale said.
But Mwaulambia said traditional leaders have already reported the matter to the Minister of Transport and Public Works.
However, responsible Minister Jappie Mhango said Malawians should not concentrate on the current problems but challenges which the people were facing before the road was upgraded to bitumen.
“We know about the pot holes but what we can say is that all big roads such as Bingu Highway have their own contractors, who conduct some maintenance for a period of one year. Therefore, the Chitipa Road has a contractor who is working on it,” Mhango says.
All in all, people from Chitipa still doubt the durability of the 102-kilometre stretch of road.
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