Citizens empowered to take authorities to task


By Isaac Salima:

Nkula is a classic Malawian village.

Houses topped with brown grass thatches and some isolated corrugated iron-roofed ones dot the rural community in Machinga District.


But veiled behind the typical village outlook of Nkula are social amenities which most Malawian communities lack.

Here, there is a hospital, a school and a market, among other shared structures.

“It is because we have people who demand these services,” Edson White, chairperson of Nkula Village Development Committee, says.


He reckons that life had all along been tough when it came to accessing essential services until 2021.

“This area had no properly built primary school and learners used to walk long distances to access education.

“Feeling sorry for them, we erected makeshift grass-thatched structures at Mdikira Junior Primary School where learners used to access education from Standard One to Standard Four,” White explains.

The environment was still not conducive for learning; so, some learners were moved to another nearby structure while two classes remained at the temporary building.

Now the learners are fully accommodated at the primary school which offers lessons from Standard One to Standard Six.

In 2021, Development Communications Trust (DCT), with funding from Oxfam Malawi, came up with a project on demanding access to information in the area.

A radio listening club was established in the project through which community members engage duty-bearers on development initiatives.

“After getting tired of not getting concrete answers on the school project, we mobilised ourselves and went to the District Education Office because DCT had equipped us with knowledge on demanding information from duty bearers,” chairperson of the club Rodrick Saulos says.

The action resulted in additional blocks being constructed at the school.

“We are waiting for other blocks to be constructed so that the school can become a full primary,” Saulos says.

The community members also moved their duty-bearers on the condition of Mdikira Bridge in the area which was reportedly causing serious mobility challenges.

The initial bridge was made of timber and the structure become unusable when the planks got rotten.

“People have lost their lives after falling from the bridge into the river. So when we took the matter to the Roads Authority in July 2021, they told us to wait for some time and a month later construction works began,” Saulos says.

The community members from the area are some of the beneficiaries of the project that DCT and Oxfam have been implementing in 10 districts across the country.

The project seeks to empower the locals to use the Access to Information law to have their concerns on how development activities are being implemented addressed.

Oxfam Malawi Project Manager Frank Zoto hails the radio listening clubs for taking duty-bearers to task on issues that affect people in the areas.

“We understand that community members are sometimes afraid to ask their duty-bearers on the progress of various development activities. That is why we came up with this project so that they get to know that they have a right to access information from them,” Zoto says.

He adds that duty-bearers have now been welcoming community members whenever they seek information.

“The law is new and both the citizens and authorities are not conversant with it. However, we are happy with the responsiveness from both of them,” Zoto says.

While people in Machinga have had some of their concerns addressed, it is a different case at Chitekesa in Phalombe where community members have been in the dark on construction works of a health centre.

The works for the new facility started in 2010 but it is yet to be opened despite that everything is finished.

Chairperson for Bona Village Development Committee, where the health centre is, Eda Mapweremwe, claims the council has never engaged locals in the project.

“We just saw the project starting but we were not consulted. We do have action plans for different projects to be implemented but we were surprised that this project commenced without our involvement,” Mapweremwe says.

Chairperson of Chitekesa Radio Listening Club Davie Liphali says community members in the area have since written Phalombe District Council officials to provide details on the project and what is causing delays to open the facility.

“We would like them to tell us how much money was pumped into the project and all information about it. The new facility looks substandard and we would like them to explain why this is the case,” Liphali says.

Phalombe District Council Director of Planning and Development Eric Kenamu said the council has always ensured that issues of public interest are communicated to all the concerned people.

“All development initiatives are communicated to the communities through their representatives at the full council. At the full council, the community is represented by members of Parliament, councillors, traditional leaders and interest groups,” Kenamu says.

He admits that the health centre is of substandard quality and that the contractor has been engaged on the same.

The Access to Information Act has been in operation since 2020, allowing citizens in the country to access information which is in custody of public and relevant private bodies.

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