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Cry beloved Shire River

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By Foster Benjamin:

HENRY— I look forward to the day the sky will open its floodgates
again

On the face of it, Chikwawa District’s ex-boat rider Henry Divason is enjoying life in the village.

The truth is that the 60-year-old, who is the subject of Village Head Masanduko, Traditional Authority Ngowe, is not.

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Henry, as he prefers to be called, sits gloomily under the shade of a jacaranda tree.

In his work-suit, labelled ‘Unalonga’, the ex-boatman really cuts a lonely figure.

He is not happy with life presently. He does not like life without a canoe, which he used for errands on the Shire River.

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Memories of those days are as fresh as ever.

“Those were the good, old days when the Shire River gave me life,” he says, his face lighting up in a broad smile.

“I was a real man, well-off by the village standards,” he pauses, looking ahead as if looking at the river, which flows less than eight kilometres away.

The years were between 1980 and 1992. The scene was the Shire River. The actor was Henry himself. And, in that cast, he played his role well, sticking to the script of life.

In those days, he used to make a fortune out of other peoples’ desperation. Ferrying villagers across Shire wash is only occupation.

Of course, he claims, he was not harsh when it came to charging.

“I charged 20 tambala to take people from one side of the river to the other. But, when the river swelled, I would charge as high as 30 or 40 tambala per head,” he says.

At the time, the Shire River was in full swing. Henry, who made a canoe by carving out a tree trunk, says he could not dare getting one from village canoe-makers.

“If you buy a canoe from a dishonest trader, you end up dating crocodiles. Your canoe, really, becomes a ‘canteen’ for crocodiles,” he says.

However, crocodile attacks hardly spared Henry in his career, which spanned 12 years. He had a couple of such attacks.

At one time, he recalls, three fierce reptiles pounced on him and two clients.

“The boat capsized and I fought hard, rescuing my clients from the jaws of the hungry crocodiles,” Henry reminisces bitterly.

But, in 1992, Henry’s life across the Shire River took an unexpected turn.

Some people diverted part of the Shire River, where he used to ply his trade, and the water s receded, virtually edging Henry out of business.

Worse still, climate change added more salt to Henry’s wound.

The river was slowly drying up. It is hard to dispute this fact.

In fact, climate change has taken a toll on Malawi’s biggest river.

Two decades on, ex-boatman Henry abandoned his boat and opted for the hoe. He points out that his entry into farming in 2001 was greeted as both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing as he got enough food to feed his family. On the other hand, it was a curse since he had had unsatisfactory harvests, over the years. Prolonged dry spells and the fall armyworm are to blame.

Facing all this, Henry looks up to the skies for an answer.

“I look forward to the day when the sky opens its floodgates again,” he says, “our crops will be resuscitated; my boat business will bounce back to life since the Shire River will be bursting its banks…I really look forward to day it (the Shire River) will relive its past, nurturing my way of living,” Henry says.

Nobody knows when that day will come.

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