The cargo berth of abandoned Chipoka Port in Salima South is buzzing with fat, green blowflies attracted to fresh human waste.
Nearby, children scamper around on the sandy beach, apparently oblivious to the rancid smell that wafts from the wharf and its surroundings.
Here and there, they accidentally pull up plastic bags containing waste buried at night by residents of a densely populated fishing village at the port.
Every part of this facility—where vessels stopped docking years back—has human waste.
Village Head Saidi, whose area of jurisdiction stretches across the port, is worried that the looming rainy season will bring sanitation problems to his people.
“We have had several cholera cases before—even deaths. We use water from the lake, which becomes contaminated when human waste gets washed down there,” Saidi says.
His village lies on a sandy section where locals find it difficult to sustainably construct pit latrines.
The latrines often collapse within days of being put up.
So, Saidi’s subjects turn to whichever place they spot nearby to relieve themselves.
The abandoned maritime facility is a handy venue.
“The filth is just too much but there is nothing we can do. My only prayer is that government and other well-wishers come to our rescue,” Said says while standing a few yards from the port.
Constructing durable and long-lasting latrines will only be possible with considerable amounts of money which villagers in his area cannot afford.
Dwindling fish stocks in the lake means poverty returned to haunt them.
“Then the small businesses that they used to do collapsed after ships stopped docking here.
In those days, trains and trucks could converge here. Business was vibrant,” Saidi recalls.
The port played a key role in moving goods and people to and from the interior of Malawi.
Its collapse led to the loss of livelihoods of thousands of people who could trek there to sell ready-to-eat food, curios and fish.
“When such a big facility is functional, money is there in abundance and we can even construct our own durable toilets. We can manage to buy the required amount of cement and engage experts on the works,” Saidi says.
One of his advisors, Estele Nguluwe, agrees that, on their own, people of the fishing village cannot manage to construct resilient latrines on the sandy shoreline.
She says children even fail to go to school in frantic attempts to earn something for their poor families.
“They go fishing with the hope that they will catch fish, sell it and buy some items needed in their homes. You can’t expect the little money that they make to go into constructing pit latrines.
“We manage to construct the simple ones which, however, collapse in the sands within days. So, the remaining options are places around the port,” Nguluwe narrates.
She hopes a project to revamp Chipoka Port— which is part of the Northern Transport Corridor designed to provide a route for containerised goods shipped on Lake Malawi—will not ignore the plea for latrines.
The large-scale fisheries project is billed to boost the quantity and quality of fish products provided by the country.
“The intervention involves aquaculture farms and processing facilities to add value to fish caught in Lake Malawi,” a note on the initiative says.
Salima District Commissioner Grace Chirwa rolls concerns bordering on sanitation around Chipoka Port back to residents of the fishing village there.
She says committees established to oversee developments at the area are supposed to take leading roles in ensuring the sanitation problems are addressed.
“There is the beach village committee, for instance, which must work hard to ensure there are toilets there,” Chirwa says.
She is equally optimistic that the initiative to revamp the port will not leave residents of Saidi’s village without the necessary social services.
In the meantime, the port’s berth and surrounding places are where they go to relieve themselves.
With the rainy season on the horizon, the threat of sanitation-related infections has become apparent.
“It is something we can’t avoid. We can only avoid it when we have long-lasting and enough toilets. It is painful to be clearly expecting that an infection will strike you,” Saidi says resignedly.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje