At 85, Maxen Kagone Njaiko still retains vivid images of a place that was swarming with traders, workers and travellers when he left Malawi Railways about 45 years ago.
Every time he strolls into what remains of Nsanje Train Station, Njaiko wonders whether that was really supposed to be the place’s end.
It is strewn with pulled-up sleepers and rails, rusty bogies fenced with termite mounds and houses built on rail tracks.
Some buildings—which used to serve as warehouses, offices and homes for railway workers—are occupied by locals who have lived there since the late 1990s when the train finally stopped gliding up and down this place.
“It is sad that a once vibrant system has been run down to this level,” says Njaiko, whose house is a few yards outside of the station’s premises, on the western banks of the Shire River.
Having joined Malawi Railways—formerly Nyasaland Railways—eight years before the country gained its independence from colonial rule, Njaiko witnessed gradual improvements in the structure which he feels should have produced one of the best railway systems in the region.
As a locomotive clerk, he was in charge of dozens of workers whose job was shoving chunks of coal into the train’s firebox. That was before diesel engines took over.
“Nsanje Station was a busy place. Many locals were employed here. Some were in charge of the rail track, maintaining and rehabilitating it, while others were in charge of the trains themselves,” Njaiko recalls.
He insists that the system was so well-thought-out that traders and travellers got the best treatment and received the best service ever.
Now, staring at the dilapidated structures which he says bear an incredible history of the Southern Region district, he does not fully understand why such an efficient transport system would be left to perish in that fashion.
“It has left people of Nsanje in poverty. It was a big shock to learn that the train would no longer be coming here. That was over 20 years ago,” Njaiko says.
His frustrations are shared with another resident of the district, John Goba, whose house is planted just a few feet from a looted rail track.
Goba claims people invaded the abandoned station after government authorities gave them such permission on the settlement that it was still a public place that would be claimed back any time.
“Others occupied the houses to help in maintaining them. The unoccupied houses are more tumbled down than the occupied ones,” he argues, hesitant to promise that he would accept to leave the place without compensation if the government decides to rehabilitate the railway line.
Yet that process is reportedly in the pipeline with a target that ,by September this year, the system must be reformed and up-and-running.
A group of men are combing through the ruins at the station and throughout the track that spans from Marka on Nsanje’s southernmost stretch to Bangula, another place which had a vibrant train station.
In the searing heat of the Shire Valley district, the men manually unravel the steel sleepers, rails, plates and bolts to clear the way for revamping a system that was apparently messed up by politicians seeking to create business for their cargo trucks.
Nsanje District Commissioner Medson Matchaya deplores the railway system’s wasted years.
He reckons that, during the line’s heydays, the district council used to generate a lot of revenue through various avenues.
“Business was obviously vibrant and traders were paying market fees. The council’s guest houses at Nsanje Town Centre and Bangula also generated money apart from the warehouse. Many people were also employed in these places,” Matchaya says.
He also discloses that having grown up in Nsanje—which is his home district and where he has returned to head the government system—he saw that during the train’s time, travellers hardly ever opted for public road transport.
“Farm produce such as cotton went out to places like Blantyre while fruits came here from Thyolo. Farmers made good profits because transport was cheaper,” Matchaya says.
According to Matchaya, the train, which Njaiko brags had facilities such as toilets and bathrooms, was also a convenient mode of transport as some of its stations were in villages where travellers lived.
Today, even the small stations lie in dereliction, with only the concrete seats built in passengers’ waiting bays surviving the elements and vandalism.
And, in the meantime, locals, who have all along been damning the interruption of rail transport in Nsanje, do not want to immediately start celebrating that the line will be back in business again, even after hearing such sentiments from President Lazarus Chakwera himself.
They heard Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika inform the world that they would restore the railway system across the country. The three leaders did not.
“[This time] government is serious about revamping the railway system. On December 30, we convened an emergency full council meeting where Ministry of Transport officials sensitised the council to issues about the project,” Matchaya says.
Apparently, Malawi and Mozambique have agreed that the latter will rehabilitate 45 kilometres on its side, with Malawi taking it up from Marka to Bangula in the first phase of the project.
Matchaya states that the first phase will bring everything back to life, even before the next phase, from Bangula upwards, kicks off.
However, Njaiko and Goba adamantly refuse to immediately celebrate the news. They say they can only hope that the promises will not gradually get cast off in the mist of time.
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