From frying pan into the fire: Makanjira’s chronicle
Having read and heard of Makanjira, an area far north of Mangochi Boma, time was ripe for an expedition to the touted Yao land which is seemingly isolated along the calendar lake— Lake Malawi.
On this rainy Friday, in a team of seven other journalists [from my workplace of course] we started off from Mangochi Boma at six o’clock in the morning, just to be there in time and come back the same day. We were on a programme shooting and recording assignment.
Despite being warned about the terrain, since this is the rainy season, we welcomed the challenge to travel on that road.
It is a 101-kilometre encounter with about 93 bridges. Did I say it is a rugged-one-way road? Yes, it is.
This is the case even though President Peter Mutharika promised a tarred road. On October 21 2015, Mutharika said the Mangochi-Makanjira Road was to wear a new face, reportedly after the Chinese government offered to provide a $152 million grant towards its construction.
It is fascinating to note that, along the way, most of the houses we came across are either in a fence or roofed with iron sheets. Are the houses constructed out of proceeds from the fish business? A question to no one in particular came from the back seat of the white minibus we were travelling in.
“Most of the men and youths here might have lived in the Rainbow nation— South Africa. Wherever you see a cluster of houses without any beautiful house, just know that nobody there ever went to South Africa or it is just that the one who is there is unpatriotic,” says Yohane Symon, a Mangochi-based journalist.
Twenty minutes into the journey, an overloaded pick-up-vehicle approached from the opposite direction. On other roads, the rule is ‘give-way’.
Not here: “The drivers here will only give way to somebody they know, not to strangers,” says Symon, who was made to speak all the way to our destination.
There are three or four spots which are extremely dangerous to cross when it rains. I remembered this when we crossed one of the places. History holds that, recently, one vehicle was washed away by water when it rained on the Mozambican side of life and no one in the vehicle survived.
This jiggles me to remember one of the reasons we opted to shoot and record programmes in Makanjira— an area that borders Mozambique.
Talking of the border, the issue continues to court controversy and has become a contentious one among policymakers and a hot Bambara nut to swallow among the people on the Malawian side of life.
The border wrangle started in 2008 when the two countries were involved in a World Bank-funded boundary retracing exercise.
It is reported that new beacons were erected about 11 kilometers into Malawi, swallowing about six villages.
After about four hours of travel, we arrived at Senior Chief Makanjira’s headquarters. Honestly, it was hot, the air was steamy and, obviously, something was being cooked-up upstairs and we accepted to brace for rains.
A group of women, and some girls, had organised some dances with some Yao vibes and were rehearsing. Some elders from the Senior Chiefs’ backyard came out to welcome us.
A moment later, the chief, in a feint stripped dark blown suit, arrived and permitted us to do our work in his area. We split.
Others had to cover the dances at the headquarters. The other team, which I belonged to, immediately left to have a feel of experiences of the people affected by the border wrangle.
That is how we arrived at a road block, mounted by the Malawi Police Service (MPS). They were seeking shelter in a tent. At a safe distance was a grass-thatched toilet-like-structure.
After answering a few questions, we were allowed to proceed with our journey. This is a temporally police unit after the proper block was set on fire by irate people in the area.
“This was because, after the border retracing exercise was conducted, Mozambique swallowed about seven villages and the police roadblock had to move up to Malawi as well. People were angry and felt insecure. Technically, it meant the government had accepted the new border against what history holds. People torched the police unit in a bid to force the officers back to the old border post. Apparently, they have not gone where people wanted them to and they are manning the place you saw them at,” Saidi M’balaka, a resident of Lukono Village, said.
In 2016, the Mozambican government made several demands, including that of moving Chala Police Unit and the border post deep into Malawi.
As we approached Chala Village, M’balaka took us to a place where a new beacon was erected but got destroyed last year by irate people on the Malawi side of the border.
Another local, Mustafu Ahmad of Malemia Village, who seemed to be in his 60s and spoke fluent Yao, claimed that he knew where the old beacons were, and was surprised to find new ones inside Malawi.
“Une masengo gangu gatuga ngonji ku itinji kuulaga nyama. Ndili niche muitinji nachiweni chi bicon kuti aah achichichi, nguchileka. Chaka cha awiri kuchileka, chaka cha atatu achina choletsese mnawu kulaga. Mnawu kwire ntunda okwana 6 inches, chi bicon chila ni chawechete English ku mgongo kwangu nambo chaji chawo, ninagala ku aah ili kwapi indu ikuwechetayi? [I hunt for a living and this other day in the bush I saw a beacon then I did not know what it was. The other year I came across the same beacon. Then the third year I decided to scrutinise it and I dug about six inches deep and I eventually found out that it was an old beacon written in English demarcating Malawi and Mozambique,” he said.
Then we meet another aggrieved community member. This time, it is a woman, Hajira Amidu.
From her account, the misunderstanding has brought fear, tension, misery and hatred between the people of the two nations.
Amidu narrates that those people who have pieces of land in the villages the Mozambicans claim to be theirs are finding it hard to cultivate because they are abused.
“Just last year, one of us was killed in cold blood. Some of us here had our crops destroyed for refusing to abide by the rules of the Mozambican government. We refuse to be called Mozambicans when all along we have been Malawians. We need our government [Malawi] to intervene quickly,” said the 53- year-old woman who has six siblings.
From there, we were warned not to go further to the new border post for fear of meeting Mozambican nationals who could abuse us.
This was a piece of advice offered by one of the civilian police officers who have been deployed to provide security in the area.
Surely, we could not proceed and we were back at the senior chief’s headquarters.
The senior chief said he feels the government is reluctant to sort out the mess in which him and his subjects have fallen into.
“We were living in peace back in the days. Our counterparts had police the other side; we, too, had company. Then came the border retracing exercise, which has left this area and its people in disarray. If we accept the new border I will lose about eleven villages to the Mozambican government. Personally, I have been speaking to the government but nothing much has been done up until one of our own was killed by the Mozambican military. What I would want, and this has been my plea all along, is that the government should take back the police to the old border post as that border post is what we know from history. That way, peace will prevail here,” he said.
Mangochi North Member of Parliament, Benedicto Chambo, said, after he queried the government on the matter, he was told that there would be another re-demarcation exercise soon after the rainy season.
We were cheated on the new border. The border we recognise should be 11 kilometers going into the Mozambican side. In all this, we blame people from the department of surveys who took lead in the retracing exercise. There is a map that they could use or could be their guide but they opted to be led by the Mozambicans when undertaking the exercise. There are beacons which were planted in 1923 which we can show them to validate our claims. We fear if we tolerate this, next time they will come again to start claiming that the lake belongs to them and surely we will lose it,” he said.
Mangochi District Commissioner, Reverend Moses Chimphepo, said talks between the two nations continue on the matter.
But, just when community members are thinking of jumping out of the frying pan, other fires, taking the names of dry spell and the fall armyworm, are here to trouble the people in their own borders.
Over about 51 perfect of maize crops have been wiped out by the phenomenon.
According to one of the agriculture officials in the district, Owen Namalaka, about 6, 000 hectares of land have been abandoned in Makanjira and Namalaka, as crops in there have been destroyed.
In Mpilipili Planning Area, over 4,000 hectares have been affected and the number of hectares are likely to go up as another assessment is underway, according to extension worker Jana Phiri.
Phiri adds that 107 hectares of groundnuts and 89 hectares of peas have also been destroyed. At least 10, 000 farming families may face hunger in Mangochi District.
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