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Lake Malawi’s grounds where people fish trouble, everyday

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Sixty-eight-year old Kusala Bonongwe has been a resident of Chauma fishing area since 1985 but he has never drunk clean water. Yet, when you ask him the three things his area needs the most, a borehole may not make it first on list of the things because there are many which they need.

As most people across the country are grappling for the scarce precious liquid, people of Chauma Island have always had it in abundance.

But amidst plenty of water, for decades now, people of Chauma have been longing for boreholes to supply them with clean water until they resigned to fate; they are now used to drinking unclean or untreated water.

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Situated on the coast of Lake Malawi in north east of Nkhotakota, Chauma Island is a fishing area boasting a population of about 1500 people who came from different places and engaged in fishing as their main economic activity. It is the place deprived of almost all basic amenities. A dart of eyes in all corners of the area will not catch a hospital building, a borehole, not even a market.

The other side is the lake expanse that faces shacks which house the people.

“Fishing is what is in my blood and I have to live here to fish so that I can take care of my family,” said Bonongwe when asked how he copes with life at the area.

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“We drink water from the lake,” he said. “We also bath in the same lake,”

In short, Bonongwe said that everything that requires water is done in the lake. The lake offers the people reliable source of water and they don’t mind whether the water is clean or not.

“No one has ever thought of drilling a borehole in this area so we have to drink water which is available for us. We know that the water is not clean but what else can we do? We have no choice,” said Loyda Banda, another resident in the area.

Lack of clean water is just one of the myriad problems people living in most fishing communities are subjected to. Our recent visit to Nkhotakota took us to Kachere, Liwaladzi, Chauma and Msamala where people who are engaged in fishing and farming made their permanent homes. In all the areas, living standards are very pathetic, save for the fact that the people are able to eke out a living through fishing and farming.

Poor sanitation is an instant greeting when one steps a foot in the areas as open defecation is rampant due to lack of toilet facilities. For instance, at Chauma, no household has a toilet.

“We relieve ourselves in the bush,” said Willy Onayika, a deputy village headman for the area.

However, according to Onayika the challenge is the type of soil which is sandy thus making the construction of pit-latrines difficult.

“One needs good money to erect a concrete pit-latrine that can withstand the deeply sandy soils failing which the toilet collapses,” he said.

Unlike other places, open defecation is never a shame among Chauma residents and other fishing areas alike. Unfortunately during rainy season, running water sweeps the waste materials into the lake, consequently infecting the same water they take untreated.

The communities are always vulnerable to waterborne diseases like cholera and diarrhoea. And when they get sick, they have to walk long distances to access medical care while in some isolated areas like Msamala, the journey to the hospital is through canoes.

“Our nearest hospital is Nkhunga [Health Centre] which is situated almost 30 kilometres from here so you can see that it is not easy to go to the hospital,” said Arnold Mbendera from Msamala area.

Apart from clean water and medical care challenges, lack of schools is another animal haunting the future of young minds. Among all the five communities we toured, it is only Chauma which has a primary school but the facility is as good as nothing.

The school which has two blocks, offers education up to standard six with only one volunteer teaching 150 students.

“It is not easy for a single teacher to teach 150 learners. Pupils come in shifts and for classes 1 and 2, I combine them,” said the teacher, Moses Chimato who is qualified and has been volunteering to teach the helpless learners as he awaits government posting.

Chimato who has been teaching for the whole of last term admitted that he could not finish syllabuses for most of the subjects due to heavy workload.

Village Headman Kayola said teachers who are sent to the area do not withstand pathetic living standards and often abandon the place.

“There is need to construct teachers’ houses because teachers who are posted here are reluctant to stay in the shacks,” said the chief.

While pupils at Chauma have at least half a loaf of bread by having a Junior Primary school, children in other communities have never seen the walls of a classroom. Young children cannot manage to walk long distances to schools and the immediate option is to join their parents in fishing and farming as they wait to get into marriage.

Village Head Chigodi from Msamala said children have to walk a distance of about 30 kilometres to a nearest school which is not easy for very young pupils.

“Children reach marriage age without going to school. Most people who were born here cannot read and write because they didn’t go to school,” said Chigodi.

“We struggle to access almost everything here. Our efforts to ask government to provide us with at least a school and hospital have for years yielded nothing,” he said.

Chimgodi said though they lead a pathetic life, they cannot leave the area.

“We are here for farming and fishing so if we leave this area where will we go? What are we going to eat?” the chief questioned.

As different organisations have made interventions in improving living standards of local Malawians and government introducing a number of development activities aimed at responding to community social needs, most farming and fishing communities remain isolated.

Ernest Maganga, Programs Officer for Hygiene Village Project in Nkhotakota, an organisation that has been fostering issues of hygiene in villages, said the organisation is aware of poor hygienic conditions in such communities.

“We have reached out to these communities and we set up committees with a task of making sure that issues of sanitation are observed,” said Maganga.

He said his organisation does not offer financial support for the construction of latrines but only provides advice on how communities can use technological latrines suitable for particular communities like in areas whose topography is sandy.

For his part, Member of Parliament for Nkhotakota North Frank Mphande promised to do everything possible to meet the needs of the communities so that they can leave a happy life.

“It will be a gradual process to address their challenges with limited resources but it is better to take time than never. These are Malawians and they should not be isolated because of their geographical location,” he said.

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