As early as 4am, the honking bells of MV Ilala wake the travellers up in the comfort of their rooms in the ubiquitous lodges doted in the lakeshore district of Nkhata Bay. It is a warning that they should get ready for the 6am trip to the island district of Likoma.
With the wrecked jetty no longer in use, several boats parked at least 10 metres into the opaque red water scramble for the travellers to take them to the giant ship buoyantly standing over 100m into the lake.
Children, women, elderly persons, pregnant mothers and the sick all brave the dirty waters to get to the boats. The courageous ones remove their clothes, remaining with panties fearing to soak their clothes.
With shoes in their hands and luggage tied to their backs, they jump into the wooden vessels sailing precariously in the dirty water to reach the ship. At 6am sharp, the journey begins. It will take no less than four hours to cross the 78 nautical miles stretch.
These hustles will repeat themselves when the ship docks both at Chizumulu and Likoma as both places have no harbours. They will not get one; not in the near future.
“When the Minister of Transport Jappie Mhango came here in December, he promised that government will construct a jetty soon. However, he did not specify when the project would commence,” says Likoma District Council Chairperson Samuel Chithira.
“However, as a community, we started constructing the jetty on our own. At least K6 million was spent on the project but we have dumped it because of the costs. We are told the total costs can go as high as K700 million. So we have halted the project,” said Chithira about the desperate task.
He said the site for the jetty government has promised to construct will change, thus condemning the K6 million down the drain. For the people of Likoma and Chizumulu, water transport remains the lifeline to the mainland where they get most goods and services for their livelihoods – including firewood, vegetables and other foodstuffs. Although the geopolitics and economic dynamics of the two exclaves seem to favour calls for greater investment in the transport sector, there seems to be lack of political will to plant such infrastructure in the district.
“The sight of people crossing the vast stretch of water in unseaworthy vessels is not just a sign of the country’s declining water transport system but failure by authorities to guarantee the rights and livelihood of the cutoff population which relies on the old and tired MV Ilala to keep their lives afloat. The absence of jetties at Likoma, Chizumulu and of late at Nkhata Bay makes their lives even more difficult,” says Patrick Chikoti, a governance educator at National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust in the district.
“At worst, the absence of a jetty represents a blatant form of exclusion of people with disabilities, children, pregnant mothers, the sick and the elderly,” adds Chikoti whose organisation has been conducting interface meetings between duty bearers and the communities during which the latter have been demanding services from the former. It is now 18 years since former president declared Likoma a standalone district in 1999.
For this long period, the people of Likoma, the smallest district in the country – sitting on a meagre 28 square
kilometers – have never known the meaning of justice. Theirs is a makeshift system that gives no hope to the communities.
“The absence of a court house as well as a magistrate means people of Likoma endure a long way to get court services. They have to travel for long hours to get to Nkhata Bay Magistrate’s Court in a quest for justice. This is not acceptable,” says the island’s lone Traditional Authority, (T/A) Mkumpha.
“Sometimes a magistrate comes here from the mainland. But still, this arrangement does not give us hope. We need a magistrate who should be stationed here. In addition, we need a courthouse. Why should we have a district without infrastructure?” said Mkumpha.
Access to justice is one of the pillars of democracy but the locals in Likoma say cases take a long time while others die a natural death as authorities do not seem to take them as a matter of urgency.
“Those of us who cannot afford the cost of travel and lodging in Nkhata Bay often terminate the cases prematurely and lose confidence in the justice delivery system,” says Malani Kayemba, a fisherman at Chizumulu.
Mid 2016, station officer for Likoma Police Chikwezayani Makwati says the absence of judicial services on the island has made the work of the police irrelevant, saying it does not give hope to the people.
“With the absence of the court, our work as police does not give hope to the people. We are equally affected as police. It costs between K100 000 to K150 000 to handle one case as the suspect, witnesses and the prosecuting team have to travel to Nkhata Bay where the nearest court is. They will need transport, food and accommodation. The return trip will depend on the availability of the ship. And in the event of adjournment of cases, the costs are even higher. So we are equally affected and we plead that we should have our own magistrate this side,” says Makwati.
“This is a human rights issue because as police we may sometimes keep suspects longer than the required 48 hours before they are taken to court because of transport problems and also availability of fund,” Makwati says.
According to District Social Welfare Annie Mwagomba, the absence of judicial services is a step backwards regarding the administration of social welfare services. Cases involving children are not being reported as parents have no zeal to do so since they know that the cases will take very long to be handled and that it is expensive to travel to the mainland.
To most of the locals interviewed, it is not only a case of justice delayed or justice denied but also the rule of law going up in smoke as responsible office bearers look on with an indifferent eye.
“We, as Nice, have been conducting interface meetings to give the communities here a voice so that they challenge the prevailing culture of silence and inaction on a matter that requires the majority on the mainland to standby inalienable rights of a well-known minority that is the island’s population,” Chikoti says.
“Responsible authorities should look into these issues with a sober mind. Likoma, just like any other district, needs to have the right infrastructure and all the relevant and quality services that are needed.”
With a population of about 16,000 people most of which depend on fishing, declining fish stocks threatens the livelihood of the island population.
The majority of Likoma population relies heavily on fisheries resources for their survival. The fisheries sector plays a major role in poverty reduction through the provision of rural employment and more importantly through its contribution to household food security.
Socio-economically, the fisheries sector provides employment opportunities to over 3,000 people engaged in fishing, processing, marketing, fish gear construction, boat building and other ancillary activities.
However, the council, through its District Development Plan (DDP) 2014-2019 acknowledges that there is a decrease of fish stocks in the district.
According to the DDP, Likoma is also challenged by undeveloped tourism potential, low council revenue, food insecurity, poor road network, poor sanitation in beaches and increased number of orphans due to HIV and Aids.
There are also high formal unemployment rate among the youth, lack of banking services and vocational training centres. Largely, the district also lacks infrastructure to house the offices of various government departments available in the district. Chizumulu Island is completely cut off from the conventional mobile phone network.
“We have a very ambitious plan as a council to reduce some of these challenges. Everything is reflected in the DDP. However, issues of revenue threaten the implementation and achievement our plans,” Chithira says.
The council is expected to spend at least K1.02 billion to implement its plans. However, with only two years before the expiry of the plan, there is too little to show on the ground that gives hope to the island population except for the petitions the seemingly empowered communities have sent to authorities demanding the crucial services like the judiciary.
“We will continue to give people a platform so that they should demand what rightfully belong to them. With transformative civic education, we hope the change will be there. Already we have seen some areas are improving. Duty bearers are becoming more responsive when engaged by the communities. We only have to capitalise on that because when people realise their role in development, everything works,” Chikoti says.
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