Living dangerously in Malawi’s slums


At least 2.7 million Malawians live in cities of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Zomba. This has piled pressure on land and compromised city planning, as evidenced by the haphazard way of constructing houses in residential areas. FESTON MALEKEZO explains, in this Friday Shaker, how illegal settlements fuel natural disasters.

Emmanuel Kambalame has no plans of building a better, durable and standard house, despite that his is prone to collapsing, especially in the rainy season.

He stays in Mzuzu’s densely populated area of Masasa Township, where houses stand strong by sheer grace during the rainy season.


This is due to its hilly topography and poor planning of the houses, among other reasons.

“I got this piece of land through our chief and built the house in the early 2000s. It has collapsed partially thrice, if I am not mistaken. The most recent incident happened last year,” he said.

“I have not lost any family member to such incidents, despite sustaining injuries and losing property to hailstorms and rains that have been destroying my house.”


Kambalame, who relocated to Mzuzu from the Central Region to promote his small firewood business, cited poverty as one of the factors that have prevented him from building a resilient house.

“The space I have is very small to enable me to develop the house into a stronger one. If I will have money someday, I will just build a fence around the house to block strong winds and running water that come from uphill,” he said.

Just like Mzuzu, Blantyre has its own sad story. A 2013 Malawi National Urban Profile by the United Nations (UN)-Habitat indicated that over 65 percent of the city’s population lived in informal settlements, which occupy 23 percent of the city’s land.

Residents heavily affected by population boom include those from Ndirande, Bangwe, Mbayani, Chilobwe and Chirimba townships.

Late last year, Catherine Ngwaya nearly lost everything to nature after heavy rains and strong winds blew off her house at Goliyo, one of the locations in Ndirande Township.

Kambalame and Ngwaya are among people who have built houses in undesignated locations in the country’s cities.

For instance, according to the recent Population and Housing Census, population density for Blantyre is 3,328 persons per square kilometre (km), up from 2,698 in 2008, followed by Zomba at 2,511 persons per square km, up from 1,949. Lilongwe has 2,453, rising from 1,660, whereas that of Mzuzu has risen from 874 to 1,516 persons per square km from 874.

The census results indicate that all the cities have registered a sharp increase in population densities between the year 2008 and 2018.

This could explain the slapdash construction of houses in the country’s towns and cities.

Over 60 percent of Mzuzu’s population lives in unplanned settlements, despite that the city has a planning department.

But how does the city explain the current scenario, where houses are built willy-nilly in the city’s towns?

“It is true that, in some locations, houses are not built according to plan,” Mzuzu City Council (MCC) spokesperson, Macdonald Gondwe, said.

“We have areas such as Masasa in Mchengautuwa. Usually, this is because some people illegally develop structures and do not consult the council on what they are supposed to do.”

Gondwe said the council promotes responsible and sustainable development in the city, adding that developers are supposed to go through council officials before erecting a structure.

“The other problem is the issue of multiple landlords. We have cases where local leaders [block leaders] sell land to residents and, usually, such people don’t consult us, resulting in the construction of substandard structures or even construction of structures that are not in line with city development plans,” he said.

One of the local leaders for Chibavi Township— another densely populated area under MCC—block leader Mwahenga, said they follow procedures when allocating pieces of land to people, saying it is just that citizens have become clever.

“When one wants to have a piece of land to develop, say one is selling and another is buying, we take both of them to the city council because they [MCC] are the landlords. But there are areas such as Madimba which belong to us. When one wants a piece of land to buy, it is presumed that he wants to farm on that piece of land, only to realise that the land has been developed and houses have been built. We do not have the mandate to demolish structures. That is now the duty of the council,” he said.

Stakeholders, including the government, have been asking citizens to be building standard and resilient houses amid rising cases of houses being destroyed by rains and winds.

Since the onset of the rains, over 114,000 people from 20,763 households have been affected following the collapse or partial damage, of houses.

But the city council does not want to be blamed for this state of affairs.

“The council promotes responsible development, whereby if any developer comes forth, we offer professional guidance, which is not only helpful to the safety of the said responsible developer but also necessary. The other thing is that, when the council realises that somebody is not following construction procedures, we advise him or her to halt the project,” Gondwe said.

Blantyre City Council Director of Planning, Costly Chanza, said they have guidelines on house construction called Building Code of Practice plus building by-laws to ensure orderly urban development.

However, these legal instruments target the city’s formal areas, which is why most of the squatter settlements have been built illegally.

“It is worth noting that planning controls in our city have not been extended to informal settlements where land is predominantly under customary tenure. The effect of this is that traditional leaders retain authority to allocate the use and occupation of land without conforming to any plans in place. Town and Country Planning Act considers all developments in a planning area without planning permission as illegal. The National Land Policy extended the application of planning and development control to all rural and urban areas. The implication is that all developments in the country will require planning permission,” he said.

In view of the existing informal settlements, Chanza said BCC is mandated to improve the areas by, among other mechanisms, implementing slum upgrading programmes, reviewing building regulations and [ensuring that] more serviced land allocations target low income people.

Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Planning spokesperson, Charles Vintula, said they delegated the powers of enforcing standard housing laws to city councils.

“Development control is given to the country’s city councils. The ministry delegated those powers to make sure that the structures that are built are up to standard. If the councils feel that houses are not built to standards, they are at liberty to demolish them,” he said.

In recent years, Malawi has experienced one of the highest rates of urbanisation on the continent. The nation’s urbanisation rate is 6.3 percent per annum, nearly twice the Africa-wide rate of 3.5 percent.

According to UN-Habitat, only one out of every five people in Malawi live in urban areas but, by 2050, it is estimated that 50 percent of the population will dwell in cities and towns.

While city slums have been at risk of dilapidation year-in-year-out, mega public infrastructure in the country has in recent months, succumbed to harsh weather conditions.

Casualties include, among other structures, Kamuzu International Airport, Parliament Building in Lilongwe, newly built roads and public infrastructure such as primary schools and health centres.

MDOKO—We are not consulted

Commenting on the situation, Malawi Institute of Architects (Mia) President, Malium Mdoko, said infrastructure development control is one of the measures of economic development in a country, adding that they are concerned with how some public contracts are granted in the country.

“We, as an institute, are not consulted. It is important to note that the Building Department [in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Planning] has a role to play in terms of safety of all public infrastructures. However, as Mia, we are gravely concerned with how some contracts are awarded. We would want the duty of care to be of primary importance on public infrastructure. Infrastructure is one of the measures of economic development, hence the need to ensure that there is total care and safety in developing them,” she said.

Mdoko said building anything, be it a house or commercial building, is a massive investment and it is critical that quality, lifespan and, most importantly, safety of such structures conform to guidelines.

“We have all sadly heard of stories buildings that have collapsed and killed innocent people. Why would you want to subject your family or businesses to such horrors by ignoring the services of an architect or, indeed, using unqualified personnel?” she queried.

While there is seemingly no remedy in sight yet to avert recurrence of effects of rains or hailstorm on houses and public infrastructure, the country will continue to lose billions of kwacha in disaster response, some of which could have been avoided.

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