Few people outside of Chikwawa know about Mgwinya Island. Even fewer have been on it. It is a piece lying to the south of Nchalo and completely surrounded by the Shire River. From the outside, it could be a desolate place of no hope. But, as CHACHACHA MUNTHALI writes, a lot goes on that breeds plenty of hope.
It is about 11am this Wednesday. The sun is staring down unforgivingly. The Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services had forecast the weather at Ngabu to be around 18 degrees Celsius and a maximum of 36 degrees Celsius for this, but where I am, at Nchalo Trading Centre, it feels like it is 100 degrees Celsius.
I feel stuffy and uncomfortable until I step into the vehicle, where the air-conditioner offers a dramatic change in the temperature. We branch off the main road into Nchalo Sugar Estates and emerge on the other side of the estate. We traverse through Nchalo Sugar Estate. We pass a village named Ndirande. It shares a lot in common with the notorious township in Blantyre. It bears the scene of poverty despite the riches within reach across the small river.
We chug along the dusty road, past cheery faces. Goats scamper in familiar directions. Still we chug along the rugged road. The lazy hum of the air-conditioner insulates us from the wiles of the world. In the four-wheeled vehicle, we barely feel the rugged surface as we chug along to the ‘dock’.
We stop but a guide helpfully tells we can get all the way to the QUAY/LANDING. The dock! Just on the bank of the river where canoes dock as they transfer people across the river. Moored to a metal pole are three canoes, whose owners are not around. Close by, two donkeys eat with the contentment that only one can find in abundance.
Over a dozen bicycles are parked just some distance away and, when I ask, I am told the owners have crossed over to the other side of the Shire River where they farm. And they would be back at dusk.
There is brisk activity on the other side of the river. Three canoes are soon readied to take us across to Mgwinya Island.
We are on a medical mission here and, soon, a multitude of hands are at hand to help us load medical supplies into three canoes.
A team comprising officers from Amref Health Africa in Malawi and Chikwawa District Health Office loads medical supplies into canoes before departure around noon.
I am a water man, having been born along Lake Malawi, but I’m a little apprehensive about getting into the canoe on the Shire River. Just a few metres away lies a clump of reeds. I am told that is the favourite spot of crocodiles. My apprehension is about what if the canoe capsizes. Sure, my fear is not about drowning; it is about getting caught by a crocodile or even getting carried away by the current, no matter how gentle it seems. I dismiss that thought to the back of my mind and take the last boat to cross among our crew.
We cross over to the other side. The man paddles upstream and gently we get to our place of need.
Some local women welcome the team and help carry the medical supplies from the dock to the clinic, with children strung on their backs.
Then the walking begins. I ask the Health Surveillance Assistant (HSA) for this area about the distance from the dock to where he conducts his outreach clinic. He tells me it could be about 7 or 8 kilometres. I have walked that long distance in a while alone in the sun. With a niggly leg, as a result of an accident, I doubt I will last the distance. But I give it my best shot. As we walk, he recounts tales of what happened in March when Cyclone Idai laid the island to waste. His house was destroyed, too, so he had to relocate to the ‘mainland’.
I admire the women as they balance the drum, a carton on their hands and seem oblivious of the sun that is bothering me.
We walk here. The lush foliage of maize on the banks of the island belies the cries of hunger on a distance away. A day before, I had been to Nyasa Village where Amref Health Africa had sponsored a cooking demonstration. The pervasive outcry had been about hunger. The waters had washed away all their crops and food.
At Mgwinya Island, green fields of maize give way to green fields of sugarcane. Green fields of sugarcane given to green fields of maize intercropped with creepers. It is one large carpet of green and of plenty.
At 1pm, I sidled up to the HSA and asked if we were nowhere near. He assured me we were near. Still we walked.
Here and there we passed a homestead. Here and there we met someone working on his crops; otherwise, it was all peaceful.
Some 15 minutes later, the staccato sound of a purring diesel maize mill rises above the excited sound of children and the contented chattering of wagtails as if singing a chorus of welcome.
Soon we emerge into a village. A proper village which, I am told, is roughly the centre of this island. There, in the middle of the village, women and men are gathered in their hundreds, waiting for doctors from the hospital. There is hope here.
Before long, the clinic opens. There are four clinics taking place simultaneously. There is a main clinic, taking place under a large umbrella, offering shade to all. Under-five children are being treated in another clinic. The ‘maternity wing’ is a bit isolated. Pregnant women are being weighted under a totally different tree, but consultations are taking place in an unfinished room that offers little, if any, privacy. In fact, none of the clinic here does.
The ‘consultation room’ for pregnant women is an uncompleted earth brick house that has no roof, no doors and provides little by way of privacy.
As I go about capturing the scenes, in the organised chaos, I overhear one young man telling the clinician that it had been three days with stomach ache. He seemed weak. I doubt he would have walked the distance to the dock, let alone walk for about 10 kilometres to the nearest health facility at St Montfort Mission Hospital or Nchalo Health Centre.
The women who had welcomed us came here with their children
Such have been the scenes for the past three months, since Amref Health Africa started funding the outreach clinic.
Getting to Gwinya Island is not for the fainthearted. There are motorcycles and bicycles but the state of the paths means chances of having a sole back are guaranteed.
Mgwinya Island could be a place of no hope. It has no borehole. Do not even begin to talk about taps. There are uncovered wells all over the island from which people draw water. It has no clinic. Its population of about 10,500 is served by two HSAs and no one else. It has no school. Scratch that. It has a school, but it ends at standard five.
The people say, after standard five, some will fold their best and they have done their best. The lucky ones will move to the mainland where they will stay with relations to complete their secondary education. And it has no secondary school. Not even a community day secondary school. And did I mention that the two teachers at that secondary school are volunteers?
But there is hope here, however little of it. The little hope lies in the small gestures of people.
The Under-5 clinic is conducted under another tree, a short distance from the OPD clinic.
Mgwinya Island is surrounded on all sides by the Shire River, Malawi’s largest river. The floods of this year damaged property as well as crops on the island.
While the people have replanted the crops, the provision of health services to over 10,000 people on the island remains a permanent challenge. The island has no clinic, has two community health workers, one of whom lives off the island as his house was damaged during the floods.
Every Wednesday, with support from Amref Health Africa, officers from Chikwawa District Hospital travel to the island where they treat people as outpatients, conduct antenatal and under-five clinics.
To get to the site of the clinic, however, is a hassle. There are no vehicles on the island and health personnel have to travel for about 8 kilometres on foot from the river bank to get to the clinic, which is located almost at the centre of the island.
In the absence of the outreach clinic, the alternative for the people is to walk to the river bank and travel on foot after crossing the Shire River for about 10 kilometres to the nearest clinic at St Montfort Mission Hospital or Nchalo Health Centre in Chikwawa District.