Month ends usually bring joy to many civil servants as they look forward to receiving their salaries, but not to journalist Patrick Botha of the state-run Malawi News Agency (Mana).
Botha is stationed on Likoma Island where he is known as DIO (District Information Officer) and has been there for the past three-and-a-half-years, covering the two Islands of Likoma and Chizumulu.
The islands of Likoma and Chizumulu make up Likoma District located in the northern region, covering 28 Sq. Km with a combined population now estimated at 14,000.
Almost every month end, Botha is forced to go to Mzuzu City on the mainland to get his salary because the island does not have a single commercial bank, in the process incurring huge traveling expenses.
He estimates that he has spent more than half a million kwacha to date on transport, accommodation and food just to access his salary since arriving on the island in July 2013.
“Government appears not to appreciate the troubles we go through to get our salaries, otherwise it surely would have done something by now [on the issue of banks],” says the 33-year-old Botha.
He told this writer when he visited the island last December: “We only accepted to come and work here because we are professionals and patriotic citizens. But we face a lot of problems.”
Botha is one of the many government workers stationed on Likoma Island who bemoan the fact that despite being declared a district in 1999, the island does not have banking services up to now.
Likoma is one of the few districts in the country that do not have banks together with Nsanje, Neno and Chitipa in the southern, central and northern parts of the country respectively.
But the absence of banking services in districts that are on the mainland is less felt because residents can make a dash for an ATM elsewhere owing to the country’s improved road network.
In contrast, residents of Likoma have no choice but to go to Nkhata Bay or Mzuzu City on the mainland. And to reach the mainland, they travel 70 Km by water, sometimes using rickety boats.
Almost every civil servant on the island has a story to tell about the hardship they experience during the end of the month when they travel to the mainland to get their salaries.
Most of them return to the island minus half of their salaries because they are forced to spend days on the mainland waiting for the MV Ilala on her weekly southward bound voyage from Karonga.
Meanwhile, civil servants have to accommodate themselves and eat food as they await the Ilala, the oldest but most preferred of the boats that sail on the fresh water lake, the third largest in Africa.
Some civil servants sometimes opt to send one person to the mainland to withdraw salaries from their banks to avoid spending, entrusting him or her with their ATM cards and pin codes.
While the method has proved to be effective as a money-saving measure, there have been instances when people have returned with stories of having lost to thieves all the money they had collected.
“It’s risky, but we do it as we want to get our salaries whole. Almost every month, someone will come crying, saying they lost all ATM cards, or money was stolen in their room while they were sleeping.
“Or someone will say they lost the money as they were struggling to board a ship at Nkhata Bay. Sometimes, a person can go to the mainland with 10 ATM cards belonging to other people,” Botha said.
Unsurprisingly, the absence of banks, coupled with the fact that one cannot easily get to the mainland when there is an emergence at home, are the major reasons many civil servants refuse to work there.
“When I was told I was coming to Likoma, I said to myself what wrong have I done?” recalls Charles Mwawembe, the District Commissioner.
Perhaps Mwawembe was justified in asking if had wronged authorities and the posting was a way of punishing him, having lived on the island before, working as a civil servant.
He says it is not uncommon for a civil servant to be posted to a district more than once, but feels Likoma Island should be taken as a special case and that those who go there should receive incentives.
“Incentives should be considered for us,” says Mwawembe, who worked on the island for the first time from 2012 to 2013. “We endure a lot.”
He says many civil servants create excuses when they hear they are going to Likoma, “excuses that you may never have heard of before just to stop the posting. This shows how difficult life here is.”
Mwawembe says transportation is the biggest problem the district has to endure with, as it affects the day-to-day lives of not only government workers, but even locals.
“We rely on the Ilala. But when it stops sailing when it has broken down or is undergoing annual maintenance, it becomes hell for us because we have very few reliable alternative means,” he says.
Like other civil servants, the absence of even a single commercial bank on the island also greatly pains Mwawembe, especially when it comes to accessing salaries.
“It is bad to live without a single bank these days. We do all banking services on the mainland, which is not only expensive but also very risky,” he says.
Mwawembe says the fact that many civil servants go to the mainland during month ends to get their salaries means that delivery of services in many areas is affected in the district for days on end.
“The going to the mainland disrupts services in many sectors such as education and health, for instance, as teachers and health personnel abandon work to go to their banks,” he says.
Nameson Ngwira, District Education Manager (DEM) agrees with Mwawembe about how the absence of banks is having a negative effect on service delivery in the district.
He says with the current government policy that civil servants must receive their salaries through banks, the absence of banking services is impacting negatively on education on the island.
“It means that teachers have to travel either to Nkhata Bay or Mzuzu to get their salaries,” he says. “From their little pay, they have to spend money on transport, accommodation and food.”
Ngwira says the monthly trips to the mainland do not only result in teachers returning home with reduced salaries, but they also reduce learners’ time, affecting their performance.
Mwawembe says that the problem of transportation aside, Likoma Island is a place of scenic beauty with its fresh waters and sandy beaches “which could be a haven for tourism given proper infrastructure.”
The island’s best known attraction is the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the Anglican Church, a magnificent historic structure built in the early 1900s, reportedly on a piece of land where witches used to be burnt.
It is impossible to talk about the island’s attractions without mentioning Likoma Secondary School. The school may be in a state of disrepair, but it has produced some of the country’s most brilliant citizens.
In the words of Jackson Biggers, retired bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Northern Malawi, Likoma is a place where people love their traditions and are ready to get the best education for their children.
Biggers, 79, who is originally from the USA but has settled in Zomba, told Mana when he visited the island in December: “People of Likoma have a very wonderful way of showing ulemu [respect].”
Likoma’s newest attraction is an international airport built near the shores of the lake which is expected to boost the country’s tourism industry by providing direct flights to the island.
“Likoma Island has a lot of potential for tourism. But to harness the potential, there is need to have banks here and improve means of travel between the island and the mainland,” Mwawembe says.
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