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Poverty in billions

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SANDE—What is there now is a concrete slab

Blessings Anussa, 42, still summons up images of Nsanje District bustling with beautiful high-rise buildings, modern hotels, a busy airport, enormous warehouses and sprightly shopping malls.

Two vital structures that would have brought the dream alive lie in ruins.

“Imagine if the port were operational and then the railway system from Marka to Nsanje Boma was revamped. This place would be a big city,” Anussa says, a wistful look appearing in his glazed eyes.

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He was there when the diesel-powered locomotive’s structured drift finally came to a halt in 1997 after a bridge on which the railroad passed got damaged by a flooded river.

Successive governments have ignored the flaw apparently because it proved a fitting enabler of tactics of some businesspeople who had procured trucks to ferry cargo which could be conveyed through rail transport on the cheap.

“Nsanje was beautiful and vibrant. Immigration and Malawi Revenue Authority offices were active here. People would obtain border passes right here,” Anussa, whose father worked at Nsanje Train Station between 1953 and 1997, states.

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When the $20 million (approximately K15 billion) inland port project kicked off in the now-sleepy town over a decade ago, Anussa got excited again.

He hoped that once the port became a reality and loads of cargo arrived in or left the town centre of Malawi’s southernmost district, the run-down railway system would also be given attention.

“The two systems would significantly complement each other. The port project seems to have died a natural death while the future of the railway system remains bleak,” Anussa says.

That Nsanje World Inland Port would not become active was clear when Mozambique called for an environmental and feasibility study before allowing barges to navigate the Zambezi River section of the waterway, which flows through that country’s territory.

The study apparently concluded that it would not be sustainable to send watercraft rolling up and down the river.

So, late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s dream died away; a scheme to link landlocked Malawi with the Indian Ocean port of Chinde, 238 kilometres away, withered.

“Perhaps, the new government will pay attention to the project. They should do what Mozambique requires so that the money spent on the port project should not be in vain,” Limbani Sande of Kadzuwa Village on the hilly stretch northwest of Nsanje Town Centre.

Having worked as an unskilled labourer on the project, he was optimistic it would turn around the Shire Valley district’s fortunes.

Sande had seen the detailed vision, which was shared with various stakeholders, including those working on the project, and envisaged a high-spirited port city serving all manner of people.

“What is there now is a concrete slab where children play and fishers dry their catch. Perhaps, after the railway line gets revived, government will turn to the port,” he says.

In the meantime, there is little to denote that the current administration will push for the renewal of the port’s mission.

President Lazarus Chakwera told Parliament in October last year that the port project was not his administration’s priority.

However, according to Nsanje District Commissioner Medson Matchaya, for the railway system’s revival, everything is in place.

“There are plans to revive the stretch from Mozambique to Bangula as the first part of a larger project which will later involve renovating the whole railway system,” Matchaya said in an interview when we recently visited the Shire Valley district.

Anussa has heard about the planned overhaul apart from seeing some men in blue work suits ripping up rails from their track and assembling them in different places including the run-down train station.

He is reluctant to accept that the works will really be accomplished by September 30 this year in line with projections by the Ministry of Transport and Public Works.

“Let us hope it will not turn out to be another political stunt. Well, something is happening and if it can continue to the very end, people of the Shire Valley will benefit a lot,” Anussa says.

He has vowed to return to his cotton business which faltered after the cost of transporting the produce from his farm to Limbe in Blantyre became too prohibitive.

“Our poverty can be alleviated by the railway system,” the father of four, who settled near the dilapidated train station crammed with corroding metal, says.

He also believes his neighbours and others who encroached into the railway system’s space and buildings will certainly accept to move out when asked to.

Anussa recalls that traditional leaders warned those rushing into abandoned houses and offices which were part of the defunct train structure to be ready to leave without compensation.

“Of course, it may depend on the decision by the government, otherwise, our chiefs told us the train station and wherever the track goes through is public land and should not be occupied by anyone,” he says.

Still, the Nsanje resident states, what matters is for the overhaul project to start in earnest and raise hopes among people whose enthusiasm in trade got dampened by an act of God and subsequent neglect by authorities.

Perhaps the Southern Region district will one day be a vast, overbearing port city.

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