Recurrent wait for Chapananga Bridge
A section of Mwanza River around the damaged Chapananga Bridge in Chikwawa West has for more than once been described as a graveyard.
People, cars and livestock have reportedly been buried into the deep mass of loose sands of the river which, in this part of the Shire Valley district, can only be crossed by a functional bridge during the rainy season.
“Bodies of people and expensive cars are buried here,” Senior Chief Chapananga, whose area the river cuts through, once said.
For years, the chief said, people could be swept away in the waters of the watercourse.
He spoke in 2019 on completion of the 180-metre bridge, the longest in the country, before it got partly damaged in the wake of a tropical storm a year later.
Last year, another tropical storm tore the bridge apart, making it difficult for people to cross to either side of the river.
Hassan Nsona, 35, of Muonda Village, whose residents have to constantly use the bridge to cross to the other side, where some of his relatives live, wonders when the reconstruction will be completed.
Nsona says the impact of the absence of a functional bridge is particularly felt during the rainy season when the river swells and makes crossing on its bed impossible.
“I can’t visit my relatives in nearby villages. The water in the river is high and sometimes sweeps away people and property,” he says.
He adds that farmers who have crop fields across the river are unable to go there for fear of being swept away by the river.
This, Nsona says, means more people are unable to engage in meaningful economic activities.
“There are some men who assist those who want to cross to the other side, at a charge of K500, but not many of us are willing to take that risk,” he states.
The condition of the bridge is said to be preventing some children from going to school during the rainy season.
“This affects their performance; no wonder, education indicators are not impressive in this part of the district if you compare with others,” Nsona complains.
People from at least five villages are said to be the most affected by the condition of the bridge as they are supposed to access most essential social services such as health facilities in areas located on the other side.
Senia Dickson, 25, says some pregnant women have to go through Mwanza District to get to Chikwawa District Hospital to access healthcare services.
“Those who are not so lucky develop complications on the way and sometimes lose their babies or their own lives,” Dickson says.
Senior Group Village Head Chagoma of Chikwawa West is equally concerned that the condition of the bridge is preventing his people from excelling in some of their ventures.
He says those doing business are often limited to the same locations because they cannot cross to other areas to trade.
“Our prayer is that this bridge gets repaired as soon as possible,” the local leader says.
Minister of Transport and Public Works Jacob Hara has assured people of Chapananga and all those who rely on the bridge to cross to the other side that government will work on it.
During a recent tour of the infrastructure, Hara disclosed that with the help of the World Bank, experts will redesign some of the public infrastructures in the Shire Valley district so that they are able to withstand harsh weather conditions.
“I chose to come during the rainy season to appreciate the challenges because I know they become more pronounced during times like this,” the minister said.
He indicated that some structures in Chikwawa, including the bridge, were not designed in resilient ways, and that they are, therefore, frequently at the mercy of harsh weather conditions.
People like Nsona are waiting for the day they will start using Chapananga Bridge again.
It is their lifeline and when construction works finally started in 2017, they hoped a problem they had lived with for decades was finally coming to an end.
Devastating tropical storms quickly wiped out that joy and brought the misery back.
“Well, since the minister has assured us that all will be well soon, who are we to doubt him? Otherwise people use an unsafe section to cross the river,” Chagoma said.