Despite government’s repeated assurances on uplifting people’s livelihoods including those in rural areas, people in Tchalo area in Rumphi are yet to reap from their leaders’ promises.
Tchalo is an inhabited peninsula on Lake Malawi with a population of 5,000 people.
Due to its location and topography, people in the area have for the last 52 years been deprived of their right to basic amenities like potable water and quality healthcare services.
The place is tucked among Lake Malawi, Chiweta range of hills and Usisya to the north, thus making the area highly inaccessible such that people have to fall back on poor water transport system as the only available option.
It takes about two and a half hours to travel by local passenger boats from the nearest Mlowe harbour which is 40 kilometres away.
Traditional Authority Chapinduka said in an interview that the ills of transportation present his subjects with numerous socio-economic challenges which they painfully have to cope with each passing day.
“We are an isolated and neglected people. We lack in so many things and nobody seems to care,” said Chapinduka.
On our visit to the area, we observed that the 30-kilometre stretch of land has little economic activity, with small scale fishing and retail services being the major ways of earning a living.
The land is clearly barren for any agriculture productivity to ensure food security of the people especially children, women and the elderly.
It is sandy in some parts and covered up in rocks in others.
Moving through the sprawling two villages on the peninsula and interacting with the people, the pangs of isolation, desertion and loneliness are not uncommon.
The absence of basic social services in the area is evidence enough of how government and other development players have shunned the place.
Chapinduka recalls the years between 2002 and 2012 as the most painful years of his reign.
During that time Tchalo registered the highest rates of maternal deaths ever due to, among other reasons, mobility problems. People have been struggling to transport expectant mothers to Livingstonia or Rumphi District Hospital.
“It is the time I felt the most excruciating pain of leadership. Imagine losing three to four women at childbirth every month because of lack of transport to take them to bigger health facilities in time,” he lamented.
In charge of the area’s health centre Blair Jere also shared his experience.
“We have no mobile network here. Whenever I have to refer a case to Livingstonia or Rumphi I have to sail about 500 metres into the middle of the lake to make a call. I am asking for a canoe to get me there, because that’s where we have a better signal,” said Jere.
Once has made the call, Jere faces another uphill task to identify a passenger boat to ferry his patient in labour to Mlowe from where she connects by road to either Rumphi or Livingstonia Mission hospitals which are 15 kilometres away from Mlowe.
“The boats are in business; they will not start off on a journey with an empty vessel. They will not lose fuel on an unplanned journey. Even if it means having an emergency case from the hospital, they are not willing to come in,” he said.
Hiring a boat from Tchalo to Mlowe costs about K100, 000, an amount he said is exorbitant for the facility to afford since it does not receive adequate funding.
“The health centre has two boats, which have for the past two years been in dilapidated state. We need them operational if we are to save lives of our mothers and babies,” Jere said.
Esnart Mhango, 28, recounted her near-death experience during her two previous pregnancies.
Now in her eighth month of her third pregnancy, Mhango has vivid memories of how she delivered her first born daughter on a boat five years ago on her way to Rumphi District Hospital.
“I lost a lot of blood; I and the child survived by God’s grace. The officer at the clinic told me my situation was complicated and I needed expatriate pair of hands for safe delivery,” Mhango narrated.
Two years ago the Livingstonia synod came in to save the health crisis in the area by upgrading the clinic which had lain in shambles since its inauguration in 1962.
It now has a maternity wing and modern medical equipment, but shortage of staff remains a major problem.
As the only qualified midwife, Jere, delivers about five babies in a day and in a month he refers over ten of them to bigger facilities.
Child marriages are also rampant in Tchalo, hence the high number of first time pregnancies which according to health experts have higher obstetrical risks.
Tchalo has a persistent water problem. With its rocky and hilly topography drilling a borehole is almost impossible.
The only place where people can access tap water is at the health centre where the Livingstonia synod has installed a water purification system direct from the lake which is a few metres away.
Apart from the lake, people fetch water from shallow wells and Tchalo River for household use though it fails to meet the required health standards for human consumption.
The health centre rarely has chlorine in stock to distribute to households for water treatment.
This has in turn led to increased cases of water borne infections with an average of 70 patients receiving treatment in a month, the majority of them being children below the age of five.
Unfortunately, the clinic persistently runs out of the necessary drugs to treat the infections.
Local councillor for the area Chakaka Nyirenda said recently that issues of sanitation are a problem though the area was declared Open Defecation Free (ODF) last year.
“We lack safe water for home use; our toilets are shallow since the place is covered in rocks. There is a high possibility that people might resort to using bushes and the lake to answer the call of nature,” said Nyirenda.
Statistics from the World Health Organisation reveal that 25 percent of deaths in Southern Africa result from sanitation related illnesses.
The education sector has not been spared from the challenges being faced in this secluded area.
Tchalo Primary School has a shortage of teachers because when posted to the area, teachers are unwilling to take up the challenge of serving children in this hard-to-reach area of Rumphi.
It was learnt that many teachers fail to bear the tedious routine of going into the lake for phone calls and embarking on a voyage to access salaries and many other household supplies every month on the mainland.
“Need I say that the boats that we use are not safe either, they barely have spare engines or life jackets in readiness for tragedy. So it’s a gamble and frankly I do not see fresh graduates accepting to work in places like these,” said one member of staff at the school.
Nonetheless, Tchalo remains a place of great tourism potential which government can tap into to uplift the lives of the 5000 people on the peninsula.
At the meantime, deep in their suffering people of Tchalo patiently wait for that day when those tasked with proving services assume their full responsibility and roll out development programmes that will not just change their livelihoods but also rewrite the story of the area forever.
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