Despite its green scenery and apparent beauty, Bula, a fertile area down the meandering, bumpy and dusty road to Usisya in Nkhata Bay District, harbours people, some of them children, with countless sad stories.
“I just want our dad to be home with us. Life is no longer the same without him. Every day, our mother cries uncontrollably and we struggle to calm her down,” says standard four learner Yamikani Chawinga.
Yamikani’s father, Green Chawinga, 45, was— together with two other accomplices— arrested, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for encroaching on Malawi Defence Force (MDF) land at Bula.
They were arrested in November last year and sentenced in May this year.
Some four months down the line, Yamikani and his seven siblings have been finding life unbearable, more so because the breadwinner of the family has been incarcerated.
“The day the soldiers came was chaotic. We ran for our dear lives. At that time, my dad had already been arrested. My mother could not manage to grab any of our belongings. We lost everything,” says a sobbing Yamikani.
Still, Yamikani aspires to be a teacher despite missing classes for one whole term.
“I missed classes because I do not have extra clothes, apart from the pair of shorts and top I am putting on,” he narrates.
This information was collaborated by Bula Primary School Head teacher Seuli Njikho, who said more children from the stranded family stopped going to school completely.
To Yamikani’s mother, who is in her late 30s, the story of the arrest of her husband attracts a fountain of tears.
The mother, Noria Chawinga, says they are living in despicable conditions since they were evicted from the land they were occupying.
When we visited the area, we found that that some of the families were living in grass-made huts, with no track of toilets around apart from a bush. Some are staying in kitchens as others are sharing a house with two or more members of other households.
The development has widened hygiene, food insecurity and education gaps for children of the area and, if nothing is done to salvage the situation, they will, surely, face a bleak future.
The father, Green, indicated, in mitigation, that he was remorseful, adding that members of his household would suffer if he were sent to jail.
It is not surprising that, four months down the trail, Yamikani, her mother and many others cannot believe it that Green was incarcerated.
The Chawinga family has stayed on the land for close to 10 years and many other families have inhabited the land for 15 to 20 years.
In total, there are 87 families which are still suffering, 26 of which have lost everything, according to Senior Group Village Headman Lukhando.
But how did the community members land themselves in trouble.
Sandilesi Chiyombe from Chitipa District says he settled in Bula area in 2010.
“I could not stay at home in Chitipa because our land was not enough for all of us and I wanted to venture into farming. Again, we had some disagreements at home. I just needed to move out. At that time one of my friends had already settled here. I asked him if I could find a piece of land here and, thankfully, the chief gave me a portion of land,” says Chiyombe, who has a wife and two children but no belongings as his house was set on fire.
Samson Singini found a place at Bula in 2016. He is originally from Rumphi District. Initially, he was staying in Mzuzu City, where he was working as motor vehicle driver but his perks could not sustain his family of six children.
Singini thought of moving on. He sold his small piece of land in town and found a place at Bula, thanks to Village Headman Gomba. He started farming until he met his fate this year.
Manas Longwe is another victim of circumstances. Longwe moved out of his home village in Chigwere, Nkhata Bay, in 2014, due to lack of arable land. He was given a piece of land, approximately five acres, by Village Headman Gomba and immediately started cultivating crops.
These are the stories of some of the people who settled on the MDF firing range. Two things are common; these are farmers coming from elsewhere. In all cases, the people were allocated pieces of land by traditional leaders, who are regarded as custodians of customs and land.
But Senior Chief Lukhanda, who looks after 32 traditional leaders, insists that the land is for the community and that there was nothing wrong in giving his subjects pieces of land.
Apparently, the traditional leader is contemplating appealing the case in a higher court.
From the numerous interviews we conducted, it was written all over the faces of the victims-cum-encroachers that they do not want to move out of the area. All they want is to be allocated another site to stay at and go on with activities such as farming.
Social Welfare Officer for Nkhata Bay District, McSense Chagomelana, says he has learned of the issue through this publication.
He is, however, quick to point out that the children have been exposed to an undesirable environment.
Chagomelana says, in such circumstances, the office moves in, particularly to safeguard the interests of children.
“We look at what services are required to be brought to the people. We look at issues of food, clothes; are the children able to go to school? Apart from that, we go with psychosocial counselors because we know that, in situations like those you are referring to, people are traumatised. Yes, they were on the wrong side of the law but we have to see how we can help them,” he said.
He promises to go to the area on a fact-finding mission.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace National Coordinator, Boniface Chibwana, says the issue has to be seriously looked into as it borders on human rights.
“We have to put a human face to this issue so that, at the end of the day, people should not feel like refugees in their own country. Of course, the law had to take its course.
“By the way, when we talk about enforcement of laws, let us deal with issues as they emerge, instead of waiting for 20 to 40 years before acting on them. At the end of the day, in my view, the human being has to be at the centre of our discussion; after all, laws are there to help people,” he says.
Meanwhile, Noria and others continue to watch helplessly as, every now and then, tears run down their faces.