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Structured into despair

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It was sold around the world as a healing to ailing economies. If they did resuscitate some economies, the Structural Adjustment Programme killed off some striving structures in Malawi and the nation is still struggling to get them back on their feet. WHYTONE KAPASULE investigates.

It’s Monday afternoon and the sun is dying in the east horizon. All and sundry have gathered at one of the places that was the hub of the township in those days, KV Discount, as if they want to kiss bye to the setting sun that casts its seemingly weak but sweet rays on them.

Some are enjoying the dying sun rays along a small street that runs around the town while listening to loud music from nearby bottle stores. These are merchants plying their trade at the town with the hope that the impending darkness will beckon some customers to buy from them.

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This is small pleasure for a town on the decline –on the decline because if it had picked up from where it was before Structural Adjustment Programme came to Malawi in the late 1980s, this town would be a throbbing rural place.

Luchenza used to be a vibrant town up to mid-1990s. It did not have everything that one would need in life but it was sufficient to some extent. It had a thriving Admarc depot and an efficient railway transport made it a robust rural town. It was a town that was looking up.

Like Luchenza, townships and rural trading centres such as Balaka, Utale and Khwisa were locations destined for greater things in terms of development.

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In those days, these rural towns and trading centres had the hall marks of centres steadily moving towards becoming full blown hubs of rural development.

Today, quite against the promise they showed those days, these places have become run down locations where public services are difficult to access and their buildings have become desolate, some deserted and other parts of the locations overgrown with bush. They have become ghost towns. Well, almost.

And that is a section of the trail of destruction which the Structural Adjustment Programmes which the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank rammed on the throats of the nations across the globe beginning in the 1980s.

As one would determine, the named centres lie in the railway line that runs from Nsanje to Salima. In those days, Malawi Railways which was a government-run transport company was a thriving and reliable transport company. It was responsible for the transportation of goods and people mostly from areas that could not be accessed by roads. Trains shuttled from one rural town to the other every single day and several times a day.

It was because of the efficiency of the railway system then that these towns were full of life and full of promise for the future. But under the Structural Adjustment Programmes, Malawi Railways was sold in 1993. The company went into private hands and up to 700 employees were retrenched some of which are still fighting for their retirement dues today.

It is noteworthy that the new Central East African Railways which took over from Malawi Railways continues to make significant investment into the sector.

But there can be no denying that railway transport in Malawi may never be as vibrant as it used to be 25 years ago.

And people like Mike Makhanga, a businessperson at Luchenza town, are feeling the pinch of the collapse.

Makhanga used to a proper businessman. He used to travel to and from Makhanga in Nsanje using the railway to buy fish and other items for his business. He became such a regular in Makhanga that he ended up being named after Makhanga itself.

Now he sits and count and the losses in his life since the railway transport of those days collapsed.

“The Limbe Makhanga Railway Line was important to us here at Luchenza,” he says. “It was the cheapest mode of transport. Life was better in those days. But things are not the same. We can’t travel anymore to Makhanga to buy fish and other commodities. Our businesses collapsed.”

Since Makhanga’s business followed the railway transport to their collapse, he has struggled to recover. But he has somehow kept himself going by resorting to buying and selling small quantities of cooking oil. He admits though that this is where he should been by now and that times have been tough for him and also for Luchenza town.

“Luchenza used to be flourishing town. We used to receive a lot of visitors who could buy from us. That gave rise to the establishment of lodges and motels here. Besides, there was constant supply of items which helped feed the people here.

“Things changed because there is no cheapest mode of transport to Makhanga. The only way we can access Makhanga is to use the Blantyre Bangula route which is expensive for us small scale business people. We can’t afford that in these days of shortages and escalating costs,” says Makhanga.

In all the named centres, the story is the same. It is a story of lamentation, a story that the collapse of the railways transport system of the Dr Kamuzu Banda’s era has seriously affected people’s lives. It has affected the growth of the centres themselves and social-economic conditions of the surrounding communities.

While places such as Luchenza and Balaka are easily accessible by other modes of transport such as buses, it is not the same with places such as Makhanga, Utale and Khwisa. These are remote locations and it is not easy to reach or get out of these places.

Malawi started implementing Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) in 1981. According to studies, SAPs were aimed at reviving declining economies and adjust them for the attainment of sustainable growth.

Economic analyst Professor Ben Kaluwa says while SAPs helped some countries around the world to improve their economies and reduce poverty, Malawi fared badly on the programme.

He says the country rushed into implementing the programme, at the pushing of the World Bank and IMF, and ended up losing a lot of her institutional infrastructure in agriculture and transport more than it could gain.

“SAPs were a global initiative responding to global economic crisis which affected a lot of countries. We lost a lot of institutions because our economy was not in the crisis to require the SAPs. We lost the Malawi Railways and the Malawi Development Corporation (MDC). We also lost physical infrastructure support in livestock management like dip tanks in rural areas. We lost public services that were supposed to support the economy to grow,” says Kaluwa.

He also says economists like him thought those public institutions were wasteful and needed to go. But years down the line, they realise they missed a points, he laments. He further says Malawi was rushed to implement the SAPs without thinking about it.

Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe admits that while some countries performed well under SAPs, others such as Malawi did not benefit as originally expected.

“Structural Adjustments Programmes by definition covers two things: short term economic policies and long term reform of institutions like the public service. Some French speaking countries benefited from it because their economies were so bad in the 1980s and that they could hardly pay their civil servants. Their exchange rates were out of tune and the amount of foreign exchange they could get could not pay their civil service.

“The SAPs helped them double their exchange rates and the benefits were enormous. People in Tanzania and Zambia also struggled to buy from the shops because the exchange rates were undervalued. Unlike us, our exchange rates were not that poor and we implemented the policies on our economy that was not bad hence our failure to benefit from the programme,” he says.

Like Kaluwa, Gondwe regrets that Malawi lost some of the most important structures such as Malawi Railways.

“We should not have lost Malawi Railways. But mind you, Malawi did not lose more than what other countries lost. Tanzania lost more institutions than us. But it was good that we lost some of the institutions like MDC because it was not performing well,” he says.

But for residents of Luchenza and other rural locations lying along the railway, there are no two ways of looking at the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on the railway transport system in Malawi.

Cecilia Kanjoka is a small scale trader in Luchenza market. She used to rely on the railway to travel frequently to Nsanje where she would buy fish and citrus fruits for sale at Luchenza.

But since railway transport collapsed, her business declined and she resorted to selling tomatoes which she buys from the nearby Chonde Market in Mulanje.

Another small scale businesswoman Mary Makwete also recounts a story of the negative impacts of losing that old railway. She comes from Nsanje and the collapse of the Limbe Makhanga Railway route dealt a double blow to her: she lost her business and got detached from her relatives in Makhanga.

“My family stays in Makhanga and the cheapest route to go home and see my people was via this railway line. I don’t go and the last time I visited them was in 2013. We only communicate through cell phones. In those days K1400 was enough for a return ticket to Makhanga. But today I will need more than this to get from Luchenza to Blantyre then to Bangula and finally to Makhanga. I can’t afford the trip,” says Makwete.

But people like Mike Makhanga suggest that the Central East African Railways should consider revamping the Limbe Makhanga Railway route to enhance trade and improve the lives of people along the stretch.

It is without doubt that these lamentations will continue for as long services that suffered under the weight of Structural Adjustment Programmes continue to be in the desperate state they are in. And no one can tell how else and when the situation can be changed – for the better.

And as people wait for solutions, solutions that may never come, they can only drown their miseries in pleasures like music that saturate Luchenza Township while waiting for potential customers to patronise their small businesses to make ends meet.

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