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Tales from dying Makaula Bridge

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“They say good things come to those who wait. But in our experience of Makaula, that has certainly proved not to be the case.”

The words above come from Village Head (VH) Makaula. In fact, the village head and his villagers have been waiting for an answer: an answer to their ailing and dying bridge.

Makaula Village, vast and densely populated on the foot of Mulanje Mountain, is a tale of neglect and destitution. Here, people are‘eternally’ disillusioned, according to Herbert Sagwa, a villager. Many work on tea plantations under Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM) Group.

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“They live hand to mouth just to get by,” says Sagwa, a tea farmer and carpenter.

However, to access Makaula Village requires passing through four bridges. Two of them, constructed in the 1970s by the then Malawi Tea Company, still stands strong; concrete and unshaken. The other pair, wooden and precarious, squats miserable and rickety. One bridge, over Chumani River and located close to Chumani Primary School is in a sorry state.

In its last stages of dilapidation, Makaula Bridge, as it is fondly called, is nothing but an eyesore. No supporting pillars. Some planks are missing. Nails dangerously peep out of the surviving planks. And the threat they pose is particularly worrying. Passers-by are always cautious, fearing for their bare feet. Also cyclists take chances crossing the nail-strewn bridge. Their fears, admits Joe, a bicycle-taxi operator, are always knotted around their tyres.

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“You never know what the nails will do to your tyres,” says Joe, a married teenager. Certainly, hearts sink whenever people dare cross the yawning skeleton; a death-trap of sort.

In the eyes of Makaula, the bridge, albeit dilapidated and risky, is “a stairway to the village’s success”. Of course, many of the village’s products – pineapples, bananas and avocado pears – find their way through here. It is often regarded as the gateway not only to the nearby Limbe-Thyolo-Mulanje- Muloza Road but also to potential markets such as Lauderdale, Mulanje Boma and Chitakale.

That aside, the bridge also acts as a pathway to the village cemetery bordering Lauderdale Tea Plantation. However, the crossings, in the midst of funeral processions, are a terrible nightmare. Of course, mourners face traumatic experiences here. One villager, Margret Jossam, sorrowfully remembers how a group of mourners slipped off and fell into the river on their way to the cemetery.

“Fortunately, the pallbearers didn’t tumble down; but it was quite shocking,” laments Jossam, her face sombre and focused towards the direction of the bridge.

“The tragedy reached (Richie) Muheya, our former MP [Member of Parliament], he apparently got moved and rehabilitated it (the bridge).”

When this reporter, at the time, chronicled the ills of Makaula, which include lack of concrete bridges, piped water and electricity, Muheya, who was also a minister of Water Development and Irrigation, stepped in. Of course, he headed back to the village, apparently ‘injured’ and ‘humiliated’ by the spotlight. He donated timber and cement.

Shoddy service, however, cost the bridge’s life. Certainly, Makaula Bridge limped back to its former self; impoverished and dilapidated. It literally sighed its relief during election campaign period in 2014. The bridge became a political platform.

“Our expectations, sad to say, have not been matched,” laments Jossam. “We are also yet to see our ‘beloved’ councillor (Davies Laini) making good of his campaign promise on the bridge,” Jossam, a mother of two, bares it all-an assertion Laini quickly dismisses.

“The villagers are not truthful either. Some weeks ago, I invited them to collect timber to lay over the said bridge. But they didn’t come. What else could I do?” wonders the Chitakale Ward councillor.

He adds: “I love Makaula a lot and I take it as my second home; no wonder, I always let it enjoy a lion’s share in most of my programmes within my capacity,” Laini says, adding: “I strongly urge them again to come and pick up their planks.”

Issuing out a strong appeal is one thing but enforcing it is quite another.

Now, Makaula’s sights are on EPM. In the tea producer giant, a former enemy, the villagers see a ‘saviour’.

“They promised us running water a decade ago despite the growing animosity between us,” reminisces VH Makaula, referring to the animosity that had emerged in 2001 following a bloody battle that the village and the company guards had fought over land. In that skirmish, one villager died while several others, including estate warriors, got wounded.

With enmity long buried, the village and the largest tea company opened a new page in their history. Both sides depend on each other in one way or another. But will the ‘liberator’ ever come to Makaula’s rescue, in particular the bridge?

Actually not, admits Gedion Mothisa, EPM Group Human Resource Manager.

“We maintain bridges where our business interests are largely concentrated,” he says. “In the case of Makaula, we cannot commit ourselves to the said bridge since our tractors do not use that route when accessing our tea farmers.”

The writing is ominously on the wall.

However, all is not lost. The tea group pledged to provide running water to both Makaula and neighbouring Mikundi villages.

“We will furnish these two villages with potable water. It’s our obligation to do so,” Mothisa says.

Interestingly, international auditors, such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, among others, dictate tea manufacturing companies to take seriously their social and environmental obligations to society. Part of the proceeds from the tea sales, they argue, should trickle down to the communities.

And EPM is forthright: “We often give back to the communities in key areas such as health, sanitation, education and security in our attempt to help government in alleviating poverty,” says Mothisa, a former Mulanje district labour officer.

“Once again, we’re surely going to roll out the K20 million Makaula- Mikundi Water Project.”

Tellingly, people of Makaula want more than water, according to Sagwa.

“Having potable water is as good as having better bridges and improved road network,” he says.

“With good bridges, people can safely access safe water….With good bridges, schoolchildren can attain uninterrupted education since they cannot be cut off from school during rainy season.”

Ultimately, Makaula Bridge still cuts out a pathetic figure. It is really living a thousand tales: the failure by the villagers themselves to get it repaired; the continuous frustration of being used as a political platform, and its ultimate abandonment.

Only time will tell whether the bridge will ever be saved.

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