A village perched on a chain of a few hills east of Nyika National Park in Karonga overlooks the massive Lake Malawi which has never dried.
Every road to this hill top place which has 175 households has irritating bumps and humps which—coupled with the linear tree stumps—makes Vunganthenda a practical outcast of Karonga.
Its children seldom go beyond primary school education and illiteracy has reached levels which locals here say are embarrassing.
The blue view of the lake tells residents of Vunganthenda that there is no joy in distant glory, as they have perpetually had problems of clean and potable water in the abundance of the same.
Even without the billowing waters of the world’s largest fresh water lake, Vunganthenda should have never experienced problems regarding clean and potable water.
Within it, there are natural springs which symbolise nature’s commitment towards sustaining life, but the beneficiaries are not human beings alone: hyenas, snakes and all other types of wild animals drink from the same sources.
And a change from the age-old routine has always been essential.
“We have plenty of water here but the biggest challenge has been that it was not potable. We could still drink it because we had no choice and the result was strange illnesses which used to befall us,” says Ben Chavula, Group Village Head (GVH) Vunganthenda’s secretary.
The most popular spring within Vunganthenda is located just where it should be—at the foot of small hills with sharp slopes which need both caution and vitality to descend and clamber up.
In a next village, Mwaphoka, there is another spring, with similar conditions.
But to locals who use these water sources, the topography is a lesser evil. The defining, significant reality is that the water bodies which all along remained unprotected, and therefore unsafe, have finally found a liberator.
With vigour, women— both young and old, some with babies trapped to their backs—stride up and down the rutted knolls, carrying buckets filled with the life-giving liquid.
“We now have the cleanest and most potable water ever,” says 33-year-old Margret Kumwenda of Vunganthenda Village. Pointing at a tap from where the liquid is flowing at a spring, she adds: “Red Cross [Society of Malawi – RCSM] built this structure that is protecting the spring and we shall forever be grateful.”
Surrounded by towering trees, which are sustaining the spring, the cement covering makes sure only a human hand can let the water flow. Animals might go elsewhere.
Perhaps Vunganthenda’s access to clean and potable water should now buttress government’s data that Malawi has achieved 90 percent of its target on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) I and II which principally tackle issues of access to potable water.
Of course, elsewhere, the data has been disputed, but to locals on this hilltop village, what is most important is that a drop of clean and potable water a day will keep the doctor away.
“We don’t have a clinic here, and there have been terrible challenges accessing the nearest health facility which is some kilometres away from the foot of this mountain,” says Kumwenda.
She adds: “While we still get sick, because we are human, cases have significantly lessened. That clearly points to the fact that our unprotected water sources were contributing to people in this village falling sick now and then.”
And Chavula sees different related sides to the availability of clean and potable water in Vunganthenda Village.
“Much as we don’t have proper school structures and teachers’ houses in this village, we hope that illiteracy levels will be reduced because our children will not be missing classes needlessly. Teachers, perhaps, will also minimise their apprehension towards staying at this place,” he says.
In fact, RCSM has already extended the precious liquid from the protected spring to a spot where the majority of Vunganthenda residents will be able to draw water.
Gloria Kunyenga, manager for RCSM Community Based Healthcare Programme which is being implemented in Karonga and Zomba with financial support from the Danish Red Cross, says access to clean and potable water must exclude circumstances.
She observes that Vunganthenda Village which is situated in one of the remotest parts of Traditional Authority (Wansambo) is unique in different aspects.
“It is a hard-to-reach area with its roads mostly impassable. Another thing is that because it is a mountainous village, we cannot drill boreholes here. So protecting the springs which were all along being used is the most effective thing,” she says.
In fact, both Chavula and Kumwenda concede that they live in a place which is practically detached from the rest of Karonga.
Says Chavula: “Apart from Red Cross, no organisation has ever come here to offer their services. But we understand: it is all because of the road network. Now [RCSM] has also constructed decent pit latrines for both boys and girls; all this aimed at improving the hygiene status of our children.”
According to Kunyenga, in its impact area in Karonga, RCSM has drilled 17 boreholes and is expected to drill an additional set of seven before the project phases out at the end of this year.
“We have also rehabilitated 32 boreholes in the district to ensure people here have access to safe drinking water,” says Kunyenga.
She adds that within the programme RCSM also educates households in best hygiene practices.
On his part, Project Officer for the Karonga mission, Elliot Nazonse, says the society has also constructed 19 double ventilated improved pit latrines, urinals and hand-washing facilities in 13 schools and two Community Based Care Centres (CBCCs), among many other things.
“Particularly on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, there is a tremendous increase of awareness of sanitation and hygiene. People have sanitary facilities which they are now consistently using,” says Nazonse.
And to people of Vunganthenda Village, the availability of clean and potable water is not the end in their quest for improved livelihoods; rather they see it as the beginning.
“The coming of Red Cross should set a precedent and we expect that more organisations will come to our rescue. The village is big. We do vote because we are Malawians, but sometimes we give up because we never have a polling station here.
“There are no desks in the classrooms of the only school that we have, so our children sit on the dusty floor. Because of the poor road network we have problems selling our farm produce at the nearest market which is 15 kilometres away,” says Chavula.
He, just like the rest of Vunganthenda residents, hopes that government and other stakeholders will for once turn their eyes to the plight of this hilltop village whose mobile phone networks vacillate between Malawi’s Airtel and TNM, Tanzania’s Tigo and Zambia’s Vodacom.
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