Visiting Likoma Island by water has been the reporter’s lifelong dream. But, as SAMUEL KALIMIRA writes, when the chance arose this week, the journey was perilous, in part because of neglect of the water transport system in the country.
By 6:30am on Wednesday, 45-year-old Michael Banda from Senior Chief Kabunduli in Nkhata Bay District, was already at Nkhata Bay jetty as he prepared for the speed boat trip to Likoma Island.
When one sets on a journey to the island on a day the Ilala is not on call, there are limited options. Air travel is out of the question for fish mongers such as him.
He stands on the deck, fully aware that he is standing on dangerous ground because it has already developed serious cracks, barely three years after its commissioning.
“We are now getting used to the situation. And, yet, former Transport minister Jappie Mhango assured us not long ago that the jetty would be strong for 20 years,” he said, almost bitterly.
Wednesday is always a busy day as people who carry soft drinks, maize, rice, among things, wait patiently at the dock. They get relieved only when they see a man-made Ramani Boat coming from the direction of Likoma. This is the only boat which operates between Likoma and Nkhata Bay via Chizumulu on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Illala, on the other hand, arrives at Nkhata Bay jetty on Mondays, goes to Likoma and then back in Nkhata Bay on Saturdays after going to Chirumba in Karonga District and Monkey in Mangochi District, among other places.
Those who are lucky will sometimes jump on an ambulance speed boat which United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund donated to Likoma District Hospital.
It takes two-and-a-half hours for the speed boat to travel from Nkhata Bay to Likoma.
“We have no choice. It is as if the government does not care about us. We cannot afford to hire speed boats and this is the reason we depend on the Illala and Ramani boat,” said 36-year-old Chizumulu resident Owen Mlima.
“What you must know is that we throw time consciousness ideas aside when using water transport. We fix our programmes into these two vessels’ schedules. If you go to Likoma on Monday, then plan that you will come back after a week if you want to use Illala or after three days if you opt for a Ramani boat,” he said.
One of the Likoma residents, Ted Banda, said people of Likoma and Chizumulu lack proper means of transport.
He said, apart from grappling with the problem of inadequate vessels, the locals pay more whenever travelling.
“We pay K3,500 for Illala common apartment when travelling to Likoma. Ramani charges K3,000 per person for the same distance. It looks cheap but you must know that we use cargo boats for travel. This is risky but we cannot do otherwise,” Banda said.
Mercy Chalamanda, who uses the Ramani boat at least twice a month, said water travel is unpredictable because the weather changes anytime.
“The lake may appear calm at times, only for storms and waves to disrupt the tranquil atmosphere.
“I have vomited several times when the weather suddenly becomes disruptive. It is not uncommon to discover that water is getting into the boat,” she said.
Patrick Chavula, a resident of Likoma, said many people in Chizumulu own boats, in much the same way as some people own bicycles upland.
However, to hire a boat between the two Islands, one has to cough K50,000 one-way.
No wonder, boats often capsise or lose direction when Mwera and other winds take centre-stage as people opt for cheap and reliable boats.
Likoma District Council Deputy Chairperson Ernest Gulu urged the Central Government to declare Likoma as a disaster-prone district.
He argues that cases of boats capsising and sinking on Lake Malawi are very common and people do not have speedy and reliable transport to the mainland.
“Some boats that ferry people are a death trap. Accidents normally happen when there are waves on the lake. We had some cases where people went missing with their boats. We need proper modes of transport here,” Gulu said.
Department of Disaster Management Affairs Commissioner Charles Kalemba said processes were underway to buy and deploy a rescue speed boat to the district.
“Imagine, this district relies on a speed boat from Monkey Bay. Imagine if a disaster were to happen here. On top of that, we cannot be deploying search and rescue teams on the mainland leaving out Likoma,” Kalemba said.
Ministry of Transport and Public Works spokesperson Kelvin Sato said they would strategise with Mota-Engil, with which they have a 35-year contract. The company runs Malawi Shipping Company.
“We are committed to ensuring that people have access to proper water transport,” Sato said.
Social commentator Moses Mkandawire said people of Likoma deserved good forms of transport.
“We, as a country, should ensure that Likoma and Chizumulu islands’ people have proper modes of transport. The Central Government is obliged to do something about the problem,” Mkandawire said.
Otherwise, the 14,000 people that stay on Likoma and Chizumulu islands may continue to perceive Lake Malawi as a watery grave, instead of a tourist attraction natural phenomenon.