To others, it might have been just a bridge but to the people of Chapananga and Changoima villages, the over-pass on Mwanza River in the southern Malawi district of Chikhwawa was an essential part of their life.
In his 52 years in Chapananga Village, Peterson Dausi has seen at least three bridges built over the river. Unfortunately, all have failed to stand the test of time leaving people of the two villages destitute for a good part of the year.
Once the rains begin sometime in October, the river is impassable for at least six months.
Dausi is a businessman who sells different types of fruits depending on what is in season. But his supply comes from Changoima, which, according to him, is blessed with fertile soils that allow the growth of various fruits.
“Once the rains begin, you cannot even think of crossing the river. A lot of people who have dared do so have died. The bridge is so important because a lot of the fruits that we have here in Chapananga come from Changoima. We get mangoes, bananas, groundnuts and potatoes, among other things. The soil there is very fertile. I suspect it is because it is hilly.
“In the six months that we cannot travel to the hills, I am left with nothing much to do but piece work which is not easy. Of course, I am a farmer, but what I get from my produce cannot be compared to what I get when I am selling the fruits,” said Dausi.
Safe motherhood woes
While Dausi worries about his fruit business because of the absence of the bridge, Senior Chief Chapananga is concerned about safe motherhood.
Chapananga Health Centre is the headquarters and women are encouraged to give birth there where there are trained personnel. But, according to the chief, the absence of the bridge has resulted in some women giving birth along the river banks and others have been swept away by the river.
“I do not think it can be overemphasised on how important the bridge is. It gives us hope because we know the new government has made safe motherhood a priority. They are planning on constructing waiting shelters. Still, without the bridge, the shelters will service one end.
“People from group village Finaisi and all the other group villages from Changoima rely on Chapananga Health Centre. But once the rains fall, it is really a challenge. As chief and member of the safe motherhood committee, it really breaks my heart,” said Chapananga.
The first bridge over Mwanza River came with the MCP government. But in 1994, when the country embraced multipartyism, people in the vicinity started encroaching the area. They cut down trees and the river widened due to soil erosion. Eventually the bridge was washed away.
The governments that followed reconstructed the bridge, but it was washed away with heavy rains.
“It is not that we have never had a bridge. We have had three in fact, but they were poorly built and failed to withstand the pressure of running water. What we are looking for is something sustainable that will save lives of our women and children, that will restore the development relationship between the two areas,” said the chief.
Chapananga is 50 kilometres from Chikhwawa Boma. The people in the area say they would not worry much about the bridge if they could easily travel to the boma. But the roads are bad and rocky and motorists fear for their cars.
Dausi says if it were easy, in the six months that he cannot cross over to Changoima, he would travel to Chikhwawa Boma instead. But that too has its own challenges.
It is not that Chapananga has been forgotten by government. The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development is actually in the midst of constructing a rural growth development centre that will have markets sheds, butchery, shops and a bus depot, among other things.
The K153 million project started in February this year and is expected to end this December.
Deputy Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Augustine Mtendere said when his ministry was taking such a big project to the area, it had put into consideration all the challenges.
“We are aware as ministry of the need for a road and ensuring that all transportation means are in good condition. The road is actually in the budget and the bridge will be part of the project.
“The idea is to reduce the number of people travelling to urban areas looking for employment. When they have their own developed area here, why should they leave? But there is need to look at the road and the bridge which are vital for developing this area further,” said Mtendere.
It remains to be seen if this government will come through for the people of Chapananga and Changoima.