It is 10.28 on Monday morning, February 26 2018. The place is Mbalaka Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makanjira in Mangochi District north-east of Lake Malawi, bordering Mozambique.
Police Mobile Service (PMS) officers have mounted a “temporary” roadblock here on the bank of Luweza River, almost six kilometres from the old border post at Lukono Village following a directive by Malawi Government to “temporarily” shift from there where police had always been since 2010/11.
There are about 14 villages on this stretch to the ‘former’ boundary between Malawi and Mozambique at Lukono.
I am standing face to face with security officers brandishing guns. More, about seven, come out of their tent after hearing that a reporter wants to cross the roadblock to the ‘disputed’ villages.
“Your name and identity [ID] papers!” bellows one officer. His tone betrays anger.
“Ayami Mkwanda, The Nation reporter,” I say with a calm voice, showing him my national ID.
“This card does not identify you as a journalist. It identifies you as a Malawian,” an officer on my left observes.
“Well, I don’t have my ID yet. The company is still processing it as I have just joined them. But…,” he cuts me.
“So, how can we believe you?” a third officer wonders, pacing about as if looking for a hidden enemy on the river bank.
Then silence ensues in our midst. Sixty seconds pass without either party speaking. I hear water flowing in the river to the lake.
I need to act fast or will be arrested and put in custody for being a ‘spy’ or, if I am lucky, I will be sent back and fail to do the stories I have come here for.
With the wrangles between Malawian villages on the Mozambican side and their Mozambican neighbours after the border re-affirmation in 2008, passage through these villages to the border has become difficult.
Yet, this is the same place we passed through when going to Lichinga in Mozambique in 2010.
“Mr. Mkwanda, how can we believe that you are here as a reporter and not a spy?” their in-charge brings me back to reality from my thoughts.
“See this paper. It outlines my story ideas that I want to do here in Makanjira,” I say handing the paper to him.
He quickly goes through it and then hands it to the officer on my left. He reads it to the bottom and finds fault with it immediately.
“The deadline for submission of these stories was yesterday, February 25,” he shows me my own paper, mockingly.
“Yes but the stories are not done yet. I mean this deadline, I put it myself to…,” I speak, trying hard to control my exasperation.
“These are lies. You submitted these stories and you are here on another mission,” he yells.
Now I feel tension growing. I look at the man who is acting as my guide and his eyes lock with mine.
“I am not a spy. I arrived here in Makanjira yesterday from Blantyre. I even went to meet Chief Makanjira to inform him of my mission. It was him who gave me this man here to take me to the villages,” I explain.
Chief Makanjira had recommended that I go out with his nduna who is well-known by everyone, including the police, for my safety.
“You know Mr. Mkwanda; there is tension in the villages you are going to. The people there have stopped trusting anyone. Mozambican soldiers periodically go there—they say it’s their zone. Per chance you meet them…,” the officer on my left cautions.
Meanwhile, another officer who is not bombarding me with questions tells me how the situation is like in the area.
“Even we, security men, are not manning the ‘former’ border post at Lukono for fear of clashing with our Mozambican counter-parts who have moved their post further to Che Chala Village,” he explains.
After realising that I will not convince them, I ask them to call my supervisor James Chavula.
“My name is Sub-Inspector….in Makanjira. On what mission have you sent Ayami Mkwanda to Makanjira?” the in-charge asks.
After few seconds, the in-charge hangs up and says: “Your boss will call after 20 minutes.”
By this time, I had already spent half an hour, surrounded by security officers.
After what seems like eternity, the call from my supervisor comes.
“You have been cleared, Mr. Mkwanda. Take care in your sojourns,” speaks the officer.
I beckon the kabaza man who took me from Mpiripiri. The officer on my left removes the bamboo pole lying on two vertical forked poles over the earth road, still looking at me suspiciously.
Just as the kabaza passes through, the officers trail behind on military motorcycles to offer me security on the Mozambican side.