The Mangochi-Makanjira Road has been in the news over the years as one road that needs upgrading. But year after year, the song has been the same until it has become a tired refrain now.
Politicians have come—some travelled on it and made promises of upgrading it—one of the oldest roads in the country, only to leave office with it still wearing a rugged surface. But such are promises by politicians—always made under the emotional heat of political expediency.
From Malindi Turn-Off, it is 101 kilometres to Mpiripiri in Makanjira. There is, however, a single-lane tarmac road from the turn-off that passes through gentle land sandwiched between the lake of stars [Lake Malawi] on its west and the green hills on the right.
As the road rumbles on parallel to the lake, the flat terrain opens to a panoramic view of palm trees and stunted bushes characteristic of a savanna countryside. Given it becomes a wide tarmac road, this could be the most enjoyable and comfortable ride as there are no mountains to climb all the way.
The road passes through 93 bridges to Mpiripiri over which two rivers—Unga and Lugola— contain gold ore up-stream to their sources in the green mountains to the east.
All the way to Mpiripiri, the single lane road is paved by over 157 baobab trees and 60 mgosa trees on its sides—depicting the beauty of nature on this side of the lake.
At Kadango Trading Centre, the village to professor Jack Mapanje as mentioned in his memoir And chameleons Are Hungry At Night, there is a big kachere tree estimated at over 60 years, according to tradition in the area.
The tarmac road has ended at Che Mdoka—about 40 kilometres from Malindi Turn-Off. From here, the road crawls on dusty surface to the very end, at Fort Maguire in Chimphole—about 96 kilometres away.
At Pitisa River, the water literally flows on the low concrete slab, overflowing to alarming levels. Once two years ago, a police car was swept away by the raging waters. Last year, a matola car was also swept away.
The journey to Makanjira costs K3 000—from Mangochi Boma—travelling on a matola car, and takes five hours to reach Mpiripiri. On a good road, the hours would be reduced to two, just as the cost of transport.
From the turn-off, the road passes through trading centres such as Malindi, Lungwena, Namalaka, Kadango, Nyango, Chiponda, Makoloni, Saiti, M’dala, Lugola, Bakili, Binali, Lukoloma, Chiwoko, Makanjira to Chimphole, about 15 of them, which are hubs of business activities whose potential is only limited by the poor road.
At Namalaka Trading Centre, on the very edge of the lake, are many modern houses with corrugated iron sheets. The settlement is one of the richest communities on that shore line.
Here, one will be tempted to think these houses are in Area 47 in Lilongwe or Kameza in Blantyre. Being a reputable fishing ground and having young men who have ever trekked to South in search of greener pastures, Namalaka is a town on the rise.
Yet, for all its wealth, there is no good road to complement efforts of those who are building it.
Inusa Alabi is a young man from Namalaka with a modern house and a car, but rues the poor road network that becomes impassable during rainy season.
“The road is poor. During rainy season it becomes slippery to use on a car,” he says.
But it is not only ambitious young men like Alabi who are complaining about the poor road. Makanjira as an agricultural area has farmers who are also not happy that the road projects have not yet commenced, contrary to everyday rhetoric.
“As a farmer, I grow rice, maize, cassava and pigeon peas but fail to transport the produce to Mangochi because transport is very expensive,” complains Yakiti Kayaye from Mpiripiri.
In addition to farming, this eastern side of the lake boasts of fishing grounds such as Mtundu, Ng’ombe, Namalaka, Kadango, Binali and Limbuka, where usipa, chambo, kampango, sanjika, mbaba, utaka and catfish are major species caught.
In fact, all the way fish traders are seen with big baskets waiting for cars to take them to Mangochi, from where some go to Blantyre, Liwonde, Zomba, Balaka and Lilongwe to sell the fish. Granted, luck is not on their side, they spend days waiting for transport.
Marriam Mapira trades in fish. She buys the fish from Che Binali fishing ground and takes it to Lilongwe.
However, she is complaining about the exorbitant cost of transporting fish from Che Binali to Mangochi Boma.
Says Mapira: “Matola cars charge us K1 000 for every dengu [basket] of usipa. And the costs go up during rainy season.”
According to Mangochi North legislator Benedicto Chambo, the road to Makanjira will not only open up the area to other businesses, but also to tourism industry.
“This part of the lake has the cleanest of beaches, sands and many beautiful places ideal for the building of holiday resorts,” says Chambo.
It is an observation shared by Senior Chief Makanjira, who says development in the area is being hindered by lack of a tarmac road.
“Given a tarmac road, many areas along the lake would be developed. And there is no beautiful place like this side of the lake,” says Chief Makanjira.
Efforts to talk to Roads Authority (RA) on whether there are plans to bitumise the road proved futile after Portia Kajanga, the spokesperson, referred us to the Principal Secretary (PS) Francis Chinsinga who did not pick our calls.
But, according to Chambo, there is a project expected to be bankrolled by the Government of the Republic of China, but he does not know when exactly the project will start.
In the meantime, cries by the people from Makanjira and fish traders to have the road bituminised are becoming louder.