The Nacala Corridor Railway Project scheduled to complete in December 2014 has been hailed as a landmark project that will significantly reduce the cost of transporting goods. But the rail line has piled up misery for a remote school in Mwanza as JAMES CHAVULA writes in this concluding article in the series on the project.
The mention of the Brazilian mining and logistics firm, Vale, conjures up images of the railway taking shape in Chikhwawa, Mwanza and Balaka—the increased pubs, sex workers, money circulation and sexually transmitted infections.
But the $1.1 billion rail corridor, envisaged to ease the hauling of coal from the multinational company’s mines in the village of Moatze in Mozambique to the deep seaport of Nacala on the other side of the former Portuguese colony, is a harbinger of more problems for pupils at Mphete Primary School on the border of Mwanza and Neno.
In the remote locality, ‘mphete’ literally means a precious ring and the school is clearly a jewel to the pupils that they thought it wise to pave a road leading to the teaching staff office with a sign telling all residents and visitors: Don’t spoil our school.
However, that metaphorical sign went unheeded one day in July 2011 when representatives of Vale’s subcontractor on the I79km Nacala Corridor Project, Mota-Engil, visited the school to tell the head teacher that his deputy had seven days to relocate from her house because it was lying in the way of the railway under construction.
The civil engineering firm descended on the school on the agreed date and demolished the house with heavy machines that have become a common sight on the corridor project and promised to build a new house within six months.
Yet, the sticking issue with the demolition mission seemingly paved with good intentions is that the contractors have not come back to build the promised house, leaving the learners with one more teacher who turns up late for classes because she now lives far from the school.
“When they promised to demolish the house in a week’s time, they didn’t miss the deadline. Now we wonder why they keep missing the deadlines to build a new house they promised us and the children of this area,” said head teacher Mark Kunkeyani.
Mota-Engil has consistently refused our repeated requests for comment on people’s concerns over the impact of the project.
The tragedy with the school is that it has 14 teachers who serve eight classes comprising 494 pupils, but there were only four staff houses on site. This means that 10 teachers reside in the surrounding community where good houses are hard to find and many are dilapidated, shoddily built and lack basic facilities such as water, sanitation and electricity.
“The few houses at the school and its surroundings are the reason some teachers refuse to be posted here. Some of those that report for duties without knowing what they are getting into end up asking for transfers,” a teacher, who refused to be named due to fear of reprisals, put the situation in context.
At stake is the pupil’s right to education, said Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) executive director Benedicto Kondowe.
“With the existing shortage of teachers’ houses, it means the pupils already have to do with the sight of teachers coming late for classes because they walk long distances from home.
“Looking at the rainy season, it means the teachers are likely to miss the classes when it rains heavily, leaving the little ones as the ultimate losers,” said Kondowe.
Some teachers live over two kilometres from the remote school, the nearly 30-minute walk the deputy head teacher Clessessia Kagawa, one of few role models for girls at the learning institution, now endures after the demolition of her house in 2011.
As her new house remains a far-fetched dream, education activist Kondowe also backs calls by the community that the school should be closed and a new one constructed far from the railway line to safeguard the children from accidents and noise pollution likely to emanate from cargo trains transporting coal in their midst.
The Environmental Act requires investors to conductor a comprehensive environmental impact assessment outlining how they plan to confront new challenges catalysed by increased activity.
“Development usually comes with negative effects and I hope there was a thorough impact’s assessment in the case under discussion. It is the responsibility of government to determine whether the school is still conducive to teaching and learning in view of the railway line that passes in its vicinity,” said Kondowe.
With the acquisition of ‘right of way’ for the construction of the railway line, Vale came up with an environmental and social impact management plan which showed as potential impact of the project the loss of assets—land, crops, homes and public structures—requiring an adequate and timely compensation and resettlement plan.
Mwanza district education manager Harris Kachale said among other agreements with the district council Vale undertook to build a fence around the school to save the learners from distractions and hazards. However, the promise is paving the way for speculation and frustration because of Vale’s delays to remit funds for the exercise.
“As a district education office, we were aware that the construction of the railway line required the demolition of the teacher’s house and another one belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture, but an agreement was made between Vale and the district council to ensure that new houses similar to those that were built are constructed. We have already come up with a list of quantities required and we are just waiting for the company to deposit the money into the District Development Committee bank account,” Kachale.
It is this long wait that has pushed the locals to the edge. Kachale could not reveal the deadlines of the agreement and the amount at stake.
The headmaster said Vale assured him that it would be ready between August and December 2012.
The ruins of the broken promise are a major worry for the community, including a crowd of children that was spotted playing on the rubble of the demolished house.
“As a former pupil of Mphete Primary School, I feel bad to see one of the few houses on site demolished. I have always considered a good learning environment a lifeline to a better future and I fear for the young ones if all the teachers are pushed out of school. The children cannot continue learning the hard way as we were doing some years better. They deserve better,” said Ben Mlewa, who lives in the vicinity.
Mlewa and his community credit the construction works for catalysing an upsurge in the prevalence of pubs, sex work and sexually transmitted infections. Also up in the sky is the cost of living.
“Looking at the ruins, I think the only winners are our friends who have been paid millions in compensation and resettlement allowances,” he sighed, clutching a school-going child.
Indeed, some people, such as Group Village Head Thambala, have received up to K7 million as compensation for ceding their piece of land to the railway project. They have built houses and shops even at Mwanza Town, bought cars and motorcycles, and invested in other avenues.
“The wise have invested the compensation package wisely and they will enjoy the fruits of the railway construction for the rest of lives, but the foolish ones will live to regret,” said Thambala’s wife, Marita Edward,
Among those regretting are the majority who spent the money on booze and other forms of merriment, the majority who ended up contracting STIs which have doubled because they became millionaires overnight.
Failure to strengthen the communities’ ability to cope with increased money circulation is the reason many are contracting STIs, said Mwanza West Member of Parliament Dr Paul Chibingu who sits on the Parliamentary Committee on Health.
Furthermore, there are the likes of Grave Loudon of Thambala, whom we found moulding bricks for a new house with corrugated iron sheets to replace a dilapidated grass-thatched hut, who feel the K2.3 million they got is too little for their fertile farming land, the only reliable source of livelihood they inherited from their ancestors with the hope of handing it over to their children.
Like these affected groups, the community surrounding Mphete Primary School do not seem to understand how they will benefit from the project.
They look at themselves as victims of what the Railway Gazette termed “the race to the coals” in 2008.
As part of the global glow on the Brazil’s $250 billion investment in Africa, The Economist gives a graphic glimpse of what could be the source of the problems for the 494 learners and 14 teachers at Mphete.
The setting is the sweaty heat of Northern Mozambique where Vale is digging up coal at its mine near the village of Moatze.
“A 400 000-tonne mound sits ready to burn,” reads a feature article by the US magazine.
“The mine can churn out 4 000 tonnes an hour, but the railways and ports cannot cope. Vale is working to improve a line through Malawi to take the coal for export,” adds the article.
The railway might be an important part of Vale’s future, enthused the firm’s Africa boss Ricardo Saad in an interview with the US magazine. It may as well be the most evident facet of Brazil’s economic inroads on the continent, the footprints Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva termed the country’s “historic debt” to Africa in reference to 3.5 million Africans shipped to Brazil as slaves.
President Joyce Banda broke the ground marking the launch of the project on December 6 2012 following an agreement government signed with Vale in 2011.
But the people at Mphete Primary School must have been attentive that sunny afternoon and heard the Malawi leader saying it will ease the cost of transporting goods which remains a major setback to doing business, imports and exports in the country.
Minister of Mining John Bande last year told a conference of miners in South Africa that the project, coupled with the maintenance of existing railways it entails, will also help the country export its new-found minerals.
But the cutting of landing costs and the revival of the country’s near-derelict rail network is too remote to the affected communities. Those who rely on Mphete Primary School want justice done at every level of the project scheduled to end in December this year.
They also need outreach activities to sensitise and raise awareness among people in the corridor impact area on the gains, plans and coping strategies. Equally vocal are calls for corporate social responsibility projects.
Without this, they view the by-products of the emerging railway line and the prevailing business-as-usual attitude as a recipe for bleak chances in pupils’ life and loss of future land uses and economic activities such as residences, agriculture and trading—something which often singles out women as the worst hit.
From the back of a motorcycle we rode through the area, the side effects and laxity characterising the railway project thundered past: No replanting of trees where forests are being uprooted to give way for the railway line and age-old charcoal-making. No water sprays to curb saturations of dust which have left roadside communities reluctant to cook or dry their clothes outside. Free-for-all noise pollution as heavy construction machines split farm land to pave the way for the coal avenue.
Equally unsettling is Mwanza District Council’s study confirming STIs have been on the rise since the project began.
In the minds of those affected, the situation summons one cry to Vale: Come, come and fulfil the promise.