Mbalachanda and Euthini residents in Mzimba are forced to commute at night to beat time-wasting bumps on the abandoned M1, our Staff Reporter JOHN CHIRWA writes.
It is a chilly Monday morning at Mbalachanda Trading Centre in Mzimba. Silhouettes of people waiting to catch a bus to Mzuzu City can be seen loitering in the dark.
Among them, a trio—apparently a husband and his two wives—has braved the biting weather all the way from Chikweyeye Village to the buzzing trading centre in Mzimba North West.
Here, the three are joined by tens of people on a forming queue into a bus to the city where they sell their crop produce and purchase business commodities.
“The earliest bus has already left, so we will have to wait for two more hours for another bus to come,” says Kestina Mkandawire, a tobacco farmer who frequently travels to Mzuzu to buy farm produce.
The buses depart Mbalachanda in the middle of the night and connect to Mzuzu via Manolo, Malidadi and Mpherembe. Some commute between Euthini, Mpherembe and Mzuzu around midnight.
According to bus drivers, this is the only way for them to complete a round trip on the rugged roads.
“We depart at night to arrive in Mzuzu at dawn and return in the evening. This is the norm,” says Mkandawire.
But the commuters endure uneasy wait for the bus.
Many prefer sleeping in the bus for fear of missing the midnight ride.
Businessperson Brenda Nyirenda left her home at 5pm to catch the bus.
“It’s better to fold yourself in the bus for the better part of the night than to arrive at the depot late and find it filled,” she says.
Nyirenda, however, says she wastes valuable time in the bus which could have been used to generate income.
She states: “We are travelling the same way as our grandparents use to. If the road was paved, we wouldn’t be sleeping in buses. Many vehicles would be coming here and we would have the ease to travel any time we want.”
But this is not possible yet. The area has limited travel options.
Nyirenda travels to Mzuzu twice a month to replenish goods in her shop.
“Government needs to upgrade the road network if we are to be liberated from this misery,” she says.
Emily Gondwe says the battered earth road in the Northern Region’s tobacco heartland is impoverishing “hard working people” and their businesses”.
“I travelled to Mzuzu to collect tobacco earning from the bank, but found that the cash is not ready. This means I have to make this highly inconveniencing trip again next week,” says the woman, who has sold 24 bales of tobacco at about K1.5 million.
Njerenjere Luxury Coach frequents the trick road, formerly M1. Inspector Ackson Mwale, says the bumpy road is a nightmare when it rains heavily.
“It’s worse during the rainy season. The buses get stuck in mud. We spend nights on the road. Last year, we had to switch to a longer route when Changoma Bridge was washed away. They have repaired the bridge, but the road remains in a pathetic state,” he says.
Mwale implores government to tar the road.
“Even gravel can reduce the hardship we face. The bumpy earth road causes costly breakdowns to our vehicles. “We are spending a lot on maintenance, especially tyre bursts, bent rims and other mechanical faults,” he says.
Mzimba Heritage Association member Aupson Thole says the old M1 has been neglected for several decades.
Says the former head of Mzuzu Museum, which preserves the history and cultures of the Northern Region: “Although government developed the new M1 through the Viphya Plantation, the abandoned road remains the backbone of Mzimba’s economic activities, including tobacco farming.
“Currently, there are no major trading centres along the new M1. All of our people are on the western side and that’s where the old M1 was.”
According to Thole, the old M1 was connecting Mzimba Boma to the northern border district of Chitipa via Kafukule, Mtwalo, Madise and Njakwa.
“Up to 1992, buses were operating from Mzuzu to Mzalangwe and Mzimba via Kafukule. All feeder roads in Mzimba North were connecting to the M1 and it was easy for people from Euthini, Mpherembe and Mbalachanda to travel,” he says.
Now, no bus travels from Mzuzu in the morning and return in the afternoon.
“This road remains important to the district despite losing the M1 Road tag,” says Thole.
He implores government to extend the newly tarred Jenda-Edingeni Road to Chitipa via Euthini, Mpherembe, Vwaza Marsh, Rumphi, Nyika National Park and Nthalire Rural Growth Centre.
“Currently, we can’t really say we have a tarmac in Mzimba. The district is neglected,” he says.
Road upgrades in Mzimba have been a story broken promises.
Former president Bingu wa Mutharika promised to construct the Ekwendeni-Euthini-Mpherembe Road 15 kilometres a year, but stopped short at Senior Chief Mtwalo’s Ezondweni Headquarters.
The incumbent repeatedly mentions the Jenda-Embangweni-Edingeni and the Mzimba-Mzalangwe roads, but there is little progress on the ground.
In November 2018, the Roads Authority announced plans to upgrade the 45km Mzimba-Eswazini-Mzalangwe stretch within 18 months, but there is nothing on the ground.
Thole calls for a shift from rhetoric to decisive action in the way government delivers roads and other vital services.