Grace Chirwa is still hard at work when we arrive at Mpitilira Primary School, an hour’s drive west of Mangochi Boma, on a scorching Friday around 7.30pm.
With recent public sector reforms, the exhausted registration officer has the liberty to knock off at 4.30pm.
But there is a good reason she is still on duty, smiling as she keys biographical details of these rural Malawians in her computer, photographing them, capturing fingerprints, scanning their identification documents and ensuring everyone eligible for the national identity card registers.
“The mass registration exercise got off to a slow start two weeks ago, but the turnout is overwhelming as we draw close to the end of our time here. With time and increased awareness, there is a rush as no one wants to be left out,” she explains.
She is admittedly accustomed to villagers knocking on her door as early as 4.30am to grab forms before they queue to register later in the day.
By 6am, the remote school is home to a lengthy line and Grace and her workmate happily serve them one at a time.
She planned to take a day off the next day, but there was no time to rest as the usual visitors inundated a teacher’s house where she was putting up.
“We set out to register just about 1 132 people, but we have registered about 1 450,” she says with a coy smile.
The registration officers were good to shift to another centre in the Northern Region, but the lengthy queues confirmed their mission was not accomplished yet.
Unsurprisingly, a village head in the area delayed their departure as more people wanted to be registered before the National Registration Bureau (NRB) retrieved them.
Here, Gogo Bakili, a granny in her 80s, had waited all her life to become a registered Malawian.
The elderly citizen could not wait to get hold of an identification card which will distinguish her as a Malawian worldwide.
With the card, to be issued in 60 days, she will not have to register again to vote in the 2019 Tripartite Elections.
Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) clerks will just scan the barcode on the backside of the card to access her biographical information and ascertain her eligibility to vote, says Talliq Mallick, the lead consultant who is coordinating the registration process at the United Nations Development Fund in Lilongwe.
He told the press in Lilongwe: “Previously, Malawi was the only country in Southern Africa without a reliable national identification system. The good news is that the country now has a robust, secure and fool-proof system unlike any other in this part of Africa.
“The IDs being issued by NRB will ease the way Malawians access vital services, including voting, healthcare, social cash transfers and financial services.”
This is why Gogo Bakili, who has been presiding over the initiation of girls to adulthood in a secret shrine in the remote village, has left the initiates to stand in the lengthy queue.
For her, having proof of citizenship is somewhat a rebirth.
“We need this card because we have gone many years without anything to prove that we are deserving of the services meant for Malawians. Now we can buy subsidised farm inputs without relying on anyone to vouch for us,” she says.
And she asks a question which underscores the importance of the mass registration process.
“Look at me closely,” she says, “can you tell whether I am Malawian or a foreigner?”
In border zones, judging people by looks, stature, language and dressing has failed to prevent neighbours from Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia from accessing healthcare facilities and vital facilities exclusively meant for Malawians.
But the major setback is that Malawians appear too slow to respond to the imperative to get registered.
The village head at Mpitilira likened most Malawians to an earthen pot, saying they take time “to be heated up”.
“We are slow to respond when asked to take part in public activities. Registration will be almost over when we come to appreciate its importance. This is why many people are panicking in these dying minutes,” the traditional leader explained.
Presiding over funerals in his areas, he reasons that even among the dead, the last to die is sometimes buried on the rocky side of a communal graveyard.
According to NRB spokesperson Norman Fulatira, the sluggish response has been noticeable from the start.
“So far, it has almost been a trend in all the 18 districts where registration has taken place,” he indicated.
He attributed this to the staggered deployment of registration teams.
“The teams are not sent at once, but in bits. This sometimes creates uncertainty over the start dates, thereby delaying people’s response,” he explained.
NRB, which registered about four million Malawians in the first two phases and envisages registering about nine million by December, keeps redeploying its teams when they meet the target population.
Some of them are retrieved with queues in sight and latecomers end up being excluded from the vital process.
With the fifth phase underway in the North, the locals blame this on low awareness—the reason government roped in the National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) Trust. n