For over 3000 people from Senior Group Village Head (SGVH) Nsamba, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chimombo in Nsanje, Makoka Primary School is more than a learning centre-it is their liberation point.
From as early as 2am to about 10pm every day, they are seen walking to and from the place where they draw water.
Makoka is the only place with a functional borehole and all the nine villages under SGHV Nsamba, encompassing over 475 households, depend on it. Rivers, which used to provide people with water, are dry due to persistent dry spells.
The next borehole is at Chimombo GVH headquarters, about five kilometres away. In fact, the distance can go up to 12 kilometres from the furthest of the nine villages under SGVH Nsamba.
Some are lucky to have bicycles which they ride on their way to the water point, others hire the bicycles and those who can brave it, walk the distance to Chimombo. The rest, however, converge at Makoka. With their songs of despair, they patiently wait for their turn to draw water.
Idah January, 45, from Butao Village, SGVH Nsamba, says she spends an average of seven hours at Makoka borehole, just to fill a 20-litre jerry can of water.
“If I get to the borehole at 5am, I find many people on the queue and to draw just one 20-litre jerry can takes me up to around 1pm. If I want to fill five jerry cans, then I have to be at the borehole up to 6pm or 7pm,” she narrates.
With just 20 litres, bathing, or any other way of use of water, apart from cooking and drinking, has become a luxury, according to January.
“My children normally go to school without bathing. I would not allow someone wasting water on a bath every day,” she says, adding that the hot weather conditions in the district make it worse.
“If you find children at my house, and ask for water, they will tell you that there is no water. The situation is the same in most households,” she explains.
The scramble for water has also increased cases of domestic violence in the area. January says most husbands beat up their wives on suspicion that they see other men while out searching for water.
“I am a single mother, so I do not encounter such problems. But I know there have been many cases of men beating their wives because they think women lie to them about going out early to draw water. The chief has settled many of such disputes,” January says.
SGVH Nsamba confirms there are increased cases of marital problems rooted in the village’s poor access to water.
“In the past, a week hardly went by without settling a marital problem. Women used to come to complain that their husbands were suspicious of their moves, especially when leaving homes very early to draw water,” says Nsamba.
This compelled him to order a borehole committee to allow every person to draw just one 20-litre jerry can at a time so that women and children do not spend the whole day at the borehole.
“It seems to have worked, but they still spend seven hours to draw that one jerry can because the people are just many,” he explains.
The problem, according to SGVH Nsamba, is that the area has low water levels, and the borehole at Makoka was drilled many years ago.
As Nsamba discusses the trauma that his people face in accessing water, some young women and men are seen cycling from Chimombo, carrying jerry cans of water.
“These do not want to scramble for water at Makoka. But you need to have a bicycle to cycle five to 12 kilometres to Chimombo, otherwise you wait and scramble at Makoka. My people have no choice,” he explains.
January says if you want someone to bring you three jerry cans of water, you have to hire them at K400.
“Some charge up to K600. At this time of the year when we are facing maize shortages, giving someone K400 for water is a waste, it is better to scramble at Makoka,” she says.
One of those cycling from Chimombo is 18-year-old Agnes Noel, a mother of one. She looks tired, but with three jerry cans at the back of her bicycle, she smiles and says: “Pamjigo (Makoka) pambajala maningi [Makoka borehole is always full of people].”
She adds that cycling to Chimombo everyday is tiresome.
“But we need water, we must have water. The question is where do we get it without hurdles? I cannot manage to spend seven hours at Makoka. Who will take care of my young child?” she asks.
At Chimombo borehole, one finds a handful of people, most of these are from Nsamba area.
Of particular interest is a Standard Three pupil at Matundu Primary School, Bridget Vega (not real name). She has just finished filling her two 20-litre jerry cans.
Women at the borehole help her put the jerry cans on the bicycle, and she jumps onto the saddle, cycles to her home, about two kilometres away.
“I make sure that I draw enough water when I return from school in the afternoon so that I do not miss school the next day,” narrates Bridget.
Such is the suffering of people of Nsamba. This is despite the country developing a National Water Policy in 2007, which, among others, aims at ensuring that “all persons have convenient access to sufficient quantities of water of acceptable quality and the associated water-related public health and sanitation services at any time and within convenient distance.”
During commemoration of this year’s World Water Day on March 22, President Peter Mutharika wondered why Malawi continues to face water challenges when it has plenty of natural water sources.
“We need to reflect on how we use the blessings that we have. How do we explain that a third of the country is covered with water, and yet our people are thirsty?” Mutharika wondered.
The World Bank estimates that the country loses $57 million (about K8.8 billion)due to poor access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.
Each year, ($43 million) about K6.6 billion is lost due to premature death as approximately 8 800 Malawians, including 4 500 under five children, die from diarrhoea-nearly 90 percent of which is directly attributed to poor water, sanitation and hygiene. n