The easter boat tragedy in Rumphi has exposed laxity in the enforcement of marine laws to make sure that only seaworthy boats ply their trade on the lake. JOHN CHIRWA visited the area.
Descending Boliwoli hills, travellers are bombarded by postcard views of a narrow, low-lying strip sandwiched between expansive green hills and picturesque Lake Malawi.
From the lofty perch, where a jagged, constricted tarmac that perilously winds to Chiweta Trading Centre in Rumphi, a narrow, dusty road that split the cassava fields on the northern shores of the freshwater lake comes into view.
It’s rocky. It’s unpaved. It’s scary to motorists heading for Mlowe, a shoreline locality where Malawians are literally dying for a better road.
At 5am, Mlowe is already awake. Three beach-bound boats bring passengers from Zunga, Tchalo, New Salawe and Old Salawe. For the hard-to-reach population, the wooden boats are a lifeline to the “rest of Malawi.”
The boatloads comprise patients, businesspeople and fish mongers with basketfuls of fish who started off around 4am with basketful of fish.
As golden sands buried dying waves on the beach, the locals remembered their kin “swallowed” by the lake.
Travellers face a risk of dying on the lake because the shoreline area has no alternative way of travelling, they say.
Before the boats dock, minibus touts clamour for customers.
As a convoy of overloaded, rickety minibuses and pick-ups speed off, silence reigns. The boats lie lifeless on the temporary jetty.
Here, boats travel twice a day—at dawn and around 3pm.
Departing boats are loaded with crates of beverages, cartons, wheelbarrows, livestock and bags of maize destined for the lakeside localities with no passable road.
After 30 minutes, an engine boat to Tchalo is packed and ready to go.
The boat has eight lifejackets for the 20 passengers, but not no-one on board is wearing them.
The capsizing of a boat which killed 10 people at Zunga on Easter has jolted boat crews to always carry life-savers, says Rabson Zakazaka.
“We don’t know when the lifejackets will be needed, but people here are accustomed to lake travels. They seem to think that they can’t drown,” says the boat operator.
The fishing boat carries 30 people despite being built for no more than 20.
Each pays K1 500 for the two-hour voyage to Tchalo, the home of the majority of 54 survivors and 10 victims of the Easter tragedy.
As the wobbly vessel chugged past Zunga, Zakazaka pointed at the beachside spot where the overloaded boat capsized, saying the misfortune would not have happened if the hilly countryside had a road.
“It is surprising government doesn’t heed our cry for safe travel options. We need a good road from Chiweta to Tchalo to stop people from taking risky boats which are few, unseaworthy, uninspected and without lifejackets,” he says.
Only a single reliable boat plies between Mlowe and Tchalo.
The other, which sails from Nkhata Bay, travels once a week.
This leaves most travellers so desperate that they squeeze themselves in overloaded boats.
Overloading and lax enforcement of marine laws is highly to blame, says Traditional Authority Mwamlowe.
“All marine vessels in the area are not certified,” he says, explaining: “As chiefs, we have taken it upon ourselves to ensure that boat owners respect these laws to avoid what we witnessed on Easter.”
To Mwamlowe, the desired road upgrading is a top priority for the lakeside population.
The road to Tchalo ends at Nkhombwa, almost 5km from Mlowe.
The rest is a stony footpath that meanders to Usisya in Nkhata Bay.
In 1999, government unveiled plans to construct a 120km road connecting Chiweta with Usisya.
“Engineers and surveyors came, but the plan died a natural death. The hopes were dashed,” he recalls.
He wants the promise fulfilled.
“In case of fatal road accidents, we will find the bodies unlike what we saw when the boat capsized recently,” he says.
Rumphi District Council is constructing a gravel road to Tchalo under the Public Works Programme.
Frank Mkandawire, the director of planning and development at the council, says this is just a short-term measure.
The lasting solution lies with the central government’s plans to make the Chiweta-Usisya Road dream come true.
Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe could not offer any clue regarding the commencement of construction works.
“We will have to do it, but not this year, not next year. But we will have to do it,” he told The Nation.
Tchalo residents want government to improve marine transport system if the road project is too expensive.
“It is time government repaired MV Mtendere, Chauncy Maples and other grounded passenger vessels to support the aged MV Ilala which travels once a week,” says Philip Munthali.
In the meantime, travels on this excluded part of the beautiful lake remains a risky undertaking-not for the fainthearted.
The safety of passengers is not guaranteed.
Those in a hurry have to slowdown as the chancy boats operate morning and evening only. n