Until recently, Phalasito was a thick hill where villagers used to harvest trees for constructing homes and granaries.
Now, the hilly setting almost five kilometres west of Rumphi town has become a bare monument of what the locals consider the most unsettling political lie for the past five years.
Almost every villager asks: “We saw President Peter Mutharika presiding over a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction of Rumphi Teachers’ Training College (TTC), but when will it really begin?”
They are clearly groping in the dark. They don’t know when it will begin.
Even Mphepo Zinayi Mkandawire, a famous witchdoctor and diviner based at Chozoli in the vicinity, cannot foretell when the promise Mutharika made as Minister of Education, Science and Technology will come true.
“We don’t know when government will come to construct the college. It’s now five years,” says the head of a household earmarked for relocation and resettlement to pave the way for the college that never is.
He vividly remembers the day Mutharika, then a chosen heir of his brother and fallen president Bingu wa Mutharika, visiting the village with pomp and promising to start construction soon.
“We thought he was serious because surveyors came and put up about 30 beacons around the site. But to this day, nothing has happened,” he says.
Mkandawire, who admittedly settled on the spot in 1972, feels putting beacons without compensating six families on the land is State-sponsored land grabbing.
He owns almost 12 hectares comprising two houses and an office.
“The authorities have not said anything or come to assess our property. We don’t know the payout we will get when we are finally relocated,” he says.
This information gap has catalysed rumours and a belief that they were supposed to shift last year.
“This discouraged some of us from growing crops and renovating our houses. We only realised it was a lie in January this year,” he decries.
They planted late, joining almost 6.8 million Malawians facing starvation due to erratic rains.
Presently, they are hearing that a contractor has been identified to start constructing the teachers’ college without paying the resettlement package.
“The problem is that we are not involved in their meetings,” he says.
Mkandawire’s concerns are echoed by all the families enduring this uncertainty.
In the vicinity, 339 pupils at Phalasito Primary School have to do with nine teachers.
The institution, planned to be upgraded into a demonstration school for the TTC, meets international requirements for a teacher to serve no more than 40 learners.
But the country has one of the worst ratios globally as some teachers attend to up to 110 pupils.
Phalasito School Management Committee chairperson Sajeni Jumbo wants government to construct the college, better classrooms and provide decent housing to lessen the teachers’ plight and workload.
The TTC project coincided with Total Land Care plans to add two classroom blocks at the school with two antiquated classrooms and two staff houses against nine teachers.
“Government officials stopped the project, saying they already had plans to build new structures to turn it into a demonstration school,” Jumbo says.
The existing classrooms house four classes only, with the remaining four grass-thatched shacks yet the community moulded 120 000 bricks for the TLC project.
“When they stopped us, we decided to build something temporary for our children,” he said when asked about the structures that are risky and unreliable during the rainy season.
Group village head Chitandiko wants government to come clear and let the locals revert to their normal life without bothering about the project on hold.
“It is difficult to find new donors to construct classrooms at the primary school,” he says.
Besides Rumphi TTC, government also pledged to build colleges in Mchinji and Chikwawa districts. During Bingu’s reign, Saudi Fund, Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (Badea) offered $34 million for construction of the three TTCs earmarked to train 540 students each.
Procurement and other pre-construction works were supposed to run from 2009 to 2012, but the process drags on.
Last year, Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced that it has identified a consultant and approved designs for the Rumphi TTC which was slated for completion next year. However, the ministry admitted that it will take longer.
The ministry’s spokesperson Lindiwe Chide says the identification of the contractor is almost over.
“All tenders have been submitted and the ministry is simply waiting for approval from the funders. All things being equal, we will start construction immediately after the approval,” she says.
Chide reckons the ministry has not recieved any complaint as the site was said to be virgin land.
“It’s only in Mchinji where we had compensation issues and we paid them two years ago,” she explains.
In August, the general assembly of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia accused government of politicising the proposed Rumphi TTC project to amass votes.
They believe the project was just a campaign tool because it was launched just a few weeks before by-elections in Rumphi Central Constituency.
Youth and Society executive director Charles Kajoloweka says delay in the project shows lack of commitment by government to promote education which is key to empowering the youth and developing the country.
He says: “Government has to justify the delay. Was the money for the project abused? Parliament also needs to take up the issue.”n