Three years ago, there were only three island districts that were isolated in the country. These three districts were disconnected from the rest because of poor road networks.
With no reliable public transport, travelling to and from these districts was hell. Matola, the illegal and road unfriendly pickups, were the only reliable means of transport to and from these almost ‘forgotten’ districts.
With the news that the Nchalo-Bangula Road—the shortest remaining part of the almost completed Chikhwawa-Nsanje Road—heading towards completion, Malawians living in Nsanje have, at least, a reason to smile.
So too are those in Chitipa. The Karonga-Chitipa Road is completed, and was officially opened by President Joyce Banda a few weeks ago.
But as the 206 000 Malawians living in Chitipa and 270 000 in Nsanje are happy with their roads, 137 000 Malawians living in Neno are still left in the colds of isolation.
“It is as if we committed a grievous sin to government. Why are we the only district without a tarmac road, after raising our concerns many times? Why only us, when everybody has it or is getting it?” complains Robert Ncheza.
Ncheza—a businessperson who sells small fish in the district—is one of the ten locals from Neno waiting for transport on a Friday morning at Neno Turn-off along Zalewa-Mwanza Road.
The pickup is visibly old and dilapidated. It is stationed with the support of huge rocks on its back tyres.
“It is the main means of transport to Neno. If you miss it this morning, you wait until four in the afternoon, when the one returning from Neno Boma arrives,” continues Ncheza.
At exactly 10.25 am, the Toyota pickup takes off with 15 passengers and other goods. It is a 45-kilometre journey from the turn-off to Neno Boma. With A K1 200 fare, it takes between two and three hours to get to the boma.
Compared to the 67-kilometre journey between Blantyre and Zomba which takes about an hour and whose fare is currently at K1 000, the trip to Neno is hell and expensive.
When the Blantyre-Zomba Road reconstruction is through, time to be spent on the road will be reduced. Yet, that is still a dream for Neno.
The road is narrow at just three metres. Potholed and rocky, it snakes through dense forests and hills. During dry season, it is dusty and bumpy. And during rainy season, it is muddy and cloggy—making it almost impassable.
“I remember an incident in 2011 during the rainy season when I travelled to Mwanza to process a loan with a bank. We got stuck in the mud midway through the journey. It was raining heavily and there was hardly a house close by where we could run to for shelter. We got stuck there for close to four hours, drenched,” says Ncheza.
Amid bumps and the cracking of heads, the vehicle arrives safely in Neno exactly at 13:05.
But does it make sense for Malawians to be caught in such a poor transport system 49 years after independence?
Neno as a district that was declared such in 2002, has high potential for development. But with a bad road, development is a dream.
In 2011, Roads Authority (RA) spokesperson Portia Kajanga said government had hired EMC Jatula Associates, a Malawian consulting engineering company, to carry out a feasibility study and detailed engineering designs of the road.
“The contract amount is about K89 million and it is a grant from the African Development Bank (ADB). The contract is for 12 months starting from December 2010,” she said in an email response.
Going by her response, it means feasibility study and detailed engineering designs must have ended in December 2011.
But has anything materialised after that?
The answer lies in a May, 2012 letter addressed to President Joyce Banda, signed by 14 religious leaders and all chiefs in Neno.
“We think that putting a two-kilometre tarmac road and some patches on a 40-kilometre main access road to the district in the 20th century is a big mockery to people of Neno, and not in their best interest, because there will still be 38 kilometres, which will cause problems to travellers and prevent the district from enjoying further development,” reads the letter.
The letter even pleaded that “we would be grateful if this road could be included in the national budget for 2012/2013.”
Unfortunately, the road is conspicuously missing from the 2012/2013 budget.
In fact, the road was on the list which Minister of Transport and Public Works Sidik Mia presented as success stories of Banda’s presidency during the 100 days celebrations last year.
Is there hope then for people of Neno?
Asked on the progress of the road, Kajanga’s response last week clearly reveals that the road is yet to move beyond the phase of feasibility and production of engineering designs by Jatula Associates Consulting Engineers.
“The contract commenced on January 7, 2011 and was expected to be completed by 30th April, 2012 not December 2011. The contract period has, however, been extended to 18th February, 2013, due to numerous challenges that consultants were meeting on site.
“The contract is worth K89.46 million, this is a grant from the African Development Bank. Once the feasibility study and detailed engineering designs are completed, Roads Authority shall submit them to Ministry of Transport and Public Works,” she said.
However, Kajanga underlined that work to construct the road will depend on the availability of funds.
“Of course, a number of institutions have already shown interest to fund construction of the road once the designs are submitted,” she said.
Tomorrow: Stuck on feasibility study and detailed engineering designs phase, how is the poor road network affecting development of the district?