Islands in Agony: Tales of Likoma and Chizumulu

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Likoma Island at a glance

Tamkwera Ilala, Ilala, Ilala, lero; Tamkwera Ilala, eeeh! This song—popular among Tongas and people living along the northern shores of Lake Malawi—sums up how deeply attached these people are to the MV Ilala, their beautiful lover whose fidelity to them over the years has been an emotive subject.

When it recently returned to the crystal clear waters of the ‘Lake of Stars’ after a year-long absence during which it was undergoing repairs, the ships’ lovers were willing to pick up broken pieces of their hearts, forgive her for the umpteenth time and gather her back into their arms.

They are optimistic—though cautiously so given the Ilala’s past transgressions—that this time she will stay.

That is evident with Likoma residents, who are celebrating the return of MV Ilala with caution, fearing the worst in case the 64-year-old vessel breaks down again.

On June 2 2013 around 10am, the reconditioned ship, operated by Malawi Shipping Service (MSC), returned to the island district for the first time since its disappearance on June 30 last year.

According to MSC spokesperson Austin Msowoya, Ilala had to undergo a resit, the first major rehabilitation since its original engines were replaced in 1994.
The motor ship’s appearances at Likoma, one of the country’s busiest ports, are always a catalyst of optimism and excitement to locals who consider her a lifeline to the outside world, even mainland Malawi, where food is grown and their life-or-death decisions are made.

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Ilala, an elusive darling

The following week, maize prices on the islands fell to K2 500 for a 20-kg pail from about K3 500 before the Ilala, which is the major transporter of goods to the island, docked.

But behind the delightful turn of events rages some uncertainty over whether their on-and-off darling will show more fidelity and resilience than it has done in the past following similar renewals.

“It is always a relief to see the ship at Likoma because she is more affordable, cheaper and safer than the risky boats that we often do with when she breaks down. However, it is time we had a new one to give Ilala a break. We don’t have to wait for an accident,” said businessperson Gladys Mandala, who singlehandedly fends for six children.

The reaction is symptomatic of a growing perception of the motor vessel, built in 1949 by Yarrow & Company in Scotland.

Launched in June 1951, she has clocked approximately five million kilometres plying up and down Lake Malawi.

Inscriptions on her shell show that the colonial ship was recomissioned by founding president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda at Monkey Bay on November 10 1972.

This followed massive maintenance without replacing its aged engine, said Msowoya.

For 10 years, the motor vessel’s ‘seaworthiness’ has been questionable, with some wondering how safe are the lives and goods it ships on its weekly voyages from Monkey Bay Shipyard in Mangochi to Chilumba Jetty in Karonga.

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Focus on Africa magazine of January-March 2009 quotes Captain William Nyasulu as affirming that “60 years is a long time for a ship”—albeit expressing hope that “it can go another 100 years or even 200” with regular repairs and proper handling.

Last month, Captain Tasauka Ngwira and his crew brimmed with equally calculated hope.
“It still has a long way to go,” said Ngwira, whose crew still relies on a navigation map that dates back to the 1950s.

Politics and lives
Having endured long periods without their favourite ship, Likoma dwellers and traditional leaders have misgivings about the vessel—for even presidents have expressed a feeling that it is time Ilala had a viable substitute.

Speaking at the launch of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Ndirande in Blantyre on May 30 2005, fallen president Dr Bingu wa Mutharika described Ilala as “old and slow’.

  “I will replace passenger ships that sail on Lake Malawi with ferry boats and modern vessels that can travel between Nkhata Bay and Likoma within an hour,” said the late Mutharika—the man who thought he was so visionary that he claimed to have been dreaming in ‘techni-colour’.

However, the promise, repeated to uproarious applause during his visit to Likoma the same year, might have been proclamations of a politician who often attributed to his predecessor Bakili Muluzi a fairy-tale pledge to build a bridge connecting the island to Nkhata Bay.

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Likoma’s supreme ruler Nkumpha III

“Some politicians are so crooked that they will promise to build a bridge where there is no river at all,” said Mutharika when he renamed Mangochi Bridge after Muluzi in 2005.

However, his reign (2004-2012) meant no end to the island’s nightmares.

Eight years after the false assurances, President Joyce Banda was under fire from concerned citizens of Likoma for keeping quiet on the high cost of living during the latest spate without Ilala.

Following the citizens’ open letter to the President, Malawi Watch executive director Billy Banda accused the leader of “just trying to market herself on the global scene as well as trying to draw attention at big events and religious celebrations while people of Likoma are in deep pain.”

But wading off accusations of not caring enough and a growing rebellion, State House said President Banda was spending sleepless nights over deteriorating livelihood in Likoma.

“She is the President who has people’s welfare at heart,” State House press officer Tusekele Mwanyongo told The Nation of May 22 2013.

But the people of Likoma and Chizumulu want the President to show that they count in her priorities by avoiding a repeat of the untold misery that gripped the island when the Ilala was under maintenance.

 These included people offloading business merchandise into the lake to save boats from capsizing, scarcity and rising prices of foodstuffs, stalling of local government development projects, difficulties in ferrying foodstuffs for boarding students as well as erratic supply of drugs and essential medical supplies.

Likoma’s village head Mwasi said: “We needed a new ship as early as 20 years ago, but we are still relying on vessels bought during Kamuzu’s era. Since 1994, we have had a string of leaders who are playing politics with our lives. They keep lying and people no longer see any reason to vote next year because polls bring us liars.”

The ageing fleet includes passenger ships Mtendere, Mpatsa and Viphya II; fuel tanker Ufulu as well as cargo carriers Karonga and Katundu.

The 1 000-tonner Katundu delivered maize to the district’s two Admarc depots to offset rising food prices.

A huge sense of alienation is gaining sway, so much so that village head Chalunda feels government sidelines the island “as if it is in Mozambique, not Malawi.”

Proclaimed a district in 1999, Likoma is surrounded by the former Portuguese colony, but its affairs are run by Lilongwe.

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A boat trip to Ilala’s mid-water docking point

With Ilala’s return, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nkumpha III of the Island has set sights on calls for a new ship and a jetty.

At present, ships at Likoma Port dock about 200 metres in the lake, with passengers pouring into two 22-seater lifeboats to embark or disembark.

The precarious beginnings and endings of Ilala are unfriendly to the elderly, patients and people with disabilities, the chief stated.

Ilala’s unreliability and its dependents’ search for alternatives has also brought into question the status of MSC which was privatised to Glenns Waterway in 2002 and then Mota-Engil in 2010.

“What sort of concessions allow complete withdrawal of essential services without putting in place an alternative considering that some people are totally dependent on the ship?” said James Mphonde, leader of concerned citizens who petitioned the President over Ilala.
He also backed calls for a new jetty.

According to district commissioner (DC) Charles Mwawembe, government has been planning to construct a jetty for years.

“We are told that designs and feasibility studies are complete. In February 2013, officials from the Ministry of Transport and MSC were here to view the site for the project. We are waiting for implementation,” said Mwawembe.

He indicated that the makeshift port does not only infringe on the mobility and rights of people with special needs, but also affects the transportation of cars and other heavy goods for government projects.

MSC’s Msowoya said developing and rehabilitating ports is the duty of the Marine Department, which has been talking about upgrading ports at Likoma, Nkhotakota and Malindi for years.

“But if we had proper jetties, it would shorten the time the ship takes to sail from Monkey Bay to Chilumba and back to two days instead of the five the round trip currently takes, said Msowoya.

The reduced time would guarantee shorter durations of offloading goods and passengers, he added.

Currently, Ilala leaves Monkey Bay on Saturday and returns on Thursday.
Msowoya also indicated that containers carrying some components of a new ship have already arrived at Monkey Bay.

He said the company plans to commission the new ship by April next year, saying: “She is designed to carry fewer passengers than Ilala, but it is so speedy that you can make two trips between Nkhata Bay and Likoma a day.”

This news is timely as Ilala, which reportedly cost MSC about $2 million (about K680 million), is weakening by the day.

But it may not be allowed to ply the lake for long because of its single-bottom design.

“Its future rests with the International Maritime Organisation, which is trying to phase out single-bottom vessels for safety reasons,” writes BBC freelancer journalist Ruth Evans.

Apart from Chizumulu and Likoma Islands, the ship’s 500km route takes her to costal stops at Chipoka in Salima, Nkhotakota, Matengula, Likoma and Chizumulu islands, Nkhata Bay, Usisya, Ruarwe, Tchalo and Chilumba.

Likoma has a population of 10 433, including about 3 000 from Chizumulu, which depends on the mainland for nearly everything.

Its voyages are characterised by people gripping children, cartons of medical drugs, business merchandise, and stacks of maize, electrical goods, furniture, chickens, bicycles, canoes and everything they value.

Others from costal fishing villages paddle feverishly to meet the ship, selling their catch and curios to passengers.

Despite being optimistic about their ship, which celebrated its 60th birthday in March 2009, MSC officials are pessimistic about the return of her younger sister, MV Mtendere.
Msowoya argued that it has become too costly to repair and operate it—with Captain Ngwira saying it is beyond repair because engineers and ship builders flouted its design.
“The actual ship is different from its design. There are scenarios where the sketch shows wires or pipes are just overhead but you will find nothing if you open the roof. This led to bypasses that have left the ship almost irredeemable,” said Ngwira.

The concessionaires envisage making profits and serving the cut-away communities without government subsidies.

Ilala’s revival is not just manifest in the fact that she completed the Likoma-Nkhata Bay stretch in less than three hours. Its riveted steel panels and body have been painted and welded.

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For people of Likoma and Chizumulu, their hope and prayer is that this time, the vessel will outlast its new paint and their relationship with the ship will endure and they can continue singing: Tamkwera Ilala, eeeh!

Education at a price

The education landscape in Likoma mirrors the district’s state of affairs—a constrained Island.

During Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations in May, about 300 students from Likoma and Chipsera secondary schools were packed in St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral.

 The mood was that of happiness and anxiety as the learners knew that they were entering the final half of a journey, often susceptible to transport problems that exert uncertainty on them.

“It is difficult to transport the examinations to the islands because they need utmost security only rivalled by ballot papers. You cannot guarantee their safety on ships and boats that are usually congested with people and cargo, which includes basic goods for schools,” said district commissioner Charles Mwawembe.

To get to the examination centre, some students walked about five kilometres from Nkhwazi and Makulawe on either ends of the larger island.

Their colleagues on the mainland have the luxury of cars, minibuses, taxis and other quicker modes of travelling, but Likoma islanders have to walk long distances.

This costs them the time that those who live close to the examination centre were harnessing for studying and other final touches.

One may wonder why the Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb) and the Ministry of Education are denying the students the liberty of sitting national exams in their respective schools as do their colleagues at Chizumulu Community Day Secondary School across the lake.

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After two weeks of transporting the students to the churchyard in a vehicle whose roadworthiness is doubtful, Likoma Secondary School deputy head teacher Duncan Msowoya said bringing examination centres closer to the learners is not a priority on the institution’s hierarchy of needs.

“Our main worry is how to purchase foodstuffs and other necessities for students. Oftentimes, there is no maize at Likoma Admarc Depot, forcing teachers to travel to Nkhata Bay or Mzuzu to buy the grain.

“This can be more costly and difficult when Ilala is nowhere,” explained Msowoya.
The on-and-off water transport also affects collection of salaries by teachers at the school which has 401 students.

The deputy head teacher said the learners usually endure two to four days without attending classes when the teachers go to Nkhata Bay where the nearest banks are located.

When the lake is windy, the trips become rough—spelling further tough times for the learners as their teachers are sometimes trapped in Nkhata Bay for nearly a week.
Locals recall that for nearly a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, the teaching staff on the island comprised locals only because those on the mainland were scared of transport problems and other hurdles.

Today, natives account for four of 12 teachers at the main secondary school. This means a teacher serves 33 learners. This might be a better teacher-pupil ratio than the national expectation of 1:50.

International standards require a ratio of 1:40. However, Msowoya said this masks a shortage of teaching staff because the school runs two streams—A and B—from Form One to Four.

“Last year, government deployed four teachers to reduce the ratio, but one did not come. This has been the trend for years because the island is notorious for transport hiccups, poor mobile phone networks, shortage of recreation facilities and lack of banks,” said Msowoya.

To make and take calls at the school and its surroundings, cell phone users descend on the football ground and neighbouring hills.

For banking services, they sometimes send auto-teller machine cards via friends, workmates and relatives heading to Nkhata Bay.

Besides, there is shortage of classroom and boarding accessories at the school opened by the Anglican Church in 1964.

Before it became a full secondary school in 1984, it was a self-boarding junior secondary school with students from Mpamba, Usiska, Kavuzi, Chintheche and other faraway pockets of Nkhata Bay.

At present, the 401 students share 100 desks. There is also a shortfall of beds and the learners scramble for 90 mattresses.

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Upside down: A classroom at Likoma Secondary School

One of the girls, Vanessa Kadewere, said Likoma gives her better chances in life than Chipsera or Chizumulu community day secondary schools where the shortage of necessities is worse.

Unfortunately, Vanessa lacks role models and has only one confidante—Connie Mandala—the solitary female teacher in the dozen at Likoma—for her worries as an adolescent girl.

Malawi is vying for Education for All (EFA) goals, which guarantee quality basic education for every child, including girls.

The agenda for  quality education might have missed on T/A Nkumpha’s six-point litany of urgent needs, but it is certain that achieving EFA goals requires government to improve investment in Likoma as an isolated district with unique realities and challenges that favour a departure from conventional approaches to get rid of widening disparities.

Portrait of overwhelmed health heroes

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Waiting for a cure: Patients at St Peter’s Anglican Hospital

To save and serve

St Peters Hospital administrator Francis Vuma confirmed that the X-Ray has been awaiting repairs for half a decade.

However, the protracted glitch is just a glimpse of the problems affecting the delivery of quality healthcare services at the facility, which sees about 200 patients a day.

“St Peters targets about 10 000 people on Likoma, but almost seven in every 10 patients treated at the hospital are Mozambicans or Tanzanians who usually come in critical condition,” said Vuma.

The official said this exerts pressure on the skilled health personnel at the life-saving institution designed for at least five clinical officers and 18 nurses-cum-midwives.

Putting the scarcity in perspective, Vuma said: “The workforce constitutes a sharp rise from five nurses five years ago, but we are struggling to reach the required minimum staffing levels due to sudden resignations and refusal of deployment.

“Some skilled personnel are put off by transport woes and high cost of living on the island as basic goods are scarce and expensive. Prices can double up when Ilala breaks down.”
Even the district health officer Dr Solomon Jere lives in Nkhata Bay ostensibly because there are no houses and structures for his office ever since Likoma was separated from Nkhata Bay in 1999. Its district council offices are housed in confined buildings formerly belonging to Chitukuko Cha Amayi m’Malawi (CCAM).

When asked what keeps them happy to serve a health post some shun in preference for better conditions at Nkhata Bay and other parts of the mainland, some of the health personnel were candid in their response.

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Nursing patron Phiri

Having worked at Ekwendeni and Embangweni CCAP hospitals in Mzimba before joining Likoma in 2006, Steven Phiri, 28, affirmed: “Health work at Likoma entails paying excessive costs for goods and services which our classmates and colleagues access freely elsewhere.”

Apart from the hardships and increased workloads, the health personnel have to endure spectacles of people dying or returning empty-handed due to what Vuma termed chronically erratic availability of essential drugs, particularly antiretroviral (ARVs) and medicines for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Due to the scarcity of ARVs, two people living with HIV are compelled to share a bottle meant for one,” said Phiri.

Lapses in ARV dosages could result in patients developing resistance to drugs and vulnerability to graver ailments such as TB. The hospital, with no isolation ward for TB patients, faces the urgency to bolster its staff as a new government policy recommends door-to-door treatment of the disease right in their communities.

Other challenges include regular breakdowns of an ambulance as well as stock-outs of drugs and other medical shipments which hit a fatal height when the Ilala’s trips are discontinued.

Apart from Gabriel, a missionary vessel anchored at Nkhata Bay jetty, the hospital relies on Ilala to transport critical and emergency cases that cannot be treated or operated on at the hospital.

The disappearance of the vessels leaves them reliant on boats with no facilities for transporting patients and fragile drugs and reagents.

Although the health workers conduct caesarean childbirths and other operations at the hospital, Vuma cited as a major blow the absence of an expert to administer painkillers and other relevant dosages to patients going under the knife.

They currently rely on a relief anesthetist who plies between Nkhata Bay and Likoma.
Beating the odds despite the bottlenecks, the hospital is making inroads towards closing the gaps in the country’s bid for Millennium Development Goal (MDG) six: Combating HIV and Aids, malaria and other diseases by 2015.

As the clock is ticking, the nurses, clinicians and midwives are playing a leading role in administering antiretroviral therapy (ART), awareness, prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) and HIV testing and counselling (HTC) in communities.

As caregivers, they are also frontline soldiers in fighting malaria by providing health education on prevention measures, especially effective use of insecticide treated nets.

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On the wane:The fishy business about mosquito nets

The health workers’ strides have resulted in traditional leaders banning the use of mosquito nets for catching and drying usipa fish effective last month.

Likewise, the traditional leaders have imposed fines on couples who give birth at home. The hospital staff feels the grass-root intervention will help improve maternal health and reduce mortality rates currently estimated at 675 deaths in every 100 000 live births by ensuring that every baby is born at the hands of skilled attendants.

Most of the women who die while giving birth are Mozambicans who report late to the facility, according to Vuma.

Although only four of the midwives-cum-nurses are female at St Peter’s, pregnant women say it does not affect them as even the men handle their conditions with care, compassion and respect.

The success stories and challenges in Likoma call for more human resources in rural setting where 80 percent of Malawians live, yet only 30 percent of health staff work there.

Island of unmet banking needs

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A spring too far: Nkhata Bay MSB branch

Waiting for a vessel departing Likoma on a sunny Saturday morning, Asa Sasali rues spending on transport almost what he is going to withdraw from his bank account on the mainland.

Like most residents at the port, characterised by businesspeople loading bags of usipa fish and other goods into Ilala and other boats, the Department of Fisheries employee has to carry auto-teller machine (ATM) cards for his workmates, friends and relatives who expect him to cash on their behalf—as they always do for him when he cannot make the trip.

The experience can be costly not only because the cost-cutting measure endangers his ties with ATM cards’ owners and the security of their money, but the district’s unique geography and financial exclusion accounts for enormous costs of accessing savings and lending facilities in Nkhata Bay and beyond.

“It’s painful,” said Sasali. “What I spend to access my salary since government started paying us through banks is making me poorer and poorer.”

To get to the bank on the mainland, the public servant would spend K2 500 on boats that have been plying as stop-gaps in the absence of Malawi Shipping Company’s most reliable passenger ship, MV Ilala.

This means that a two-way ticket is worth the allowance teachers in hard-to-reach localities receive to offset their hardships, according St Peter’s head teacher Isaiah Mlongola.

“Our rural allowance is K5 000, but the cost of banking often rises to K10 000 if you include the cost of accommodation and meals on the mainland as we usually spend days waiting for another vessel to take us back to Likoma,” said Mlongola.

Three in every four interviewees who have bank accounts said they prefer withdrawing all their earnings at one go, something that threatens a culture of savings and exposes their income to theft and wasteful, impulsive spending.

Welcome to life on a wailing island, sometimes sanitised as Half London.

Surrounded by Mozambican waters of Lake Malawi, Likoma offers vivid insight into the dilemmas faced by about 80 percent of the population as banks and financial institutions face increasing calls to extend their reach beyond urban areas where they are concentrated.

According to National Statistical Office projections based on the 2008 population and housing census, the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu are home to 10 433 people.

For years, the population has been relying on the defunct Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) which was incorporated as Malawi Savings Bank.

However, the bank’s stand-alone status has reduced Likoma Post Office to a mere money transfer set-up—like Western Union.

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Waiting for a boat to the bank

The effects to the island—a cut-off cell in a country where only 19 percent of the population have access to banking services, according to Finscope study of 2008—show up in numerous ways that threaten various aspects of lives from education and health to business and tourism.

“We are paying a big fine to get our salaries,” bemoaned Mbungo Primary School head teacher Joseph Chirwa.

To the former district chairperson of Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), the bank-based way of remitting civil servants’ pay has left teachers expending almost half of their salaries on transport to Nkhata Bay. In other words, government has transferred to the cost of paying civil servants’ salaries to the already underpaid workers.

The remote teachers save K1 000 from their ‘hardship allowance’ if they use Ilala, whose cheapest ticket costs K2 000 per head.

While the government-owned ship was undergoing year-long maintenance at Monkey Bay, some of the public servants were trapped on the waters for 24 hours after a privately owned boat they boarded from the coastal banking town was rocked by a storm.

Likoma residents may be relieved to see the safer and cheaper ship back on duty after a year-long break, but its revised schedule presents a new challenge: Increasing absenteeism among teachers and other government employees.

Unlike in the past when it used to dock at Likoma on Saturdays and Mondays, the comeback vessel departs the island on Sunday afternoon and returns on Wednesday.

This forces teachers to miss their classes for three days, said district education office (DEO) desk officer Steins Kumwenda.

“When teachers leave on Sunday, it means they will be away until Wednesday. Oftentimes, they return too tired to resume classes immediately. In the end, it is students’ right to quality education is being violated due to the absence of banks,” said Kumwenda.

According to the education office, the island district has 80 teachers spread in eight primary schools and three secondary schools.

Having resorted to taking turns to lessen the impact of their bank trips on teaching and learning, the public servants strongly feel there is need to revise Ilala’s itinerary.

“Most civil servants refuse to be posted here and others quit just months on the island,” said village head Mwasi.

Such apathy places extra pressure on various service-providers, including St Peters Anglican Hospital.

The facility’s administrator Francis Vuma called for radical intervention to end “sudden resignations and refusal of deployment by skilled health workers due to lack of banks, among overwhelming hardships.”

While civil servants and other employees complain about paying a punitive price to access their accounts, businesspeople and locals are predominantly unbanked.

“What will be the benefit of opening a bank account if accessing my savings, loans  and other services surpasses my profits and threatens my capital?” wondered a vendor who operates a shop on the island.

Typical of the unmet demand for convenient banking services closer to the people, many others endure the risks of keeping their income at home.

Traditional leaders say they have been craving for banks for years, but their hopes are always battered by security concerns.

“For about decade, we have been crying for a bank, but decision-makers seem allergic to Likoma,” said T/A Nkumpha.

Agreeing with the chief, district commissioner Charles Mwawembe said their negotiations with bank executives often hit a blank due to poor security of cash in transit, intermittent electricity supply and unreliable telecommunications network.

“Until we address those worries, our only hope is MSB who have shown some interest to help us out,” said the DC.

Likoma police officer in-charge Grey Chimphepo said security is tight on the islands of Likoma and Chizumulu, but not when it comes to transporting money chests across the 60-km water stretch from Likoma.

“Likoma normally has low crime rates despite an influx of people from elsewhere. We have enough police officers and a Malawi Defence Force camp in our midst. [But] maybe it would be hard to travel on water with money,” said Chimphepo.

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Boats and ships Insecure for money in transit

But as financial inclusion is becoming a global buzzword, poor phone networks are hindering efforts by banks and other financial firms to harness technological advancement to ease the plight of the unbanked populations where the cost and risks of establishing brick-and-mortar banks could be huge.

As expected, Likoma is sidelined from mobile phone-based money transfer schemes—Airtel Money and TNM Mpamba. Neither posters nor agents of the phone firms were spotted.

The islands might be having more handheld phones than bank accounts, but the islanders only hear about mobile money facilities on radio.

The absence of mobile money technologies mirror what National Bank of Malawi marketing manager Wilkins Mijiga once rated the worst setback to electronic banking: Unpredictable and unreliable telecommunications.

While Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) figures show that 95 percent of the country is covered by mobile phone networks, most villages on Likoma remain unreached.

The connected few have to make do with intermittent network due to scheduled and sometimes sudden disruptions of diesel-powered electricity systems.

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Agriculture in Likoma is below subsistence levels

Rocky road to food security

In October 2012, about two million Malawians were in dire need of food assistance. But before the extent of the situation was beyond a doubt to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac), the absence of MV Ilala was already subjecting Likoma and Chizumulu islands to what locals call a food crisis like no other in recent history.

The situation confirmed Gladys Mandala’s worst fears: No one is more prone to the effects of climate change in the country—whose economy is dependent on rain-fed agriculture—than the islands’ population of 10 433 which pays a steep price every time the mainland is hit by draughts or floods.

“Likoma is vulnerable to rising prices of foodstuffs not because it totally depends on the situation in Nkhata Bay and beyond. When maize is scare on the other side of the lake, prices of the commodity suddenly double, putting untold pressure on family income and livelihood,” said the resident of Makulawe Village.

A breadwinner of her six children, Mandala sells fish, cassava, tomatoes and potatoes to improve the wellbeing of her family.

She said the islanders are chronically victims of hunger not because they prefer fishing to farming, but land is limited, sandy and breached.

Statistics from Likoma District Agricultural Office—which still reports to its counterpart in Nkhata Bay 14 years after former president Bakili Muluzi proclaimed the two islands a stand-alone district on November 5 1999—show that the district has 2 454 farming families, of which 1 151 are female-headed such as Mandala’s.

According to agricultural statistical clerk Francis Sauli, the average landholding size per family stands at 0.02 hectare per family against a national average of one (1.0) hectare per household.

Last year, the rains were late and erratic. Many planted around November and suffered a 17-day dry spell the following month.

Hinting at a lean period, Likoma is sparsely dotted with cassava and maize fields, a majority of them restricted plots surrounding homes.

“A few Likoma residents now grow maize. Nearly 10 years ago, almost all of them opposed it. To them, the cobs were only good while green. They often cultivated just enough for roasting and boiling,” said Sauli.

According to traditional leaders, the islanders have grown up subsisting on cassava but were forced to switch to maize about five years ago when the drought-resistant root crop was ravaged by mille bugs, known as ntchembere zandonda or kodiko among locals.

As the kodiko outbreak rages on, even maize cropping is struggling to turn around the islands’ agriculture into viable business.

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Mandala’s household

Most households are trapped in a vicious cycle of hunger and poverty because they feel the sandy soil is so infertile that some locals say they find fishing more profitable than toiling in futility.

The sandy soils have also informed the island’s architecture, with most houses made of sun-baked bricks due to the realisation that burning the building blocks would further weaken them.

A few houses—especially those belonging to the Anglican Church, district council and well-to-do locals—are made of carved stones.

Exceptions in terms of soil fertility include Chiponde, Mwasi, Mbungo, Simani, Madimba, Chamba and Ulisa which have redeemed the islands from depending on Mozambique and Nkhata Bay for vegetables.

The influence of natural factors and cultural preferences has left the islands’ population with widespread dependence on platefuls and basketfuls of foodstuffs from the mainland that were selling at as high as K3 000 per 20kg pail of maize at a time the same quantity was worth K1 500 overland.

Underlining the island’s vulnerability to effects of climate change on the rest of the country, the price of the pail tripled to K4 500 when the Ilala stopped sailing on June 30 last year.

The interruption of the island’s most trusted ship paved the way for the vessel to undergo a major maintenance since the change of engine in 1994.

But it also paved the way for a flurry of problems, including the rising cost of living.

Seven months ago, when MVAC and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet) announced that about two million people would need relief food items until March this year, a 50kg bag of maize was selling at K7 000.

High maize prices put food-insecure households at risk, warned Fewsnet in its October report.

 Transport problems continued to exert pressure on the livelihood of Likoma beyond the harvest period in March since they were relying on exorbitant boats to ship their food supplies from the mainland.

Even with the restoration of Ilala, the boats are characterised by islanders clutching bags of maize, potatoes, beans and other foodstuffs.

To survive, the island witnessed a boom of farm produce vendors, including locals, who seized the business line to cash in on rising demand and lowering supply as well as to preserve their income—an insurance of some sort.

Alleluia Machira, who has become a poster face of how spells without Ilala endanger lives on the island, was forced to offload bags of maize into the lake to save lives when a privately owned boat in which she was travelling almost capsized due to strong mwera winds.

She reckons the period of perilous boat trips left the worst hit population on the thin line between life and death, saying: “Even after the scare in March, we continued to travel by boats because hunger kills.”

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Nyirenda hitting gold

“Like all foodstuffs, maize business is lucrative; the profits are enormous since most of the residents hardly farm,” said Nyirenda.

Locals lament that the likes of Nyirenda tend to profit on their desperation, but Nyirenda says there is a humanitarian side that makes their business relevant to the cut-away population.

“We bring food closer to those who cannot afford to travel to Nkhata Bay, Mzuzu, Mzimba, Kasungu and other districts where we source it. By the way, it costs K500 to ferry a 50kg bag from the mainland to Likoma by boat,” argues the small-scale trader from Namitete on the boundary of Mchinji and Lilongwe.

Like scores of traders and customers, he expects the prices of food material to further drop as the ship’s return has already eased transportation hiccups.

The wave of hope among the vulnerable population is telling, for they rarely keep chicken, goats, cow and other livestock for food or for sale in times of need.

The island’s animal husbandry, pastures and water resources are threatened by a stark lack of trees due to a wave of deforestation locals attribute to rapid population at a time it was harbouring refugees escaping Mozambique’s civil war in the 1980s

 The island now imports firewood from Nkhata Bay and Mozambique.

 

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Lost her all to survive a capsizing boat: Alleluia

Alleluia! Ilala is back—survivor

What do floods in the Shire Valley, earthquakes in Karonga and the disappearance of MV Ilala in Likoma have in common?

They are all humanitarian crises which cause untold misery to populations in need of lasting solutions to long-standing effects of their geographical disadvantages.

Ever since the country’s largest passenger ship broke down on June 30 2012 , Likoma and its sister island Chizumulu have been frantic with risky but uninsured boats not only trying to make profit but also to keep about 11 000  lives on the cutaway localities surrounded by Mozambican waters.

To the locals, the boats are a matter of life and death.

“The boats sustained lives and businesses at a time we were destitute due to the breakdown of Ilala, but they were expensive, slow and risky,” said Alleluia Machira, 42.

On the island, the resident of Munyanje Village at Makulawe is not a woman like any other.

Having been saved from the jaws of a hefty crocodile two years ago, the mother of five was among 14 people on the brink of death when a boat, branded Limani, nearly capsized on a voyage from Nkhata Bay to Likoma this year.

To save lives on the stormy trip a few months ago, those on board had to throw away their most prized possessions—the business commodities they had bought in Nkhata Bay.

 Counting her losses, Machira vividly remembers losing her capital and profit in that swim-or-sink scenario when she was forced to throw three bags of maize earmarked for sale on the island where agriculture is almost non-existent.

Battling tears, she recalled: “Around Martyrs Day on March 3, I went to Nkhata Bay to sell fish worth around K14 000. The sales were below expectation and I was on the mainland town for days until the lot was cleared.

“As usual, on my way back, I bought cassava and bags of maize to resell at Likoma, but instead of the desired profit, I incurred a total loss as we threw our buys into the water to survive stormy mwera winds which were rocking our misfiring boat around 3pm on the fateful day.”

Machira recalled that as MV Limani left Nkhata Bay amid a vuma scare—a notorious easterly, according to sailors—around 9am a passenger tried to persuade the crew to return to the jetty but they feared worse things would happen on their way back.

According to her, the storm appeared to be over around 3am, only to return in the form of a devastating mwera southerly when Chizumulu came into sight hours later.

“Tides were flooding the boat. It was swerving dangerously. Both the boat engine and water pump were dead. I prayed. My colleagues and I didn’t have to wait for orders to start emptying the water spills and throwing away goods. We could have done anything to save our lives,” she narrated in an exclusive interview.

The survivor was speaking for the first time to the press after the accident which was widely covered by newspapers and radio stations at the mainland.

Like some of her colleagues, she feels the boat, which has since been grounded at Likoma, was overloaded.

However, Likoma Police in-charge Gray Chimphepo, while disclosing that over 200 bags of maize were ejected during the single most horrifying scene in a Likoma Island without Ilala, said investigations had revealed that it was due to natural phenomenon—the devastating winds.

Whatever the cause and your take of her K20 000 loss, Machira sums up her fate in one word: “I lost everything, except life.”

By that, she means the business died, life in her household worsened as they had lost a major source of income, their two children who are in secondary school nearly dropped out.

A visit to her home in her baobab-fringed Munyanje village is an encounter with a grass-thatched hut, made of sun-burnt bricks reinforced by mud mortar. Completing a portrait of poverty besetting her homestead are sights of children wearing ragged clothes that need soap as a matter of urgency.

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Alleluia’s husband and dependants

On the playground is a fireplace for drying fish as she and her husband are trying to pick up the pieces and triumph over adversity.

As Alleluia’s husband Sitiya Machira says, the family is trying to make do with consolation tokens from relatives and soft loans from well-wishers. But life has not been the same, he says.

“We have been through tough times,” said her husband, a fisher.

“First, she was attacked by a crocodile on January 20 2010. Now she lost everything that brought meaning in our lives,” he lamented.

In their words, she was six months pregnant and coming from registering her marriage at St Michael’s Anglican Church when a crocodile grabbed her leg and left her with complicated fractures on the left thigh and arm. The tragedy happened just 100 metres from her hut.

Thanks to Gabriel, a boat belonging to the Anglican Diocese of Northern Malawi, she was rushed to Nkhata Bay District Hospital after spending two nights at Likoma’s lone healthcare facility: St Peters Hospital.

When her pregnancy was eight months old, she was referred to Mzuzu Central Hospital where she gave birth to a son, Stephano.

Having survived croc’s jaws and faced a storm in the eye, Machira does not only sing ‘Alleluia’.

Like her husband and most islanders, she is happy to see Ilala back on the waters after a long break, saying: “Unlike the wind-prone boats, it carries more, the fares are cheaper and the trips safer.”

Above all, she supports the widespread view that the ship, re-commissioned in 1972, is too old to continue being the deciding factor when it comes to the lives of people of Chizumulu and Likoma.

he said: “It’s too long we have been relying on Ilala; to give us a real break from the dangerous boats, government must give Ilala a break by buying a new ship.”

 

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Stevens and his worker by the ‘Lake of Stars’, the lighter side of the island

Tourism: Another world on the island

When residents call Likoma ‘Half London’, they are not saying it resembles either side of England’s capital.

Rather, they are only paying homage to their geographical similarities: both of them are isles—and Malawi’s hard-to-reach ‘overseas spot’ sometimes gets tourists from its overseas namesake.

With no attractions the size of London’s Big Ben, solemn West Minister Abbey and towering Trafalgar Square in sight, the island in the Northern Region and its tagline might be hyperbolic, a virgin adventure seeker’s paradise crying for greater investment in infrastructural development and marketing to realise its potential.

However, tourists interviewed aboard the country’s largest passenger ship, Ilala, declared that the small undeveloped island—measuring 28 square kilometers—is big enough as a relaxation destination.

To the visitors, it gives them something that eludes them on the vast land across the lake where sightseeing sites are abundant.

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Tourists on Ilala’s deck

Bed and breakfast charges range from $100 (about K35 000) to $1000 (K350 000) a night, something traditional leaders describe as a subtle way of stopping them from visiting the sites.

And there are some destinations which blatantly prohibit locals in preference for tourists from other countries on the continent and overseas who can afford their sky-rocketing dollar billing which is outlawed by the Reserve Bank of Malawi.

“It is discriminatory and unacceptable for any  tourist site to expect my people and I to book an appointment to visit recreational facilities constructed on our own land.  As a chief, we only give the expatriates land because our sons and daughters seem uninterested or constrained to invest in our beautiful beaches,” said Nkumpha in an interview.

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Kaya Mawa

 Similarly, district commissioner Charles Mwawembe said the local government council was negotiating with foreign investors to desist from racial profiling, a tendency that counters the country’s Constitution which insists on equality.

“As a council, we are aware of the unbecoming behaviour and we are discussing with investors to stop discriminatory practices. Some have changed while others have gone as far as using exorbitant prices to bar locals from accessing their places,” said Mwawembe.

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The Lake of Stars at Chizumulu

Stevens, who also runs Nkhotakota and Dedza Pottery having lived in the country since 1979, believes that Likoma has great tourism potential.

“By nature, islands are a different world from what we are used to. They are so calm and isolated from the grinding life on the mainland that in the dead of the night, you can walk from one end to another without worrying about thugs,” explained Stevens.

His place is located on a stunning collage of rock-paved and baobab-paved beaches which offer picturesque views of Chizumulu Island in the distance.

This partly explains why he opted to invest in Likoma which is powered by a 400-kilowatt diesel-powered electricity plant which only works from 8am to 12.30pm and 2pm to 10pm.

Ulisa Bay—built on exceptional simplicity to give lodgers encounters with life in the neighbourhood an unforgettable escape and captivating views—was meant to be his
retirement home as well.

The Britton vividly recalls his tours of the islands of Crete in Greece and Shetlands in Scotland, restating what ought to be obvious to government and policy-makers envisaging tourism substituting tobacco as a main foreign exchange earner.

He says: “Likoma has more potential as a tourism destination, but the numbers remain very low because of travel problems.

“There is need for cruise boats so that tourists can get here faster than they do on Ilala. The boats need to ply daily so that visitors can come and leave Likoma when they want, instead of waiting for the ship.

He bemoaned that for the past year without Ilala, tourists had to endure being boxed in risky boats which carry overloads of passengers, foodstuffs, poultry and livestock.
“This further lowered the numbers of tourists destined for Likoma. Rather than drinking and enjoying postcard views of the lake and landscapes on Ilala’s deck, people who came to relax were being boxed in slow and risky boats,” he said.

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Scramble for Ilala in the absence of the jetty

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Khaiko Lodge at Mwasi

The sights include the historic St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, African doctors, iconic rocks and a hut-like baobab tree at Likoma market.

The country must surmount these and more challenges to attract and retain tourists who use Likoma Island as a gateway to Mozambique.

According to district immigration officer Jack Kateta, passport holders from overseas often land at Likoma Airstrip in transit to Nkwichi Bay Lodge across the border.

 With Air Malawi grounded by the ongoing liquidation, tourists seen in Likoma usually fly Air Link, Nyasa Air Taxi, Executive Charter and other private jets.

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Battered but running: Likoma Secondary School’s car

There is no car on the isle with a population of 3 000.

But crossing over to the other side to which the district owes its name, one discovers the ageing motoring sphere of the district.

Nosy visitors only need to chance into a vehicle to start asking around how many there are.
There are 11 cars on the island. Only three of them are privately owned, locals say. The rest are owned by government departments, including the District Commissioner, Malawi Police Service (MPS), St Peters Hospital, Department of Water and Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (Escom).

However, many are disfigured to the extent that visitors wonder what happened to the certificate of fitness (COF) as a prerequisite for motor vehicles on the roads of Malawi. Is Likoma’s fleet exempted from the Road Traffic Directorate’s standards?  What about the white-hat police officers who enforce traffic regulations and ensure road safety on tarmac upland?

“Here, there are no traffic police officers. The 19 general duties officers at the station can police the handful cars on the roads of Likoma,” said police officer in-charge Gray Chimphepo.

He stated that it does not need an entire traffic department to ensure road safety and weed unwanted vehicles—for you can spend a lifetime without witnessing an accident.

This would be almost true if road accidents were strictly about car clashes. In the absence of bumper-to-bumper collisions, confirmation that accidents can happen even on unpaved road with no traffic jams is conspicuous in the pitiful looks of a privately owned vehicle with the inscription ‘Talumbe’.

Probably the busiest truck on the spot, it has been operating without windscreens, headlamps and indicators since it overturned on the island’s longest highway—a gravel affair between Nkhwazi and Makulichi—in 2011, locals say.

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Unpaved Makulawe-Nkhwazi Road

In terms of emergency cases, especially when St Peters’ two ambulances are busy or faulty, they carry patients, pregnant women and the dead.

As the wait for the tarmac continues, motorists say there is no reason to worry about COF since accidents rarely happen and carrying the vehicles to the mainland for road tests would be more costly than they coughed to ship them to Likoma by Ilala’s bulge.

Among the unfit vehicles, a 4×4 Toyota Hilux government bought for Likoma Secondary School during former president Bakili Muluzi’s reign (1994-2004).

Its lights are broken, brakes suspect and the body rusty. Efforts to ascertain its year of make hit a snag because COF and insurance discs were nowhere on the windscreen.

Even deputy head teacher Duncan Msowoya does not remember when they got it.

He quipped: “You may think it’s a non-runner, but it isn’t. This scrap is usually off-road due to breakdowns, but it helps us a lot when ferrying maize to the grinding mill and students to the hospital. The real problems come at night because it has no lights.”

The major heartbreak with vehicles such as the State-owned pick-up is not that they cannot be shipped to Nkhata Bay and beyond for repairs due to lack of a jetty at Likoma Port.

Two cars belonging to the District Council are trapped on the mainland due to lack of a jetty at Likoma Port.

The misfortune is that when left unattended to for far too long, the vehicle’s ruinous impact comes when diviners least expect it.

Just last year, a pedestrian was hit by a vehicle, leaving the victim struggling to claim compensation and the proprietor with no insurance for maintenance of his prized asset.

This too presents a new reason for government agencies, including the Road Traffic Directorate, to treat Likoma as truly part of Malawi.

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More than just a church: St Peters

St Peter’s Cathedral Preaching Development

In most primary schools across the country, Sundays are overly devout days—with different denominations scrambling for classrooms and the faithful.

The school-based prayer houses might be a commonplace portrayal of how freedom of worship in both rural and urban areas, but it contradicts the ideals espoused by pioneers of Christianity in Africa, the heaven-and-earth approach aptly exemplified by St Peters Cathedral of the Anglican Church in Likoma District.

Instead of scuttling for limited learning spaces, the mission station owns nearly all schools at Likoma and Chizumulu.

“The cathedral gives us a reason to say civilisation started in Likoma,” says group village head Chalunda.

Tongue in cheek, she explained: “When the first missionaries arrived on the island in 1881, the island had a site called Chipsera, a place where our ancestors used to burn villagers suspected of witchcraft and sexual immorality. The place of burning blood and smells of charred bodies is now home to St Peter’s Cathedral, a centre of nearly all developmental activities in Likoma.”

Constructed from 1908 to 1911, the historic stone building, a no mean tourism attraction on the island, is not just the nerve centre of the early missionaries’ vision to teach locals to read and write scriptures.

In the traditional leader’s words, it has remained true to the three Cs—Christianity, civilisation and commerce—that Scottish missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone envisioned when Africa was reeling from slave trade.

History has it that Livingstone himself came a seeable distance short of stepping on Likoma Island in 1873 when he arrived at Chizumulu in search of Universities Missionary of Central Africa (UMCA) messenger Allan Elton.

 Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin formed UMCA in response to Livingstone’s prolific case for Africa in the mid-19th century.

Also resulting from UMCA cause were Bishop Charles Mackenzie who arrived at Magomero in Chiradzulu in 1861 and Chancy Maples who died in Nkhotakota on the way to Likoma in 1863.

With 85 percent of the island’s population being Anglicans and the remainder belonging to relatively newer churches, healthcare facilities and schools on the hard-to-reach isle bear testimony to fingerprints of the mission station dating back to the 1880s.

The island’s single most important healthcare facility, St Peters Hospital, sees between 100 and 200 patients from Likoma as well as Tanzania and Mozambique daily, according to its head Francis Juma.

The hospital also admits referrals from Chizumulu Health Centre.

On the education front, St Peter’s Cathedral is the mother of teaching and learning institutions that dot the island’s length and breadth.

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St Peter’s Primary School

“Besides, the church’s educational exploits include colleges for training the clergy and medical staff as well as an apprenticeship school which used to give the island’s sons and daughters vocational trainings in variety of fields, including printing, carpentry and building,” said Dumisani Chitete, who heads the church’s history committee.

The colleges have been shut down due to funding constraints as their European benefactors left the island when the country attained independence in 1964.

However, books printed at the defunct Likoma Press that are still on display at the cathedral’s library show their contribution to the dynamics of the church named after Peter the rock—a bedrock of what the island has become amid what traditional leaders and their people dubbed dribs and drabs of government investment.

According to Chitete, the mission station traces its journey to pioneer British colonial governors, but the stone building was constructed under the supervision of Bishop Cathrew Fisher.

“The station came into being when the British were controlling our islands, but Consul General, Sir Harry Johnston, later left it in the hands of Chaplain Bernard Glopsso who was a trainer of the clergy at the defunct college of theology in its midst,” explains Chitete.

From Fisher’s term, the cathedral witnessed 24 bishops. Fanuel Makangani, who lives at the headquarters of the Diocese of Northern Malawi in Mzuzu, is the incumbent.

“It’s first homegrown leader was Josiah Mtekateka, a son of Chamba Village in the vicinity, headed the diocese from 1971 to 1989.

Afterwards, Bishop Peter Nyanya divided the dioceses because it was too vast—giving birth to what used to be called the Diocese of Northern Lake Malawi.”

The split marked further demotion of the monolith’s coveted stand as the headquarters of the Diocese of Nyasaland which comprised Nkhotakota, Mpondasi, Malindi in Mangochi and Msumba in Mozambique.

Apparently, the earliest blow had come in 1932 when a conference of world leaders of the Anglican church meeting in England decided that Likoma could not be the headquarters of the two-nation diocese because it was not a district.

Although former president Bakili Muluzi declared Likoma a separate district from Nkhata Bay on November 5 1999, the cathedral is still responding to St Mark’s cathedral of the Diocese of Northern Malawi in Mzuzu.

Its steel arcs and stone walls attract scores of tourists from mainland parts of Malawi and overseas every week.

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@chavulaj at St Peter’s Cathedral

Its tourism potential has left St Peters Church Committee with plans to build a lodging complex nearby or negotiating a commission from other hospitality businesses that are cashing on organised sightseeing tours of the historic architectural wonder.

Designed by London-based architect Frank George, the 1 500-seater cathedral usually sits 700 people as some are migrating to newer churches.

Retracing its timeline, St Peter’s congregation was set to commemorate the golden jubilee of Bishop Jackson Biggers, a US missionary who voluntarily relocated to Likoma and got expelled by the one-party rule of founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda on accusations of instigating the locals to rise against government. They recalled him in 1997 and he now lives in Zomba.

“He may be living elsewhere because he can no longer withstand Likoma’s scorching heat due to his health, but his spirit and first love is here at Likoma where he transformed a lot of souls and lives through his education and  education projects,” village head Mwasi said.

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@chavulaj at Nkhata Bay Port

Splitting the difference: A traveller’s trials and times

It is the best of the times; it is the worst of the times. Charles Dickens’ bitter-sweet aptly captures my impression of the boat rides Likoma citizens endured since MV llala broke down on June 30 last year.

“It’s an adventure when you arrive well, but an accident if the wind overpowers your boat,” warned Matthews Chizuwi, a crew member for the 80-passenger MV Tafika, while escorting me to Malungo Transport’s boat which was departing Nkhata Bay Port around 9am.

As the orange sun was emerging around 6am, my ears were already familiar with tales of how travellers had dumped their priceless possessions into the lake to save lives when Limani Boat was overcome by mwera waves—southerly winds that also held travellers hostage for about 24 hours on the water voyage that normally takes four hours.

“Let there be calm,” I murmured as hissing waves whipped the shore on my walk to the harbour where Malungo was gulping a multitude alongside bulks of goods.

With no alternative transport to Likoma, the vessel was constipated with people, alcohol sachets, bags of maize, canoes, drugs and other medical supplies, eggs, fizzy drinks, goats, groundnuts, oranges, potatoes and a zillion other things that made the boat resemble the biblical Noah’s Ark.

I jumped into the Dickensian affair after the crew had finished loading an alphabet of goods, wondering whether there was space for my tired frame which had survived a night-long bus ride from Blantyre.

Outside the boat was a spectacular signal of the country’s ailing water transport, with Nkhata Bay Jetty reduced to a mash of rusty iron floor fitted with crashed timber and withering concrete panels leading to an aging office building.

We departed Nkhata Bay around 9am, swerving left and right, up and down on waters haunted by vuma, an easterly wind.

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One of the latecomers that risked it all

Shortly afterwards, we saw latecomers raising white flags at the harbour.

“Stop, NyaChirwa is not here!” exclaimed a woman in the crowd. The boat hummed on, trembling as I tried to figure out how it feels to be among those that were flagging in the air.

But it was not unusual, said my elderly neighbour.

He said: “Every time, latecomers spend between K5 000 and K10 000 on speedboats just because they couldn’t withstand a temptation for sweets or drinks when the vessel was leaving.”

In no time, a small boat was cruising after Malungo, bringing a speechless woman who was buying a bun as we started off.

Besides paying a K7 000 penalty for her K30 bite, she was shivering—soaked by tears and spills like the baby on her bosom.

Such was the rough ride that at times half of the haul of the boat was suspended in the air and hit the lake with a smashing sound as the tide withdrew.

I remembered the Titanic disintegrating after hitting an iceberg. But only a television set fell from its raised cabinet in front.

Being a first-timer, I wanted to see my God walk on the water and come to my rescue.

“Why are you sleeping while I am sinking?” I interrogated him.

But we were not sinking yet. A few, who couldn’t stomach the turbulent tides, were vomiting. Some of the daredevils, who were perching atop the sheep, started descending into the hall where a faint-hearted many were.

My tummy was turning terribly and I was about to join the 13 that had puked before I fell asleep around 11am.

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Malungo boat gulping her own

Good riddance!

When I woke up around 3pm, my body was accustomed to the tidal ride and the lake was so peaceful.

My stomach felt empty. The tongue craved for a drop of the bottled water and juice I had earlier donated to the crew to avoid vomiting.

I bought a few sweets and oranges from boys who were vending confectionaries and liquor sachets on board.

Calm prevailed for slightly over an hour when Chizumulu Island appeared at 4pm. I was relieved to see land, rocks, baobabs and houses after hours in the middle of a seemingly endless blue.

The boat stopped at a port near stone-perched Makwenda Lodge and Chizumulu Trading Centre before proceeding on what was meant to be a two-hour trip to Likoma Port.

“We will be there by six,” promised crew member Golden Munkhwamba. But we got there at 9.45pm.

A four-hour journey from Nkhata Bay had spanned over 12 hours—spending 30 minutes of the duration offloading 59 bags of maize at Likoma Secondary School.

I was only happy to have tasted a bit of life the Likoma way and to arrive without throwing my camera, notebook and life as others might have done during the fateful year without Ilala. I wasn’t fish food like Jonah of the Bible.

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@chavulaj at Likoma beach market

 The following few days, I found myself observing happenings and capturing muted voices in marketplaces, government offices, villages, lakeside resorts, schools and prayer houses in line with my mission: Getting to the bottom of life of the islanders with and without the Ilala.

And my quotable quote welled from a woman who had survived a crocodile’s jaws and Ilala’s sinking substitute: “Where were you when we were about to die due to Ilala’s vanishing?” wondered Alleluya Machira, who is striving to rebuilding her life after throwing her business merchandise into the lake to save lives in a troubled boat.

She felt equally let down by a myriad of civil society organisations who claim to be voices of the voiceless when they were campaigning for anything except Likoma residents’ birthrights while the cheaper and safer ship was nowhere.

So eventful and painful was the long wait that throngs of grannies and grandchildren poured onto the port when Ilala arrived for the second time after the year-long hiatus.

For me, it was time to split the difference between IIlala and opportunistic boats.

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@chavulaj with Jack Kateta, akuchimuna

In the absence of a jetty, the ship anchored about 200 metres in the lake and passengers were using boats to get there.

At its doorstep was an upright staircase too steep and hazardous for the sick, elderly and other special-needs persons.

Beyond the stumbling block, the ship was roomy, with clear partitions between cargo and human beings, top-class and low-class ticket holders.

The rest was a thrilling adventure and Ilala arrived at Nkhata Bay at 7.50pm, completing in about three hours a trip the boat had clocked half a calendar day!

Perhaps, that is why its dependents call it cheaper and better although it disappeared when the cheapest ticket was selling at K840, only to re-emerge when the same costs K2 000.

It is really a lovable darling.

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