BY RICHARD CHIROMBO
Makanjira, visited between December and March, represents the full meaning of life. This is during Malawi’s traditional rainy season which, in this remote part of Mangochi district, is always pregnant with life-like twists and turns, promises and broken promises.
Take, for a start, my experience during a four-day visit to Makanjira- situated in Mangochi North Constituency, some 105 kilometres from Mangochi Boma- early this month (March). I arrived at Mangochi Boma around 4:00 p.m. the previous day, and immediately booked a place for my night accommodation because I wanted to embark on my journey to Makanjira the next morning, so I could see the morning side of life in this ‘left side’ of the world.
Of course, my perception of Makanjira as the ‘left side’ (meaning, remote part) was ‘corrected’ barely an hour after my arrival in Mangochi as Amran issa, a bicycle-tax runner who took me around town (yes, for a fee!) told me in the face I would be beaten in Makanjira if I ever alluded to the point that it (the area) was on the ‘left side’ of development.
“The’ left side’, or anything to do with the ‘left’,” chipped in Issa, “is taboo here. This is a domain of the Yao, and the Yao- by tradition- treat left-handed people, and thus anything to do with the term left, with contempt. It is the right hand that is the action hand, the positive side.”
I immediately abandoned all ideas about the term ‘left’. There would be nobody to come to my rescue if I referred anything to as left-this or left-that and got beaten for eat! I have always loathed clenched fists and slaps following one bad school experience in 1998.
I remember the time I was brushing my teeth outside our boys (boarding) dormitory at Kaphuka Private Secondary School when, accidentally, some drops of saliva escaped from my ‘brush filaments and landed on a Judo-student’s filaments. He immediately demanded that I buy a new one from the school canteen but I was broke.
It took me some six seconds to weigh my options, during which time I could not make heads or tails on whether to run, borrow money for the replacement, or simply apologise. So the Judo student, thinking that my delayed response was a sign of defiance, gave me a hard slap that sent me sprawling to the ground, which slap has since turned me into some perpetual coward of clenched fists and slaps.
I decided to go back to my room and sleep, immediately after Issa’s ‘timely’ counsel, lest I offend people with my mouth.
It was around 07:00a.m. the next day that I started off for Makanjira, hiring Issa again to drop me at M’baluku (the locale after crossing Bakili Muluzi Bridge), arriving, As it were, some ten minutes later. It is then that the twists and turns, promises and broken promises begun.
It was a bright, sunny day. The sun warmed our bodies. Some people were even heard assuring others that it was a ‘promising’ day, one uninterrupted by dark clouds and strong winds. We boarded a 1-tonne Pick-up, and started off for Makanjira.
We reached Malindi (that place famed for Mlozi and the Slave Trade) some 15 minutes later and the weather changed as dark clouds formed in the sky. Shortly after, heavy rains drenched us just some twenty minutes after we had been warmed by the sun. The first broken promise.
When we finally ended the tarred stretch of the road and ventured into dusty terrain, we realized that there was no drop of rain here. Some of the maize plants were visibly yellow instead of the natural green, the cobs weaker. While maize flourished on the tarred side of life, the dusty side was devoid of rain, another sign of a broken promise because the rainy season is for rains, and the rains ‘chose’ to play discrimination.
In additional, strong winds coming from the opposite direction fought against our Pick-up’s speed, and stuck to our now-drying clothes and hair. It was after some one-hour, forty minutes that we finally saw a beautifully constructed house that is Senior Chief Makanjira’s newly built government house, crossed a bridge with over-flowing waters that were sub-merging maize crops, and arrived at Makanjira Trading Centre.
Welcome to the headquarters of Senior Chief Makanjira. Just that the main centre in Makanjira is not named after that name; it is called Mpiripiri. Chief Makanjira told me later, when I visited his court, that the name Mpiripiri is a dedication to a tree that once graced the whole of Makanjira. Now, only two of such trees are remaining- one inside Senior Chief Makanjira’s court, the other outside.
It is common to see people who have come to the area for the first time take photos of the Mpiripiri tree. It is an endangered species -though not so declared by the experts, who seem so quick to declare wild animals nearly extinct, but take ages to accord the same status to trees- that is there today, but clearly not there for long.
How things change!
Three years ago, you could not imagine the idea of a beer hall, tavern or night club in Makanjira. People used to brew local gin (Kachaso) clandestinely for fear of being ostracized by society. But because inebriated people forget so many ‘normal’ things and make noise where silence would suffice, the brewers have often been discovered and mocked for violating religious principles (Makanjira being a predominantly Islamic area).
Guess what? There is now an ‘open’ bar at Mpiripiri Trading Centre. What’s more? The music there brazes like nobody’s business. However, expect no night queens (commercial sex workers) at the drinking joint. Those who want one simply ask the boys loitering around this lone drinking place, as they know where to get them!
As one teenage boy told me: “The women are there, but not actually there. There because they always come when we inform them that there is a ‘customer’; not there because they don’t accept new-comers when approached directly. After all, how does one know that such a woman is a commercial sex worker? Ours are part time sex service women, not sex workers.”
These (bars and commercial sex work) are symbols of broken promises again. Makanjira was once a quiet, dignified place; now what? Are people getting twisted by life, or is it merely life’s next turn?
“We are not losing touch; people are just opening up,” said the teenage boy who, already, has been to South Africa with his father twice.
I also took some time off, and visited Mozambique. It is a distance of only 10 kilometres, but getting there takes more time than necessary.
In the first place, there is Chitete River to cross. At least six wooden bridges, leaning on concrete stones, have been swept away over the past 15 years. Children and other adult community members have seen the business-side of this development catastrophe and are raking in thousands of Kwacha daily.
The peak time for this type of ‘business’ is the rainy season when water reaches waist-or- neck high. Teenage boys will carry you across the river on their backs at the cost of between K200 and K300, depending on your weight. The stout pay more.
Motorcycles attract a crossing price of K500. This means K500 for the machine, and K200 for the cyclist.
There is a dark side to this flourishing, seasonal business. Teenage boys are running away from such primary schools as Nangungu and Mpiripiri to make quick money. No wonder, according to one of the community members Wallace Chuma, classes at Nangungu are always half-empty.
The children are breaking their promise to go to school, when government fulfilled its by constructing the school blocks- all because the sad turn of events (washing away of bridge At Chitete) has twisted the situation in favour of business.
Then, there is the issue of electricity black-outs and poor mobile communications network. Some ten years ago, Makanjira flourished in the dark. Now, with the resultant connection to the national grid, people are still raising complaints against the artificial light in the dark.
For example, there was a continuos black out during the entire span of my visit to Makanjira. ‘Mr. Yakweyakwe’, as owner of the famed Yakweyakwe Rest House is commonly known, complained that there are times when three months pass by without electricity, yet business people paid to enjoy uninterrupted services.
“This is a major challenge, and affects our businesses. Imagine, some of us receive visitors from as far away as Germany, and these people live in the dark for days on end. What message do they take home? We must be helped on this,” said Yakweyakwe.
It is the same case with mobile communications services. There was only one mobile network service working during my entire visit, and, because I had taken one cell phone, I was incommunicado for three days until I reached Mangochi Central Business District on my way to Blantyre.
But the Malawians are better off, in terms of these services. There is no electricity on the Mozambican border, where famed beer trader Paulo operates his business in grass-thatched ‘halls’.
The twist that is Makanjira is not complete without mentioning the issue of transport fares. From M’baluku, one pays K800. However, from Makanjira to Mangochi, the locals pay between K500 and K600, while the visitor pays k800- another twist to this, otherwise, interesting place.