Friday, 28 October 2016

How Malawi is mopping up Zambia’s staple food

A truck loads bags of maize at Sawala in Muchinji District, Malawi. PICTURE BY JACK ZIMBA


JACK ZIMBA

 A MAIZE storage shed for the Food Reserve Agency (FRA) lies empty at Vizenge in Chipata, Eastern Province – not a single bag of the grain in store. Outside, a large green tarpaulin lies disused. Usually, it should be covering stacks of maize bought from farmers in this highly-productive area.
The records in the clerk’s book show that since July when the crop marketing season started, the FRA here has only bought 77×50 kilogramme bags of maize. It is just enough to fill one four-tonne truck.
There are only two entries in the clerk’s big book; August 31, when he bought 25 bags, and on September 22 he bought 52 bags.
“People just say they will bring the maize, but they don’t bring,” says Whiteson Phiri, the clerk at the depot.
With the crop marketing season almost over, the depot clerk sounds less optimistic of making a third entry in his ledger. Elsewhere in this region, the sheds were closed a long time ago, for want of business.
Something is awfully wrong. Where has all the maize in this area gone to?
The answer lies a few kilometres from here, at Sawala Trading in Mchinji district of Malawi.
I hitched a ride on a motorbike to Sawala, entering Zambia’s eastern neighbour through an old mission outpost called Tamanda, where Zambia National Service (ZNS) officers have been posted to stop the smuggling of maize in this area.
Chief Chanje’s area has every high activity of maize smuggling in Eastern Province.
We rode about a kilometre on a bush track that demarcates the two countries.
“This side is Zambia and this side is Malawi,” the bike-rider informed me.
I could not have noticed; there was nothing to show that this was an international border – just crop fields on both sides.
I arrived at Sawala to find a seedy but bustling trading area.
Everywhere you look at Sawala, there are stand-scales and stacks of maize awaiting transportation. Men could be seen busy weighing and sewing the bags.
The money changers were also at hand to change the currencies.
I found two Freightliners loading bags of maize, while a Zambian-registered truck BAB 6559 made its way back to Zambia empty, after delivering its cargo.
Back in August, at the peak of the marketing season, as many as 10 trucks would leave Sawala daily for Lilongwe or other towns in Malawi to deliver their prized cargo, according to my informer.
“It is almost as if the FRA has shifted to Malawi,” someone commented.
The traders at Sawala are wary and suspicious of strangers, but from the small vent of a pit latrine, I managed to capture the illegal trade with my camera.
Returning to Sawala the following day, I found two police officers chatting with the traders, obviously turning a blind eye to this illegal exchange across the border.
Since the harvest in April, the smuggling of maize in this area has gone on unabated.
Although Government stationed ZNS officers at the border crossing at Tamanda, it has done little to stop the smuggling.
Along this porous border, there are many entry points.
Just a kilometre from where the ZNS officers are stationed is an entry point – a road so busy with heavy lorries that the soil at the junction has turned into a loose powder.
At this point, trucks, cars, motorbikes and bicycles enter at will, delivering the maize.
“Last Friday, I saw 11 trucks cross to the other side,” headman Dzoole told me.
Dzoole village lies on the border with Malawi.
This kind of smuggling has been going on between the two countries for decades, but not on this scale, says headman Dzoole. The illegal trade has escalated in the recent past due to adverse weather affecting Malawi’s agriculture.
“Last year we saw a lot of Malawian trucks here collecting the maize and taking it to Malawi through the bush, but this year, it is the Zambian trucks taking the maize to Malawi,” said the headman.
One government official told me the only way to stop the smuggling is erecting a physical boundary such as an electric fence between the two countries.
“We are not saying we are at war with Malawi, but I have seen such fences within Southern Africa,” he said.
“Our border is naturally porous, right from Vubwi to Lundazi,” Chipata district commissioner Kalunga Zulu told me.
He said the illegal trade is driven by demand on the other side of the border.
“The demand for our maize is so high in Malawi that we cannot even meet the need,” he said.
The Malawian government is currently buying maize from vendors.
BUSINESS SENSE
For the farmers of Chief Chanje’s area, the biggest cause of smuggling is the maize pricing and payment system for grain purchases.
Moses Phiri, who is one of Chief Chanje’s representatives, gives an analogy of a goat and cow to emphasise his point about the maize pricing.
“Tell me, if you are offered a goat and a cow, which one are you going to choose?” he asked, and waited for my answer.
At double the price per 50 kilogramme bag, Malawi is offering a “cow”.
Besides, the farmers prefer cash for their maize, which the FRA does not offer.
At Sawala, a 50 kilogramme bag is now costing K180. The price is rumoured to have reached K200 at one time.
The FRA is buying the grain at K85 per bag.
“Even a child on the breast would laugh at me if it heard that I sold my maize at K85 when I could have sold it for K150,” one farmer told me.
Essau Chulu of Dongolose village told me he sold 130 bags of maize to Malawi. His friend, Adamson Phiri, sold 100 bags.
“And how many bags have you sold to the FRA?” I asked them.
Both men wagged their heads.
“I don’t want to lie to you, I haven’t sold a single grain to the FRA,” Mr Chulu said.
The two farmers sound like unpatriotic Zambians.
“It’s not that farmers don’t want to sell their maize to the FRA, but they want cash,” Mr Chulu said, sounding upset.
The two farmers also complained about the requirements by the FRA for the farmers to clean the maize before selling it to the agency, which they say eats into their profits as they have to hire people to help them do the sieving.
“We also have to pay for transportation of the maize to the FRA depots, but the Malawians follow us to our homes,” said Mr Phiri.
“The FRA wants very clean maize, but the Malawians don’t care about the grade or how clean the maize is, they just get as long as it is maize,” he added.
And some, like James Nyirenda of Mulangeni village, now fear that many here will face starvation because they have sold all their maize to the Malawians.
“Soon many people here will require food aid from government because they have sold even the maize they were supposed to feed on,” he said.
Mr Nyirenda has a good-sounding solution to end the maize smuggling.
“Why can’t the government buy the maize from us at a higher price of, let’s say, K120, and then export it to Malawi at K150?” he wondered.
“That way, the government would benefit, and we would benefit, too.”
And because of the willingness by the Malawians to buy the maize at a high cost, it has pushed the prices of maize up on the local market. A five kilogramme container or meda of the maize now costs about K10, up from as low as K2.50 last year.
Last week, Minister of Agriculture Dora Siliya told Parliament that the country has enough maize, but that the FRA needs to buy 187,000 metric tonnes of the commodity to reach the country’s reserve ceiling of 500,000 metric tonnes.
The minister also assured the nation that there were enough stocks of maize with both government and the private sector.
Zambia is said to have produced 2.9 million metric tonnes of maize last season, plus a carry-over of 667,524 metric tonnes from the previous season.
According to Ms Siliya, the private sector has bought 903,630 metric tonnes of maize from this year’s harvest.
Government also announced an export ban of all maize.
But just how much has been smuggled into Malawi, is hard to know.
Mr Zulu, the Chipata district commissioner, said what the FRA has bought in Chipata is a drop in the ocean, compared to what has been smuggled to Malawi.
In the villages, I came across a few Malawians on bicycles mopping up whatever has remained of the grain in this area.
Back at the empty maize shed at Vizenge, the clerk waits and waits.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Nabwalya: Hell in paradise


Tulilenji Shita, the lion-slayer.
Hunger is perennial in Nabwalya.

Many residents depend on the Munyamadzi River for water. 
Startled impala in flight near the Luangwa River.

THE South Luangwa National Park is a real paradise teeming with wildlife.

One of the most noticeable things driving around in this torrid land are heaps and heaps of elephant dung – some fresh, some dry and some semi-dry.

It makes one think a recent report about dwindling elephant populations across Africa was a hoax.

Drive down to the Luangwa River and you will see a rich biodiversity within a few hundred square kilometres.

A group of hippos enjoys a bath in the remaining pools before all the water is finally licked up by the scorching sun, leaving behind a dry river bed resembling a sandy desert. In the surrounding bushes, there is the impala in their countless numbers, baboons, kudu, puku, waterbuck and giraffe, while large herds of wildebeest and zebra roam the nearby plains. There are also large populations of the fearsome buffalo.

The night belongs to the ravenous beasts – packs of lions, and the elusive and solitary leopard – and its silence is broken by the occasional whooping of hyenas.

But while the animals thrive here, the villagers of Nabwalya, which lies between the South Luangwa and the North Luangwa national parks, go through a grueling life fraught with many challenges.

It seems the Muchinga Escarpment, the geographical divide that separates the valley people from the rest of Mpika district, has also created a social divide.

And the valley people, who belong to the Bisa tribe, are usually looked down upon whenever they travel to the highland - Mpika town or Lundazi.

“They look at us as backward, and really we are backward. Some of the people laugh at us and say a lot of bad things,” says Bwalya Chanda, who works for the Community Resource Board (CRB) in Nabwalya.

The CRB manages wildlife resources and revenue on behalf of the community.

“It’s hard life and we feel abandoned,” says Mr Chanda.

With an impossible road, no electricity and poor mobile phone signal, the people here have little contact with the outside world.

There is only one communication tower near the chief’s palace, part of a project by the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority, but the signal dies just about 10 kilometres from the tower.

Locals call this place a prison, and many have never seen what lies beyond the escarpment.

Many civil servants, teachers especially, find life here unbearable and leave.

Elvis Kampamba is head teacher at Nabwalya Secondary School, and the longest serving civil servant in the area – he has worked here for 24 years.

“We have a very big problem of retention for civil servants,” he says.

The school, which is the only secondary school in Nabwalya, currently has 13 teachers, seven of them female.

But Mr Kampamba fears the teachers will soon leave due to the unbearable living conditions.

The head teacher’s fears are not without basis.

In the past few years, he has seen eight female teachers leave the school, unable to cope.

“So why don’t you leave yourself?” I ask him.

“The people here really need help and it will be sad for them to see me leave for better places, leaving them unchanged. I was brought up in the village and I appreciate suffering,” he tells me.

Adding to the harsh life, the school does not have enough staff houses, and so the teachers are forced to share.

Water is also usually a challenge here. In the dry season, when the wells and boreholes dry up, the residents have to walk down to Munyamadzi River to share the little remaining water with the wild animals.

And when the river is full, after the rains, it brings danger closer to the villages – crocodiles.

“Who can like here?” asks Weldemar Potrapeluk, the parish priest at the small Catholic mission.

Father Potrapeluk has been working in Nabwalya since 2008 when the mission opened.

“This is a paradise for the animals, but it is hell for the people,” he says, sitting in the shed to escape the scorching heat.

DANGEROUS ENCOUNTERS

Living with the wild animals has its own challenges. Here, stories abound of people who survived attacks from wild animals, and those who did not.

The survivors have scars inflicted by lions, crocs and buffaloes.

But the biggest problem in as far as human wildlife conflict is concerned is the biggest land animal – the elephant. It also poses the biggest danger to human life, killing more people than even lions do.

Ask anybody here, they would rather face a pack of lions than a lone elephant.

Many say the population of elephants has increased around here over the years. It is believed that more elephants have crossed into this sanctuary because of reduced poaching. And more elephants spell more trouble for the locals. The elephants regularly raid their fields.

Chanda Kunda, who is headman of Solo village, told me the villagers have to regularly wake up in the night to fend off the elephants, lest they destroy their houses or steal the harvest from their barns. The villagers bang metals or bottles or shout to scare the jumbos away.

But chasing away elephants is a huge risk, and many have been hurt in the process.

On June 15 this year around 01:00 hours, Precious Phiri woke up to fend off three elephants from her cotton field when one of them charged at her, and pinned her to the ground.

Precious’ mother, Tulilenji Shita, driven by motherly instinct and rare guts, rushed to the rescue, shouting and flashing a torch light at the elephant until it relented.

The young woman’s abdomen was reaped open, but she survived. She has big scars on her belly and left thigh from the injuries.

It was not the first time that Ms Shita was showing such bravery.

In 2013, she made headlines when she killed a lion with a hoe.

While working in the field one morning, Ms Shita noticed a female lion about to attack her three-year-old daughter.

She put herself between the lioness and her child and charged at it, striking it with a hoe. Whether by sheer luck or by the hand of God, the lion died.

Some here now think Ms Shita is possessed.

PERSISTENT HUNGER

Last season, most of the people here experienced crop failure due to poor rains. But they still had to share even the little crop that survived the drought with elephants.

Many households have already run out of food, and are on the verge of starvation.

In Solo village near Luangwa River, Patricia Chileshe prepares a pot of porridge – maize meal mixed with mwembe, a wild sourly pod-like fruit.

She adds ash to the mixture to reduce its sourly taste, and to make it less harmful. It is said the porridge can cause serious diarrheoa if not well prepared.

Ms Chileshe cooks the porridge for lunch and the family only eats nshima in the evening.

But the wild fruit is fast running out. The women now have to trek across the Luangwa River to gather it.

Currently, many of the villagers also rely on the unripe mangoes, which they boil and mash into a paste.

Hunger has become a perennial occurrence in Nabwalya, and successive governments have usually airlifted food aid to the area.

Mr Kunda, the headman of Solo village, says if the villagers are not helped soon, they will starve to death.

Last season, many villagers decided to grow cotton, hoping to make a fortune from the cash crop, but most of them had a poor harvest, and that has only made the situation here worse.

Some people from Lundazi and Mambwe districts in Eastern Province have seen opportunity in this situation, bringing mealie-meal on motorbikes, which they exchange for fish.

Sadly, many of the fishermen found on the river were using illegal nets in order to maximise their catches.

WILDLIFE BENEFITS

So what are the benefits of living in this wildlife sanctuary?

There are two safari companies operating in Nabwalya and employing a few locals.

When the hunting season is opened, safari companies pay government for the hunting rights, and government in turn pays 50 percent to the CRB, which manages the funds on behalf of the community.

The money has been used to build houses for community scouts and pay their salaries. The money has also been used to build schools.

Nabwalya has four government schools and 10 that are run by the CRB.

But the community schools are manned by unqualified teachers, in some cases there is only one teacher for all grades. At one of such schools in Solo village, we found the place deserted because the only teacher at the school had gone to fish.

The CRB also sponsors about 10 students in various colleges.

But the money is not enough, says Mr Chanda. And since the hunting ban was lifted two years ago, government has not remitted funds to the CRB.

Many of the scouts have now gone for months without pay, and some reportedly resort to illegal killing of animals to raise money.

One scout was recently found selling hippo meat in Mpika and is currently awaiting prosecution.

The CRB is also involved in the sensitisation of communities on conservation, and last year it bought fireworks to help scare away the elephants from crop fields.

A few years ago, the community was handed a camp near Mutinondo River by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, but the project was a huge failure, and the site now lies in dereliction – a blotch on the beautiful river.

Mr Chanda thinks the project was handed to the community prematurely by the Society.

“They were not ready to run it,” he tells me.

But many others do not see any benefits from this abundant wildlife, and with so much poverty around, it is not hard to understand why.

And Fr Potrapeluk thinks many people here have lost hope and have low esteem of themselves.

“They need a mind change, and that will take time,” says the priest.

Down the rugged road to Nabwalya


The rugged road goes over the Muchinga Escarpment.

Stuck. Our 4x4 vehicle gets stuck in the sand in the South Luangwa National Park.

JACK ZIMBA



A PUFF of hot air hits my face as soon as I step out of the air-conditioned vehicle. It is a harsh welcome to Nabwalya, a vast chiefdom that lies 130 kilometres east of Mpika, in the Luangwa valley.
At the small Catholic mission, the only place that has a few Spartan rooms for lodging, I’m warned to never leave the door to my chalet open, to avoid snakes slipping in.
“There are many snakes around here. Yesterday I killed a spitting cobra right there,” says Father Weldemar Potrapeluk, pointing at the spot he killed the venomous serpent. He is the parish priest. One of his dogs is blind in one eye after an encounter with the spitting cobra.
I needn’t any stronger warning.
And yet, the first warning I got coming to Nabwalya was not about snakes, but the road that snakes over mountains and down the valley, connecting this remote area to Mpika town.
So how do you get to Nabwalya? By four-wheel drive vehicle, only.
That is so official that on the turn-off from the Great North Road to Nabwalya, a poster says “Strictly 4x4.”
The 110 kilometre road, if it can be called that at all, is an old elephant trail. Many years ago, the elephants made this trail as they hiked from the valley to the plateau, crossing the Muchinga Escarpment, the geographical feature that gives this province its name.
Then the humans took it up, but did little to improve on it. It still resembles an elephant trail, and offers a huge challenge to both vehicle and driver.
In places, the road is so jagged that it makes even walking a challenge. Twice while trying to help the driver negotiate his way on the steep slopes and between rocks, I slipped over the loose stones, bruising my hand.
At several intervals, the road cuts across streams and gullies – I counted 28 of them. Nature must have been very busy here. The streams are completely dry now, but come November when the rains are in full swing, they will come alive, rushing towards the Luangwa River.
The Luangwa River, itself, is nothing but a large seasonal stream that gets bone dry between rains.
There are no bridges across the streams, which makes this road impassable for half-year.
After covering 60 kilometres of the journey, our 4x4 pick-up gets stuck in the soft sand, digging in as the driver tries to power out, and resting on its diff. For 20 minutes, we are probably sitting duck for the lions out there, for this road runs for several kilometres between the South Luangwa National Park and the Munyamadzi game management area. My only comfort lies in the armed wildlife police officer accompanying us.
In other places, the road is overlaid with pebbles, while some parts are dried up marshlands with baked clay that bears footprints of various game, including elephant and buffalo.
But the biggest challenge is the Muchinga Escarpment. On top of the mountain, there is a rusty poster warning motorists about the steepness of the road.
It is said that many first-time drivers on this road give up at this point, daunted by the escarpment, which offers a five-kilometre incline. Driving down is hard, driving up is even harder.
The rugged road zigzags on the mountainside, and on a good clear day, you can see the road from 20 kilometres, cutting through the expansive wilderness.
Then you drive into the Luangwa valley, with its punishing heat, and if you drive with the windows open, there are the pesky tsetse flies with their stinging bites to contend with.
With this tough terrain, a distance that would take about one hour on a normal road takes us six hours, and is a great toll on our bodies and minds.
Many who drive this road vow never to do it again.
But spare a thought for the 13,800 inhabitants of Nabwalya, who do not have the luxury of a four-wheel drive vehicle, and who have no choice but to travel on this road.
Actually, to get to Mpika, many of the villagers walk. It takes about three days to make the journey, passing through the Munyamadzi game management area, carrying food to eat along the way.
In the rainy season, the villagers have to cross a number of streams, usually wading in high waters, plus crossing the Munyamadzi River at four points by canoe.
Many, especially women, have never travelled outside Nabwalya.
Fr. Potrapeluk thinks two-thirds of the women here have never been to Mpika. Yet, sadly, two-thirds may even be an underestimation.
When I ask a group of 10 young nursing mothers if any of them has been to Mpika, not a single hand goes up.
Since she was born here in 1982, Chiluba Chibesa of Chilima village has never seen any better civilisation or modernity than what she sees around the small Catholic mission – the chief’s palace, the small secondary school, a clinic and some houses belonging to wildlife officers.
“I’ve never been to the Boma [Mpika town]. What am I going to do there?” she asks.
When she has a bit of money to buy her basic groceries, she gives it to her husband whenever he makes the three-day journey.
But even for the men, the journey is a hard undertaking.
“When our husbands arrive back, they are thinner from the walking,” says Chiluba.
The mother of three says when this place finally has a road, she can go and sell mangoes, fish and chickens in town and earn some money to buy her groceries.
“Things at Jairos’ shop are expensive,” she complains.
Jairos Zimba is one of the most prominent grocers in Chilima village.
When Mr Zimba started his grocery business in 2003, he used to walk to Mpika to buy goods for sale, which he would carry on his head.
But now that his business has grown, he gets supplies from Lundazi. He cycles down to the Luangwa River, crosses by canoe if the river is in flow, then gets on a vehicle to the small town in Eastern Province.
There are only two vehicles the villagers rely on in this area; one belongs to the National Parks and Wildlife Department and the other to the Catholic mission.
Vehicles are a rare sight here. In fact, you can drive the whole 110 kilometre stretch without meeting any vehicle. And wherever we drive in the villages and wildlife camps, our vehicle is soon surrounded by a horde of children in tatty clothes, their darting eyes full of curiosity.
Yet in the rainy season, even a four-wheel drive vehicle is useless here.
Fr. Potrapeluk, who drives a Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with a winch, has had to walk to Mpika a number of times in the rainy season.
And he has a permanent reminder of the hardships on the rugged road – a missing right thumb.
When I ask him how he lost his thumb, he responds rather humorously:
“I did not lose it; I still have it in a jar in the house.”
Once when his vehicle got stuck in a river, the priest decided to winch it out, but he pushed the wrong button, severing his thumb.
“Many times I’ve been stuck on that road,” he says with a Polish accent.
Some here believe Nabwalya is the most backward place in Zambia, cut off from the rest of the country.
Yet with all these hardships, Mfuwe Constituency, where Nabwalya lies, gave President Lungu one of the highest votes, by percentage, in the August 11 polls. He got 11,640, while his main rival, Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development, got 929 votes.
Many here voted for the PF with the hope it will bring the road, which it has already started constructing.
In March, President Lungu visited Nabwalya. Many locals, including the chief, say it was the first time in history that a President had visited the area, and they still talk about it as if it happened yesterday.
It is hard to think that successive governments have for decades not done much to connect Nabwalya to the rest of the district.
Perhaps now there is hope as government plans to divide Mpika, which is the largest district in the country, into three in order to increase development.