On the afternoon of Christmas day I started off on my long trip to Usisya, Nkhata-Bay. I have made it a commitment to travel to Usisya, where my parents come from, at least once in every two years. Visiting Usisya used to be much more fun when I was young. We used to get free fish once the fishermen realized we were visitors. Such things do not happen nowadays. This is the first time I have travelled by road on a lorry.
I took an almost empty bus to Mzuzu. No one wants to travel on Christmas day. I had three seats to myself which accorded me with the comfort of dozing while lying down. I arrived in Mzuzu well rested. I spent the early part of the morning sight-seeing around the city. Not much has changed in terms of real development in the city centre though I did see new buildings as the bus entered town. I checked out the famous clock tower which had received so much publicity when it was built, none of the four clocks were working. The bicycle taxis caught my curiosity because I did not expect to see them operating in town. Mzuzu is the only city in Malawi where one can get a two wheeled taxi to move around town and the townships. Luckily traffic was thin and ridding on the bicycles did not pose much of a safety risk. I wondered if the situation is the same on a busy working day. Some of the traffic lights do not work.
By 7:30 am most of the shops had opened and I went to Metro to buy a few things for the folks at home. Basic commodities such as sugar and soap are quite expensive in Usisya. I can understand why hawkers and grocers charge high prices. Transportation of goods is so costly due to the geographical location of this village.
I was now joined by my sister and we decided to have brunch before catching the lorry. For K700 I had chips, fried eggs and a cup of tea. There was nothing else the restaurant could offer. I am not sure if this was enough to be called brunch.
Our transport to Usisya turned out to be a five tonne open lorry. From this moment I began to pray for good weather. Rain would get us wet and worse still make the road unsafe and impassable. First to go was our luggage which was loaded onto the back of the lorry and covered with tarpaulin. Besides the luggage were bags of flour, bails of sugar and crates of soft drinks. Last onto the lorry were the passengers. We packed ourselves Asian style onto the lorry. There were too many passengers and very little space but everybody had to get on board so we had to squeeze and shift to accommodate all. This was the only lorry on this day and nobody wanted to be left behind. Amongst the passengers was a new born baby with her mother. They had just been discharged from the hospital. I felt pity for the baby, the weather was too hot and the mother was applying some water on its heard with her palm. What if it rained? The driver could not offer her space in the cab because it had already been occupied by someone else. I wondered who that was. Fortunately it did not rain.
We paid K1000 each for the trip. The whole trip took us three hours, travelling to Bula then up and down the hills to Usisya on the lakeshore of Lake Malawi. We had a smooth ride on the first part of the road which is from Mzuzu to Bula. Some of the passengers were enjoying the popular opaque beer Chibuku. At Bula we made our second stop and I bought some bananas to feed my hungry stomach which had already started rumbling.
After Bula we embarked on the second phase which involved climbing up and down hills as we meandered to the top of the mountain ranges. One catches a glimpse of the lake as you reach to the top. Then you start the descent which is the worst part of the whole trip. Most of the women were now silent. One lady suggested that I pray after I remarked that looking down the slopes from the lorry was scary. The road is narrow and is carved out of the mountain sides.
Tackling corners is quite dangerous and your safety all depends on how well the driver knows the road. When you encounter oncoming traffic, the vehicle which is not restricted in maneuverability has to reverse to a wider spot to allow the two vehicles to cross. On one side you are faced with the mountain wall and on the other the steep slope. You hold on tight to fellow passengers or the lorry sides as the lorry moves over the uneven road surface and pitches from side to side as if it is about to roll over. This stretch of the road is so treacherous that it even claimed a Caterpillar motor grader. The machine had a fault and was on its way to Mzuzu for repairs when the accident happened. The operator survived the accident. A minibus wreckage can also be seen on another spot. The most difficult corners and slopes have concrete slabs which make negotiating the corners as easy as ABC. Before their construction most of the journeys would come to a halt on these spots.
The view is quite breathtaking as you slowly make your way down to Usisya. Even the mountains on the Tanzanian shoreline can be seen from this vantage point. Between them and us lie the crystal waters of Lake Malawi which Tanzania and Mozambique call Lake Nyasa for their own selfish reasons.
These are the waters which Tanzania claims part of and deep beneath them lies oil (the curse of the world). Long at last we catch a view of Usisya as we make it down the last slopes. From this point one can see that this area has great tourism potential but access remains the main barrier.
There have been a number of development projects in Usisya lately which have seen the area having access to electricity and a community radio station. Not all the houses are connected to electricity as it is still out of reach for many who cannot afford to wire their houses and pay the connection fees. Thembo village is the most connected and even has two demonstration street lights. The other villages like Chikali literally have no power even though some of the villagers have already wired their houses. The power lines have to circumnavigate the old airfield and a new transformer is required for the exercise.
I could not resist fishing out my phone and tuning it to Usisya radio. Signal is not very strong and you have to struggle with the phone to get the best reception. Using a proper FM radio receiver is recommended. Programme content is basically music, greetings and snippets of advice on social life, health and farming.
After four days with my folks and visiting my parent's graves, spiced with a splash into the beautiful waters of Lake Malawi; it was time to head back to Mzuzu. Once again I prayed for good weather. The night before the trip it rained heavily and I made up my mind to extend my stay to Monday but my sister insisted we go. I woke up at 1 am and we were on the departure point by 2 am. We again packed ourselves into the lorry. We had been told by the driver the previous day that departure would be around 2 am. Had we known, we would have come at 5 am. The driver and his crew had decided to extend departure time to 6 am but had informed none of the passengers. They had done this to allow the road to dry up somehow. One trader had even brought along three live pigs to take to Mzuzu on the lorry. The passengers kept on asking him where he thought he would put the the pigs and he suggested tying them under the lorry. When the lorry assistant came he rebuffed his absurd proposal outright, to the delight of everybody.
We started off at around 6:10 am and started climbing the hills slowly. It did not take long before we were told to disembark and make it on foot. The road was so slippery that it was dangerous to ride on the lorry. We had to put rocks on the gorged and most slippery spots of the road for the tyres to have better grip. When we got to the top of the mountains, it was all full throttle down and all the way to Mzuzu.
In Mzuzu we were greeted by shouts of "Ayontho" from vendors and children as the lorry made it through the townships. I did not like being referred to as Ayontho and vowed never to ride on the lorry again. Travelling by ship on the MV Ilala remains by far the most enjoyable and safest means of getting to and from Usisya. As the ship is still undergoing repairs at the shipyard in Monkey-Bay, the lorry is the only means of public transport to get to Usisya.
Happy and safe travelling my fellow Ayontho!