As a bachelor, Patrick Sikwese, used to have pangs of jealousy whenever his best friend visited his parents in Nkhotakota and would return with stories of romance from the village.
“I rarely went home and so had nothing to tell my friend. It was as if I had no home,” says Sikwese, 40, who works as a shop assistant in Lilongwe. “I would just listen, but inwardly was filled with envy.”
He says many of his home mates living in Blantyre and Lilongwe travelled home only when there was an emergency because of the poor condition of the Karonga-Chitipa Road at the time.
“It was a hell of a road,” he says. “It was so rough that even when there was a funeral at home, one had to think twice before making the journey. Very often, we opted to send condolence money.”
Fast forward to 2016, Sikwese, who is married, now travels to his village with his wife and their three children as often as he wishes. He says he travels home regularly “because of Bingu.”
“I can leave for home any time today provided I have money,” says Sikwese. “Even if you had money in those days, you would never be assured of quick travel to and from home.”
As a leader who did not believe in political rhetoric, Malawi’s third president the late Bingu wa Mutharika never tired of telling the nation “let the work of my hands speak for me”.
The catch phrase made Bingu, as the media affectionately called him, a darling of the nation from the time he took office in 2004 and began to deliver on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s promises.
By the time he died of heart failure on April 5 2012 while serving his last second term, aged 78, Bingu had accomplished a lot. Today, the work of his hands is visible everywhere one goes in the country.
One major project Bingu brought to fruition during his eight-year reign was the Karonga-Chitipa Road, a feat that still endears him to the people of the two districts long after he left this world.
Before Bingu took over the reins of power, previous ruling parties used the road as a campaign tool to entice voters in the two districts each time the country was approaching elections.
But the promises were never fulfilled, and people of the two districts got resigned to the fact that there was no likelihood the road would ever be paved. Then Bingu came along.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with PRC, Malawi has received a lot of aid which it has used to implement huge infrastructure projects spread across the country’s three regions.
The projects include the New Parliament Building, Bingu International Conference Centre and Bingu Stadium in Lilongwe, Malawi University of Science and Technology in Thyolo, and Karonga-Chitipa Road.
True to his words “let my hands speak for me”, Bingu confounded his critics by fulfilling the promise he made on the Karonga-Chitipa Road, using a $70 million grant from the PRC.
Chitipa, which for years was regarded as a backward district because of the old road, now has the last laugh: people are flocking to the district to set up businesses, attracted by the new road.
Not surprisingly, people in the district have high regard for Bingu. They say he was a unique leader who believed in action to improve lives of Malawians.
“This is a permanent gift to us from [the late] Bingu,” says Traditional Authority (TA) Mwenemisuku of Chitipa, of the new road. “It is beyond comparison.”
“They used the road as a political campaign tool, but the promises came to nothing and left people of Chitipa in suspense,” he says. “But Bingu said it once and delivered.”
He says it used to take seven hours to travel from Chitipa to Karonga in the old days, adding: “When you arrived in Karonga, one would easily tell you were from Chitipa because of the way you looked.”
“This is because of the new road. Besides enabling us to travel in comfort, the new road has also made it possible for us to eat fresh fish from Karonga on a regular basis. May Bingu’s soul rest in eternal peace.”
Roads, which handle more than 70 per cent of internal freight traffic and more than 90 per cent of passenger traffic, are Malawi’s the dominant mode of transport, according to the Roads Authority (RA).
As of 2008, the national road network was composed of 15, 451 km of which 26 per cent were paved. The rest of the road network (74 per cent) was of earth or gravel.
The RA, according to its website, says it is due to this large volume of internal freight and passenger traffic that the government has given priority to maintenance and construction of roads in Malawi.
It is estimated that 55 per cent of the costs of production are taken up transportation in Malawi compared to 17 per cent of other developing countries.
Chitipa and Karonga Districts’ combined economic activities include fishing, rice, cotton, tobacco, maize, and coffee farming, and uranium and coal mining.
The new Karonga-Chitipa Road is expected to woo investors and spur economic growth, resulting in improved livelihoods for the people of the two districts.
The sight of small vehicles driving along the route is a common feature. Taxis and mini buses compete against one another to ferry passengers between the two districts, sometimes making two trips a day.
“The new road has opened up Chitipa,” says Chitipa Central Member of Parliament, Clement Mukumbwa (DPP). “A lot of activities are taking place in the district because of the road.”
Mukumbwa says civil servants did not like to work in Chitipa before the new road was built, and that being posted to the district then “was like being given a death warrant.”
He says the irony is that many civil servants used to protest when told they were on posting to Chitipa, but when they went there, they refused to be removed from the district.
“Some got into business while others began farming activities,” says Mukumbwa, a graduate of Chancellor College and former secondary school teacher and social worker.
He says people of Chitipa never thought the road would be tarred, considering the numerous false pledges they had had from past governments.
Mukumbwa says: “Even when Bingu said he would build a new road, we didn’t believe him until we saw work start in earnest. We are grateful to him. Without him, we would still be living in misery.
“It is our wish that that the present government will honour Bingu by completing the road to Songwe. That will be a big honour to him.”
Eric Ngozo, Chitipa Acting Director of Planning and Development, says when he was told he was being posted to Chitipa from Dowa, he had a vivid picture of the Karonga-Chitipa Road in 2005.
“To me it was bad news when I heard I was going to Chitipa,” Ngozo says, recalling the discomfort he experienced when he first travelled on it. “It worried me that I would be using the road very often.”
But the completion of the new road has dispelled fears about his movement between Karonga and Chitipa. The road has drastically shortened the time of travel between the two districts.
“It is one of the best roads in the country,” Ngozo says, adding that he has noted an influx of maize in Karonga and Mzuzu from Chitipa in recent years because of the road. “It is one of Malawi’s best roads.”
Meanwhile, Sikwese is not ashamed to tell people today he comes from Chitipa and says he is compelled to travel to his home after every two months because of the new road.
“We were looked down upon in the past because we were cut off from the rest of the country,” says Sikwese. “But not these days, and we are indebted to Bingu.”