By Elvis Sukali
Media and Communication Officer
Perched on a hill facing the Nkula hydro electric power plant, Namputu village overlooks Malawi’s biggest river, the Shire. Yet the inhabitants of this village have lived most of their lives at the mercy of unreliable rains, with dry spells and seasonal droughts reducing their harvests and keeping them in perpetual poverty and hunger. Villagers resorted to cutting down trees and burning charcoal to earn money to provide for their families.
In 2010 Oxfam partner the Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission (BSHDC) stepped in to provide the village with a motorised pump and assist in the establishment of an irrigation scheme alongside the Shire. The scheme was a turning point for 23 households cultivating 10 hectares of land given to them by the village chief. They witnessed a dramatic improvement in the productivity of the land, putting the community on the path to finally bidding poverty farewell.
However, the chronic fuel shortages experienced in the country since last year threaten to reverse the gains of the irrigation scheme. The village can no longer run the motorised pump because of the lack of fuel. Village headman Alfred Tobiyasi is concerned that people will again resort to cutting down trees because they are not harvesting enough food.
“As a leader I am happy with the coming in our village of the irrigation scheme because it will improve our lives,” says Tobiyasi. “However, it is apparent that if the petrol problem is not solved, people will go back to burning charcoal, which is not good at all.”
Village headman Alfred Tobiyasi
“Every year when we cultivate our gardens we don’t harvest enough maize because rainfall is often unreliable in this area. We requested Blantyre Synod to assist us to find a solution to our hunger problem. Blantyre Synod gave us treadle pumps and when we irrigated our land our yields improved. We were able to have food of our own for some days.
“We have been experiencing a lot of problems, especially dry spells during the rainy season. When people in the village agreed to find a lasting solution, I was happy.
“I have one and half acres of land, but over the years have only managed to harvest a mere basketful of maize because of frequent dry spells that hit our area.
“When I was growing up people we were able to harvest enough and have food all year round, but things have changed now. Rainfall is not reliable anymore and dry spells are becoming frequent, occurring almost every growing season.
“It will be difficult to enforce our own regulations regarding protection of trees because people are saying where will we get money to buy food?
“Trees should be protected because they are used for a lot of beneficial things in the village such as a source of poles for constructing houses. They also protect our houses from being blown off and destroyed by heavy winds.”
Village chairperson Bailasi Jaliasi
“The scheme was opened last year as a way of solving the problem of hunger, which is persistent in our area. However, we are facing the problem of lack of petrol due to fuel shortages in filling stations. The maize you are seeing in our gardens was planted last month, but it is failing to grow properly because we are not irrigating it frequently. If the fuel problem does not improve, all our investments on this land will be in vain.
“We opened the irrigation scheme after realising that we were perpetually in hunger due to unreliable rainfall in this area. Our village head gave us this land and Blantyre Synod gave us maize seed and a motorised pump.
“If the engine was running we would have been harvesting the second crop and preparing for the third crop this year. If petrol was readily available, the future would have been bright. As a group, our vision was to change the look of our village from one with grass thatched houses to one with iron roofs. Some people planned to buy televisions in this village, but that is unlikely to happen with no fuel for our pump.
“This scheme would have been a solution to charcoal burning business, which is rife in this area and has led to cutting down of trees. Our village headman already told people to stop cutting down trees and burning charcoal and it was working as people started gaining income from their harvests from the scheme. The fuel problem is pulling us back because we can’t irrigate the whole land with treadle pumps and some people are going back to the charcoal business.”
Villager Berita Tembo
“Last year was like any other year here. Our area was dry, but when we started irrigation a lot of people benefitted. Some people harvested up to eight bags of maize, which was very unusual in our village. Personally, I have realised that irrigation is a very good thing because I was able to harvest 11 bags of maize from a small plot of land in the scheme.
“I have three pieces of land in the village, which can add up to three and one-quarter acres. All I get from the three pieces of land is two-and-a-half bags of maize. At times we don’t even harvest anything. The weather has changed so much in our area.
“Our vision as a group based on the success of last year was to start cultivating other crops apart from maize, such as vegetables, tomato and onion. We wanted to start small businesses so that our incomes should improve.
“People have cut down a lot of trees in our land to burn charcoal because they don’t benefit a lot from the land due to poor rainfall and frequent dry spells. Improved harvests from the irrigation scheme mean that our environment would also benefit as people are likely to stop burning charcoal.”
Villager Felista Ntoko
“We have had the Shire River flowing past our village for all the years, but we failed to utilise it to end our poverty and hunger because we lacked proper irrigation equipment. Some people in the village who have money have used the river productively. However, with support from Blantyre Synod, a lot of people can now use the Shire River because of the motorised pump they gave us.
“This year the scheme has changed our lives. In my field I managed to harvest eight bags and that has helped my family so much.”