Nkula in Blantyre is a source of two forms of power: hydro and charcoal. The two forms of power are competitors; they do not necessarily complement each other.
Nkula hydro-power station is one of three on Shire River. The other two being Tedzani, seven kilometres down the river from Nkula; and Kapichira in Majete Game Reserve in Chikwawa. The area around Nkula, or put clearly, the catchment area for Nkula, may loosely stretches from Blantyre to Mwanza.
Once, this catchment area was full of trees. Now it is growing bare. Charcoal makers are among major culprits. They are still cutting trees, even those that are not there.
The result is bad news for Escom’s Nkula Reservoir which has a volume of three and a half million cubic metres. The bad news is that half of the reservoir is taken by silt, one major problem haunting Escom. This silt comes from all over in the upper Shire River, even from Karonga and beyond. But most part of the silt comes from Nkula Reservoir’s’s immediate catchment area.
While Escom struggles to remove the silt that takes up half the reservoir, people in Nkula and beyond, in the hills, struggle to make charcoal.
Both Escom and charcoal makers are serving the same customers—you and me, in Blantyre. We want electricity from Escom. We also want charcoal to help during blackouts. And because power goes out often, the demand for charcoal keeps on increasing, resulting into more trees being cut, and more soil being washed down into Nkula Reservoir.
It is a vicious cycle that seems unstoppable. Charcoal makers know they are harming Nkula catchment area and the environment. There are hundreds and hundreds of bags of charcoal coming into Blantyre everyday on bicycles and lorries and small cars, even saloons.
Davie Mpasu is a 21-year-old boy from Chapeta Village, T/A Mlauli in Neno. He is a guardian and breadwinner for himself and his two brothers—John 14 and George 17. Their father died in 2003 followed by their mother in 2005.
A whole world, recalls Davie, collapsed. Then, he was 18 and he had to care for his brothers. Yet he had nothing. He was just a typical Malawian first-born who inherited nothing—except land—from parents. It is common in Malawi. They had to start from a scratch. The immediate solution was charcoal making.
"Kupanga makala sikufuna, ndi kuzingwa. Making charcoal is not by choice. It’s out of desperation," says Davie.
There is an element of resignation in his eyes. He, for sure, knows charcoal is a culprit that is ending trees in Malawi. But that is not all. He knows charcoal business is not profitable. What can he do with K500 per bag retail price or K300 per bag wholesale price? (The wholesale business takes place right in the bush.)
He is often dirty, partly because handling charcoal results into dirt and partly because he does not have enough money to buy soap that can be used daily.
The work itself is tiresome. One has to cut a tree or trees, dig a tunnel, put the trees in that tunnel and burn them. It sounds easy and short. But it is not. Nkula and Mwanza are hot areas and cutting a tree is not an easy job; so, too, digging a tunnel, especially because every time a charcoal maker has to dig a new tunnel where pieces of wood have to be arranged systematically.
It is a process that takes two weeks to produce 10 bags, for example, and make K3,000 if sold by wholesale or K5,000 if sold by retail.
Consider that this is work that involves several people and some have to be paid from the same K5,000 or K3,000. At the end of the day, one walks away with K2,000 or K3,000 or something about such figures. This K2,000 is not enough to buy a bag of maize, hence the charcoal maker remains poor because in a month he makes between K4,000 and K5,000—out of hard labour.
"If we had an alternative, we would jump on that," says Davie, wearing a short trousers just like his two brothers.
It is hot, of course, but for them it is because they are saving the shirts they have. It appears easy when you have two or three or four or five or six shirts but there are people who have one shirt and when they wake up they have no choice, they know what to wear.
"I have not seen any charcoal maker whose life has improved," says Davie. This is true. Mark Samson, 42, lives in Mchotseni Four Village where he has been making charcoal since 1986 but he remains as poor as he was 22 years ago; perhaps poorer. He has a small house of mud wall and a roof that leaks when it rains.
"This business is for mere survival," says Samson, shaking his head. Indeed. He had no shirt, his chest was bare. It was hot, of course. But does he have a shirt to wear at home?
The charcoal made kilometres into the hills that make Kirk Range is sold on the road to Mwanza. Hundreds of bags are sold a couple of hundred metres from Kamuzu Bridge on Shire River at a place commonly called Zalewa.
But it is not charcoal only that is seen along the road from Lunzu to Mwanza. Now people are in quarry. They are spending hours in the sun turning big stones into small stones for the construction industry. They spend hours in the sun, using all sizes of hammers from the heaviest to the lightest.
At Mchotseni Four Village, there are bags of charcoal on one side of the road, and heaps of stones on the other side. People have cut trees to make charcoal. Now they are into quarry, breaking rocks and big stones into small stones. They have destroyed the home of birds and some reptiles that live in trees. Now they are destroying rocks, the home of reptiles and some insects.
The hills on the road to Mwanza are bare, with stones and rocks only. Trees were cut. Soon even the rocks and stones will disappear. Perhaps the hills will disappear in the long-range, so Nkula reservoir will disappear too because maybe Shire River will not be there. It sounds unimaginable but it is a possibility at the rate the environment is being destroyed.
There is a song by Culture titled ‘Share the Riches’. It is philosophical.
Rich man, share the riches with the poor
Before they share the poverty with you
Man, share the riches with the poor
Before they share the poverty with you.
This resonates well with umunthu philosophy which Bishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu likes to talk about: that you cannot be fully you if your neighbour is not fully himself or herself, meaning you cannot live a happy life and talk about balanced diet when your neighbour is sleeping on an empty stomach.
If the rich do not share their riches, the poor share their poverty. Exactly what is happening in Blantyre and Mwanza which form the wide catchment area of Nkula.
Charcoal makers know they are doing a disservice to Malawi. But there is something strong and strange about poverty that makes people do what is bad for themselves and others. In a way, they share their poverty and all people become poor.
Poverty does not only attack pockets, it attacks the brain. What the charcoal makers need is not sale of their product but a redemption of their mind from the poverty that has attacked them.
Otherwise, charcoal makers don’t bother about electricity, so they share their darkness with everybody else because of siltation at Nkula Reservoir which results from soil erosion which, in the Nkula catchment area, comes from deforestation which mainly results from charcoal making using trees often cut carelessly.
Note: A longer article of the same title will be pasted in a week’s time.