“Irrigation is our lifeline”-Chief Singano

People of the Shire Valley see the Shire Valley Transformation Programme (SVTP) as their lifeline and have vowed never to allow anything to stand in its way.

Senior Group Village Headman (SGVH) Singano of Chikwawa says to the people of the Shire Valley, that the SVTP is their only means of escape from the poverty in which they have been trapped for years. 

SGVH Singano with some of his subjects at the shrine

“It surpasses all development projects we have had in any way you can think of. It is a priceless gift from the government and will be treasured by generations,” SGVH Singano says.

The cultural heritage sites need to be preserved in compliance with Malawi’s Monuments and Relics Act (2001). The Act stipulates that all development initiatives must ensure that from planning stages to implementation, all monuments and relics are protected.  And in this regard, the SVTP engaged the Department of Monuments and Museums which has been conducting a cultural heritage impact assessment since the feasibility phase of the project in 2016.  The engagement of the Department of Monuments and Museums is to ensure that construction works do not destroy cultural heritage sites that are along the path of the canal.

The site may be where people once lived, a graveyard or a shrine where locals go to give offerings to their ancestral spirits in a time of suffering brought about by a pandemic or natural disaster.

The Department of Monuments and Museums has identified 19 sites in the first phase area of the project. Excavations and assessments of samples are ongoing. The Department has recovered samples like pottery, bones, and charcoal which are being analysed.   

The Department of Museums and Monuments commends the SVTP for engaging it before implementing the project and encourages other developers to emulate them.

“We have lost many cultural heritage sites in Malawi because of development projects.  What this irrigation project has done is what all developers ought to do,” says Dr Oris Malijani, Principal Geo-Archaeologist responsible for research in the department.

Dr Malijani at a shrine in Chikwawa

SGVH Singano says that as per their culture, there are places in the project area they consider as sacred where they go with offerings to pacify the spirits of their ancestors during difficult times.

Locals led by their chief place various items at the shrine depending on what they want. The chief then recites an incantation, repeatedly asking their ancestral spirits for help. 

SGVH Singano says the sites have existed from the time of their ancestors and are regarded with deep respect, adding: “This explains why we have always been protective towards them.”

However, he says that much as they appreciate the government’s desire to preserve tangible cultural heritage within the SVTP, the irrigation project is of greater importance to the people.

“There’s no denying that cultural heritage places have to be preserved, but as the saying ‘necessity knows no law’ goes, these sites will have to give way to this vital project,” says SGVH Singano.

The chief likened the SVTP to a scenario where one is compelled to offer assistance to a person in distress even if it means breaking the law.

“Imagine you are riding a bicycle with a single crash helmet. You find a person lying in the middle of the road because he is sick. Naturally, you show humanity and take him to the hospital,” he says.

“If you meet the police, you tell them you found the person sick lying on the road, and you are taking him to the hospital. They will tell you to proceed yet they know you have broken a traffic rule.”

SGVH Singano says likewise and out of necessity, the people of the two districts will give the SVTP priority.  

“We have suffered for a long time and the SVTP will give us a new lease of life,” he says.

SGVH Singano, 73, says the Shire Valley has every reason to be excited about the irrigation project, considering that almost every year the area experiences hunger due to either floods or drought.

“When we chiefs heard that the SVTP would, at last, be implemented, we sat down and agreed that if a shrine or any other revered thing or place was in the canal’s path, it had to give way,” he says.

The SVTP was conceived in 1941 as part of an integrated macro development plan under the colonial government aimed at stabilizing the level of Lake Malawi, generating hydroelectricity on the Shire River and constructing an irrigation scheme in the Shire Valley.

“We are tired of going around with a begging bowl every time there is a natural calamity. This project will put a stop to our shameful practice of begging,” says SGVH Singano, born Fegeson Singano.

“We will no longer rely on erratic rains for our agricultural activities, and it’s all thanks to the SVTP. We will prosper and command respect. That is why we are saying the project has to be prioritized.” 

He adds: “It is our lifeline.”