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Where village life meets suburbia

Grandpa Despite urbanization, Chimphamba Kataghala’s 90-year-old grandfather continues to work in the industry he knows best: carpentry. Photo by Katie Lin. 

By Katie Lin

In the northern village of Chako Ntchako, Chimphamba Kataghala guides me from one relative’s house to another as we do the customary rounds of greetings.

Somewhere on the road between Aunt Nyamusiyeni and Aunt Nyalweni’s home, he stops to brush the dust away from what appears to be a stone.

“See this beacon?” he asks, tapping the round cement slab with his boot. “It shows a marked plot [for] planned houses.”

With one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world, Malawi’s commercial centers are booming and as their populations grow, suburbanites are spilling into rural areas such as this. On the outskirts of Mzuzu, the country’s third largest city, villages such as Chako Ntchako are facing displacement as the government seeks to develop the area through a planned housing scheme.

Yona Simwaka, a town planner at Mzuzu City Assembly, explains any unplanned houses and huts occupying this land will be demolished; residents must sell and relocate or build a planned house on the plot. One requirement of planned houses is to have a water closet, which many existing structures lack. 

From the front step of Kataghala’s grandmother’s shop, the view of Viphya forest is obscured by an imposing tobacco auction house, yet more evidence of industrial encroachment. And if you crane your neck, you can see a Carlsberg factory to the right. It’s a rapidly developing community.  

Kataghala explains when his grandfather first moved to Mzuzu in 1973, most of the area was bush. When it came to land acquisition, his grandfather needed only to approach the traditional chief before being granted the requested property.

“He held on to it because he was thinking that we would always live here,” the carpenter says. “But not all my relatives can afford to build planned houses.”

Under chiefs, land settlement used to be regulated by the principle of “what’s yours is yours.”

As it turns out, what was yours is no longer yours—a single beacon will tell you that much.

In 1995, the responsibility of land distribution was transferred from chiefs to government, and with that, the threat of suburbanization lay in wait.

But it isn’t just ownership rules that have transformed.

“Almost everybody knew everybody else,” Kataghala recalls. Now, these community structures are being broken up.

He explains as the population of Mzuzu grows and those who can afford to build planned houses flock to the city’s outskirts, the “oneness” that made village life so comfortable is being lost.

“We could wash our clothes and plates and leave them to dry,” he recalls. “We are afraid to do those things now, because we think somebody’s going to come and steal them.”

While Mzuzu City Assembly has put a relocation plan in place for villages like Chako Ntchako and reserved traditional housing areas for those wanting to build huts, it’s facing resistance from some residents.

Should this possibility become a reality, however, Kataghala says relocation would be relatively straightforward—all you need is arable land and a water source.

Besides, as he believes, the essence of a village is not found merely in its location.

“There’s a very strong family sense amongst us,” Kataghala explains. “So we don’t really look at it as choosing to remain a village, we just look at it as a continuation of our existence, just in a different place."

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