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How a "miracle" birth triggered a rural movement and delivered a school road

A mother's ordeal in northeastern Zambia inspired a rural community to turn to a forgotten community development funding tool to repair an almost impassable road. Now the community has two thriving secondary schools and a primary school for 500 learners.

Malama Mwape, bird story agency

When 42-year-old Mary Chirwa experienced the sudden onset of overdue labour pains associated with the birth of a third child, her location in Dilika Ward, a stunning area of rolling hills and savannah landscapes, suddenly seemed extremely remote.

The area had for years suffered the blight of poorly maintained roads and a glaring absence of essential infrastructure, leaving the community to get along on determination alone. Schoolchildren in the area navigated the remains of the broken main road daily, in order to get to and from school, an impossible task in heavy rain.

When intensifying labour pains that night prompted Chirwa and her husband to head to the nearest medical facility, Magwero Clinic, it soon became clear that a longer journey would be needed. Medical advice led them to requisition a vehicle to take them the 11 kilometres to the General Hospital in the local city, Chipata, despite the road’s deplorable condition.

"I feared going on the long trip to the main hospital in Chipata fully knowing that my pregnancy was overdue," Chirwa recalled.

But the dilemma didn't end there. Mary Chirwa found herself wrestling with other concerns.

"The discomfort of the private vehicle attributed to the bad Magwero Chipata road triggered extra fears that I might lose my pregnancy. I was also worried that the vehicle was too slow to allow us to arrive on time to seek medication in Chipata, but then if it drove fast, it would affect my pregnancy," she lamented.

In the end, the most harrowing part of Mary's journey was the slow speed, thanks to the driver who was all too aware he was transporting a patient with an emergency condition.

Dilika, which lies just across the border from Malawi's Mehinji Forest Reserve in northeastern Malawi, is part of the Chipata constituency, one of 156 constituencies nationwide. For years had been virtually forgotten, its farming potential stunted by poor infrastructure, and its inhabitants virtually abandoned by the central government.

The birth of Mary Chirwa's child would change that.

Community-Driven Change

Bubbling below the surface of Zambia's social order at the time of Chirwa's pregnancy was a growing political tide that would a year later, as described by one news agency, see opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema secure a "stunning landslide victory" over incumbent Edgar Lungu in Zambia's presidential election in August 2021.

Across Zambia, community-led initiatives began looking for mechanisms to help them on a journey of self-help and empowerment. One tool at their disposal was Ward Development Committees, which began springing up in constituencies across the country. Dilika was no different. As Chirwa and her husband undertook their perilous drive to hospital that night in 2020, a social tide was already in full flow.

The vehicle they had hitched a lift in also lacked proper suspension, intensifying Chirwa's discomfort. As the vehicle navigated the rough terrain, every bump sent excruciating waves of pain through her expectant body.

The journey degenerated into an ordeal of extreme proportions with the agitation of the couple growing as the labour progressed. Then, at the site of a perennial stream, it ground to a halt as the inevitable miracle occurred and Chirwa gave birth to a healthy child, despite the extreme circumstances.

A rallying cry for a new road

News of the event spread swiftly through the surrounding Magwero communities, uniting them with a shared understanding that something had to be done about the Magwero-Chipata Road. Soon Chirwa’s ordeal became the talk of the community.

The talk turned into action. Sidestepping local officialdom, the locally-established Ward Development Community took things into their own hands, raising funds and constructing four key bridges along the same road.

The Magwero WDC's nine members seized on an opportunity provided by Zambia's Central Development Fund, or CDF. The CDF operates as a governmental fund administered through local authorities to carry out community development projects through small-scale community investments. It was established by Zambia's government at the time as a means to encourage local development in rural and urban communities across the country.

Under WDC Chairperson Simasiku Sinyinda, the Magwero committee identified and prioritized the community's concerns and then tapped the Central Development Fund to ensure that the developments they identified were funded.

Magwero's schools a priority

Chirwa, too, played an active role. After she had returned home with her baby, she began to agitate for change, becoming a focus of activism, as well as a rallying cry for the region. For Chirwa, it was important that any improvements to the Magwero-Chipata Road address access to schools.

The area houses the Eastern Province's sole school for the deaf and blind, making road improvements crucial for accessibility and education.

“The road is home to Magwero School for the Blind and Magwero School for the Deaf. What is development if such an important area housing two vital schools is neglected?” she said.

Prioritising the neglected road was also essential for Magwero to capitalise on its high agricultural productivity, being home to bumper harvests of vegetables, potatoes, soya, and maize.

Government recognition and action

A dedicated team analysed the proposal, presented it to the city council, and secured the allocation of CDF funding for the four bridges' construction. Over time, the CDF disbursed nearly 250, 000 Kwacha (about 12,000 United States Dollars) for each bridge, leading to significant improvements. The quality of work impressed local lawmakers and drew the central government’s attention.

Through the efforts of regional MP, Reuben Mtolo Phiri, an additional 3.4 million Kwacha grant was secured under the Road Development Agency (RDA) to fully regrade the road. The grant acknowledged the CDF’s outstanding work. The road was commissioned by Phiri in May 2023.

Eastern Province RDA Regional Manager Ivwananji Sikombe highlighted the road restoration's impact - including ensuring safe access for students and facilitating the movement of teaching and learning resources, household necessities, and agricultural produce.

“Our role is to listen to the cries of the people and work for the good of all,” Sikombe said.

District Education Board Secretary Gabriel Chutu expressed his gratitude for the community's efforts, recognizing the life-changing impact on students’ education.

“We applaud the good works being done on the road that leads to our two boarding schools for the deaf and blind. Pupils will find it easier to go to the two schools,” Chutu said, while WDC Chairperson Simasiku Sinyinda has taken to using the community's efforts as an example for others to follow, describing the work as "very important because of the two Magwero Schools for the Blind and Deaf, where teachers and substantial (USAID Let’s Read Project) Teaching and Learning Materials have been provided.”

Constituency Development Funds for the area have since skyrocketed from a modest 1.6 million kwacha (about US$76,300) to 28.3 million kwacha (approximately US$1.35 million) and has since been increased again in the 2024 budget announced on 29th September 2023 from the current 28.3 million to 30.6 million kwacha (about US$1.446 million).

Teachers over the moon

Established by the Dutch Reformed Church in the late 1840s as primary schools, the two Magwero schools have since been upgraded to encompass secondary education and today, the freshly constructed road not only provides access to two exceptional schools but also serves as a vital route for Magwero Standard Primary School, which accommodates over 500 students.

The accomplishments of the WDC brought immense joy to Norah Ngoza Banda and Khumbiza Phiri, both highly regarded special education teachers and administrators who have collectively overseen the Deaf and Blind schools for a total of two decades.

“The road has ushered in a profound transformation in our lives and in the lives of our vulnerable pupils at the schools in Dilika,” they expressed in unison.

Throughout it all, Mary Chirwa acted as the innate driving force, as acknowledged by Reverend Aston Mbewe of the Reformed Church in Zambia who expressed his eternal gratitude, stating that he would "forever cherish the joy of being a contented reverend, knowing that the two schools now have the benefit of an all-weather road."

“I can describe giving birth in transit to the hospital as a blessing as it opened a door for this road to be worked on, and no other woman will have to go through what I went through. As I look back on my journey, I see a road not just of challenges but of miracles, a road that has transformed my community, my children’s education, and family’s future,” Chirwa said.

Chirwa is now advocating the addition of asphalt to the gravel road.

“Aluta continua,” she proclaimed.

bird story agency


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