15 August 2012

Tanzania: Life Continues on Lake Nyasa Despite Border Dispute

Photo: Paul venter/wikipedia
Lake Malawi (file photo).

Kyela — AS Tanzanian and Malawian politicians wrangle over the ownership of Lake Malawi which marks the border of their two countries, Pendo Daniel, a woman with three children in the Tanzania border town of Kyela, sells soap and oranges.

She is oblivious of the fight that many distant fellow compatriots fear could precipitate a military clash any time soon in her native town.

"I don't see anything alarming," she told the 'Daily News' last Monday. "But if there is a war, I won't be able to do my business." That is the general fear of many Tanzanians living in this border town with a population of 2,341 people.

Ms Daniel's composure is the feeling of many other residents of the town. Seventy-four-year-old Hama Baiya, a tailor, like his competitor Bashilu Yahya who moved to Kyela decades ago from Kigoma, says all the fuss about an impending war between Tanzania and Malawi is just making much ado about nothing.

Kyela District Commissioner Margaret Ester Malenga supports the fear of her people. She says that in the event of a war between the two countries the residents of Kyela and their counterparts in Malawi will suffer serious economic losses.

"Our people get sugar from Malawi and they buy clothes and plastic ware like basins, plates and many other kitchen items from us," she said. "War will ruin all that." But the general situation is calm. Reports that Tanzania has moved soldiers and heavy weapons in great numbers to the border with Malawi are an overblown story.

Ms Malenga says that despite the tranquility in her district, she is irked by hectic phone calls from various parts of the country asking her why she has not started evacuating people from the border town.

"It is really disturbing because even as we speak now there are Tanzanians on the Malawian side and Malawians on our side drinking and dancing native ngomas. The DC particularly blamed journalists for exaggerated reporting on the political state in the district.

She said if members of the press had made albeit some efforts to visit the district, they would have observed first hand the true state of the area, 'instead of just calling from miles away and writing incorrect reports on the matter.'

The ownership question of Lake Malawi, formerly Lake Nyasa, has flared up severally previously. It did in the 1990s and 2000s. Many Tanzanian politicians have advised restraint on the matter and the exercise of all diplomatic options before resorting to a military decision.

Retired Major General Hashim Mbita, who has also held significant ambassadorial posts, reminded of the gloomy after-effects of Tanzania-Uganda war of 1979-1981. "Tanzania is still reeling from the after-shocks of that war," he told the press in Dar es Salaam recently.

Another Kyela resident, Kiswigo Mwandemere, a Human Resource Management student at Mt. Meru College in Arusha, illustrates the ravages of war by telling of what a fellow student of hers at the college is going through.

The resident of Ginga Village in the district says the 1979-1981 Tanzania-Uganda War separated her friend from her parents and siblings. She has not seen them to date. "It is her uncle who is taking care of her."

Asked whether there was a huge presence of military personnel in the district, a soldier of the Tanzania military the 'Daily News' managed to talk to in the town merely asked the whereabouts of those soldiers.

"I think what scares people is the routine parading of soldiers on the town's roads. It is normal and usual," he said and added that the marine soldiers on the lake have always been there. "After some time they return to Dar es Salaam and others will come. We want nobody's land so we have no reason to build up a force here."

The DC can only ask in return where the alleged Tanzanian soldiers are. "Where are they? Go around and look everywhere, but you won't find any such soldiers." Still, such reports as Ms Malenga complains of having given Kyela residents the smell of war.

Ezekiel Mwakajira, a diploma student in Arts and Education at Matogoro Teachers' Training College, who was at the time on leave in his native town, told the 'Daily News' that all might appear calm but the hostile air between his country and Malawi was on the people's minds.

"Mwalimu Nyerere was very intelligent," Mwakajira said. "He advised that if you do not have the wherewithal to exploit your nation's minerals, leave them where they are until a better time when you can do it.

"This Malawian lady president is being pushed by foreigners who want that oil she alleges is in the lake. She does not have the capacity to mine that resource and is now dancing to the tunes of those foreign powers, thereby threatening the regional peace.

"This makes me miss their former president Mbingu wa Mutharika. He was a gentleman." Mr Kajala Mpelafula, a resident of Ipinda Village outside Kyela township, says the hot political air is making villagers consider stocking up food to stave off hunger in wartime.

Still, for all Kyela's apparent tranquility there are residents who think they are too unconcerned. "If there is war, it is we Kyela residents who will get the worst of it because we live as if there is nothing," Mwakajera warns.

But at the immigration border post of Kasumuru between the two countries people keep crossing with not a worry in the world. Meanwhile, Malawi will press ahead with oil and gas exploration in Lake Nyasa despite demands by Tanzania to halt such activities until a border dispute is resolved, Foreign Affairs Minister Ephraim Chiume has said.

"We have categorically told Tanzania that as far as we are concerned, the entire lake belongs to us and therefore we cannot stop exploration activities," Chiume told Reuters.

Last October, Malawi awarded oil exploration licences to UK-based Surestream Petroleum to search for oil in Lake Malawi, which is also known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania. It is home to over 2,000 different fish species and oil exploration on the freshwater lake will likely rile environmentalists who fear it will disturb its ecosystem.

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