By Emmanuel Mwamba
The boat was rocking violently from left right to right.
I couldn’t see land at the horizon from where we were coming from or where we were going.
The shade covering the boat was of no use.
We were all soaked to the bone, and were gripped by the cold as the wind whipped Lake became increasingly violent and raging.
We clutched fiercely at the edges of the boat.
The heavy down pour of rain hitting the surface of the waters, the constant lightening brightening the sky and the frequent clap of thunder was truly terrifying.
I began to pray silently. “Lord I pray You calm the storms for we must reach over there”.
And suddenly the harbor at Nsombo appeared. We had arrived.
The cockswine switched off the boat engine as we glided towards the make-shift harbour.
The rain and storm suddenly stopped.
We were travelling over the expanse of water from Chilubi Island to Nsombo in Luwingu district, 38km across Lake Bangweulu.
Bangweulu — ‘where the water meets the sky’ — is one of the world’s great wetland systems, comprising Lake Bangweulu, the Bangweulu Swamps and the Bangweulu floodplains.
Earlier we were warned by the Chilubi District officials, that because of the storms that develop in the afternoons and evenings it’s not advisable to travel during that time.
“And sir especially with the decision you have just made!” He warned with ominous apprehension.
He was refering to a longstanding pending decision where to locate the new Chilubi District Hospital.
The matter had been pending for two years and also delayed the beginning of the construction.
Officials on the island, led by the member of parliament wanted the Hospital to be at the Boma.
But the area already had a hospital -Santa Maria Mission Hospital, run by the Catholic Church.
We had just upgraded the hospital with a theater and installed a mortuary.
Yet the largest densely populated area on the main land, which had a population of about 65,000 had no hospital.
At that moment, the people on the main-land were forced to travel to Santa Maria Mission Hospital by boat to the island or to St Margarets Hospital in Kasaba or Lubwe Mission Hospital in Chifunabuli, or go to Lubwa Mission Hospital in Chinsali District.
So the provincial medical officer and a team from Lusaka had sought to see if I could help resolve the impasse.
“It is difficult for pregnant women.” Said the Provincial Medical Officer.
“We lose pregnant mothers or their infants because of the long distances.” She said
“The area MP, who is leading this process has insisted that the hospital was a government hospital (unlike the Santa Maria Mission which was catholic church owned).”
“and like every district hospital, he has demanded that it should be at the Boma.”
“The other contention is that the mainland doesn’t have power. We have been told that it requires a very expensive marine (underwater )power cable.” the official from Lusaka submitted.
“If government accepted this decision, it would mean that the area will have two hospitals in a radius of 5km,” the provincial medical officer said with exasperation.
“Absurd!” Was my answer.
“ZESCO or Rural Electrification Authority (REA) will get the power cable. It would be an opportunity for the main-land with such a population to have electricity” I said.
I immediately said we should travel to Chilubi District and help make the decision.
To get to Chilubi, we had to travel by road from Kasama to Luwingu district, catch a boat at Nsombo and travel the 38km stretch by boat on Lake Bangweulu.
We travelled well.
On the island that serves as the Boma(district administrative centre), I toured Santa Maria Mission Hospital, spoke to the staff and the priests running it.
We addressed the district and municipal council leadership, councillors and workers.
The meeting dragged on because of demands from the council workers who wanted firm assurances from me that they would be paid their salaries and arrears as they had gone for over two years without pay.
After speaking to the development plans government intended to carry out for the area,
I made the announcement.
“We have listened to your proposals and we have listened to our own medical and planning experts at the Province and from Lusaka. I have come to an inescapable conclusion that we will build Chilubi District Hospital in Chaba area which is 28kms from here”.
“Chilubi District has 22 Wards; the area with 8 wards has a population of about 25,000 and is already being serviced by Santa Maria Mission Hospital here” I said.
“The new hospital to be based at Chaba, will serve 13 wards from the mainland with a population of over 65,000″. I said stressing the importance of a larger population living on the main-land.
The Ward Councillors from the mainland area burst into applause while the rest of the meeting was dead quiet.
One of the Councillors from Chaba area later commended our action and gave a vote of thanks.
Later the chiefs from this area called us and commended our fearless action.
After a late sumptuous lunch served with tasty fresh fish from Lake Bangweulu, I announced our departure.
The district commissioner brought an answered phone: ” Sir this is for you. It is the honourable member of parliament”.
MPs spend considerable amount of time in Lusaka as Parliament sits for about 8months in a year.
Our table went silent. I looked up and took the phone and walked outside not only for privacy but to catch a good network.
After the brief call, I came back.
The islanders told us about not travelling late in the afternoon or evening as the lake is known to be windy and tumultuous.
But I insisted that we travel as I had engagement in Lusaka the day after .
One of the senior officials called me aside and asked me about the phone call and explained what I wasn’t being told.
“Sir, everyone is happy with your decision. But the area member of parliament here is feared. He is also strong” He explained without going into details.
“Sir I am not scaring you but it is the reason everyone has feared to oppose him even when he has proposed that the new District Hospital be located just behind his house.” He said fearfully.
“He even bulldozed the Council to ratify the location of the hospital. It’s now a Council resolution”.
“Unthinkable!” I said.
Making decisions in these areas is a delicate matter as you have to desist from imposing a decision while balancing community interests but without injuring egos of those that wield local influence.
But this was an extreme case requiring authoritative rational approach.
I remember a similar matter where I suspended a District Education Board Secretary(DEBS) in Kaputa District for mass embezzlement of funds.
Kaputa district lies on the border with DRC and is almost 1,500Km away from Lusaka.
After Iearning of the allegations, I commissioned an Audit to enquire into the books of his office.
When the Report was ready, it was damning and revealing.
The Audit Report established that the DEBS had embezzled over K1m.
Sadly the money his office misappropriated and pretended to spend on bogus workshops, allowances and trips to Lusaka, was meant to upgrade thatched schools(called mud-and-pole schools).
During the same period, the construction of his private Lodge in Kasama was rapidly completed.
What was painful was that these schools were a mark of shame on our collective conscious, because 50 years after independence, no child should sit in such a mud-and-pole thatched classroom.
Government had responded to this historical crisis and was upgrading about 220 of such primary schools across the country.
Kaputa District was the worst affected, yet it’s an area where this officer had stolen the money.
I was troubled at the shameless, blatant and immoral theft of such funds.
I directed that the officer be suspended… but for two weeks , no one from his Ministry in Kasama or Lusaka, could suspend him despite the irrefutable evidence of wide scale theft and embezzlement unearthed by the Audit.
I later learnt that the officer was highly feared for his alleged connections to senior authorities and for other undisclosed reasons.
When I heard the story, I proceeded to write the letter of suspension myself, and directed that he vacates the office in Kaputa immediately.
I also reported the matter to the Police giving them a copy of our Audit.
I further released a media statement to that effect.
But that’s a story for another day.
Back to our story.
After the stormy travel from Chilubi to Nsombo in Luwingu that saw us clutching for dear life, we went to stay for the night at a catholic mission church.
Since time immemorial, in rural areas, the catholic church usually have decent lodging facilities for their travelling priests or missionaries.
“Sir we could have all died on the water” an officer broke the silence as we laughed about the fear that had gripped all of us.
“Sir you received a phone call while we were in Chilubi, what did the MP say?” He asked.
I had not shared with anyone about the call.
“He threatened me with dismissal and warned me that I would die shortly ” I chuckled.
But my delegation didn’t take this matter as a joke and they knew the inherent meaning of those threats.
“Sir we all could have died on the lake”!
We laughed about the fear of superstitions in rural areas.
Back at the provincial capital, the Chilubi MP called me again and ordered me to renounce my decision to relocate the hospital from the Boma to Chaba area.
He also repeated his threats if I didn’t.
I said; “Hon. MP, we have made the decision for the people of Chilubi. We will ensure that the decision stands” I said emphatically.
I was later shocked to hear at the Lunch hour news that the Minister of Health had renounced our decision.
The news item further stated that the hospital would be based at the Boma, (which was 5km from Santa Maria Mission hospital).
The Church knew the struggle of the island. It had been running Santa Maria Mission Hospital for many decades.
The Archbishop based in Kasama called me and gave me words of encouragement.
He said the church in the province will issue a solidarity statement with our earlier decision.
He immediately issued a strong statement on behalf of the Church, supporting our action and urging the Minister of Health to retract his statement.
He called on the Minister to instead support the decision that the province had made as it would benefit the largest number of people in Chilubi District.
Another clergy, who hails from Chilubi district but is based in Lusaka went to the media and supported the decision for the new hospital to be based in Chaba area.
He said we could not deprive a population of about 65,000 because of an unreasonable local decision.
The unfolding drama of Chilubi District Hospital had dominated the media in Kasama and Lusaka for the last two days.
In the evenings, I received a call from a familiar voice.
“Mwamba, let us meet in my office tomorrow”. It was the President.
Being summoned at short notice and trekking for 900km to Lusaka in the night had become familiar for me.
In the morning I went to State House. I waited to see the Head of State. I was not surprised when the Minister of Health joined us.
I now knew for certain, that the subject would be about the Chilubi District Hospital.
The meeting with the President was brief; “The hospital should be located in the area and population which much needs it” he said.
“You and I know that area very well.” The President said, addressing the Minister.
“The island has Santa Maria Hospital, let us take the district hospital to the mainland” the President said.
The long drive from Kasama was worth it.
Later in the day, I and another colleague went to Parliament to meet the MPs from the Province.
I had developed a habit when Parliament was in Session, to brief them about the progress on projects in the Province.
But that’s the story for another day.
Construction of Chilubi District Hospital started shortly after that.
My heart was warmed when the District hospital was opened four years later, in the location fit-for-purpose.