By ROBINSON KUNDA
IF you throw a stone in Chipata, the likelihood is that it will land on a bicycle. That is how much the cycling craze has engulfed the district.
Bicycles are used for mobility, for business (taxi), as and just for recreation.
Chipata is the administrative capital of Eastern Province, popularly known as Kum’mawa (East) in Chewa. It is one of the fastest growing districts in Zambia.
Chipata is located about 567 kilometres from the capital city, Lusaka and is surrounded by hills hence the name Chipata which means gateway. It covers an area of 2,616 square kilometres.
Indeed Chipata is a gateway because apart from acting as a conduit to the South Luangwa National Park, Chipata is also a vital link to Malawi, a country that shares a lot in common with Zambia.
Chipata (formerly Fort Jameson) has always been an important trading post. Chipata is the home town of President Rupiah Banda who is a well known farmer in the area.
President Banda’s Chasimpa farm is one of the major contributors to maize production in the district.
Chipata is surrounded by Katete, Chadiza, Mambwe and Lundazi districts and shares an international boundary with Malawi at Mchinji.
Geographical features and climate
The predominant topographic features of Chipata are the high plateau and rugged hills, at an average elevation of 1,500m above sea level.
The general climate of Chipata is warm tropical savannah with three distinct seasons; cold and dry which extends from April to mid August; hot and dry from August to mid November and the rainy season from November to mid April.
There are two main tribes in Chipata, the Ngonis and Chewas and therefore, the major languages spoken in the district are English, Ngoni, Chewa and Nyanja. The Ngonis trace their roots from the Zulu in Kwazulu Natal in South Africa and it is believed that when they crossed the Zambezi River in November 1835, scores of Ngoni women, children and elders drowned while others were eaten by crocodiles.
One of the highlights of Chipata is the Nc’wala ceremony held to celebrate the first harvest of the year.
The ceremony has turned out to be the most important tourist attraction in the district.
The Chewa people trace their roots from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were led out of the Congo by their King, Kalonga whose name is derived from the Chichewa word Kulonga, which means to install or to enthrone.
At the last census in 2000, Chipata had a population of 367,539 people, of which 50 percent were below the age of 15. The district has a growth rate of 3.5 per cent, meaning the population of Chipata is expected to double by 2018. The rural population is high despite increasing urbanisation.
Chipata Municipal Council director of planning Naomi Sakala says the implication of the rising population is that there is need to improve the delivery of basic services such as education and health.
Ms Sakala says the council, in collaboration with the government have embarked on a vigorous campaign to improve basic facilities in the district to cater for the rapidly growing population.
The economy of Chipata is agro-based with maize, cotton and tobacco being the major cash crops, most of which are intended for the export market.
The most popular crop is maize and Chipata is the second highest producer of maize, with the highest being Lundazi.
Acting District Agriculture Coordinator (DACO) Robbie Musendo says Chipata produced 2, 800,000 x50 Kg bags of maize during the 2009/2010 farming season.
Mr Musendo says most of the people grow maize because apart from promoting food security, it also provides income for families.
Bicycles provide transport for crops to be taken to the market. They are also highly regarded among the Ngonis and Chewas and owning one is a good enough status symbol.
It is therefore, not strange to find dozens of bicycles lining up by the road, waiting for clients.
The economy of Chipata is growing rapidly. Industrial development is ticking and economic opportunities such as the opening of a railway line to Beira, commissioned by President Banda recently.
Chipata Municipal Council director of administration Peter Nguluwe says the opening of the Chipata – Mchinji railway is a major economic boost for the district.
The Chipata-Mchinji rail started in 1982 as a bilateral project between Zambia and Malawi but the Zambian Government abandoned the project 10 years ago due to lack of funds.
The revitalisation of the project in 2006 to the tune of US $10 million, is poised to change the economic face of Chipata and likely to add vigour to the city status crusade being championed by the local authority.
The railway line is expected to create employment in Chipata as the volume of business grows.
“Already, several companies have started applying for land to build offices. This will boost our economy,” he says.
Mr Nguluwe says Chipata is now ready to attain city status because it has met almost all the benchmarks.
“Fore example we needed to have a high population, we were also asked to upgrade infrastructure and the road network. All these things are being done,” Mr. Nguluwe says.
He says the local authority has increased its budget from K6.6 billion last year to K10.129 billion this year, due to increased activities in the area.
If there is any municipal council which might soon attain city status, Chipata is a sure bet. The municipal council has started working on improving infrastructure around the central business district.
Council director of engineering services Andrew Zulu says plans are underway to put up more traffic lights in the business centre because traffic has increased by over 50 percent since 2005.
The council is also upgrading selected township roads and that government is funding some road projects at a cost of K34 billion.
The council has embarked on an ambitious campaign to improve infrastructure and improve service delivery.
Council director of social and economic planning Thoidy Mwale says the municipality is anticipating the economy of the country to match that of some major towns in the next five years.
There is a large Indian community in Chipata and their presence is evident in the number of ornate and colourful mosques around this bustling town.
But there is also a presence of Malawians who work mainly in the construction industry.
Chipata boasts of the oldest golf club in the country, established in 1902. It also has a stadium named David Kaunda.
There are several social places in Chipata where people gather to relax after work, including East point and Chez Ntemba.
With Protea Hotel coming up in the area, the sky is the limit.
The district also has a massive weekly market at which all sorts of merchandise are sold. Some traders and buyers come from across the border in Malawi.