We regularly take packed ferries across the Sound to Kamanga and the occasional fishing boat to one of the small islands
.to visit families ( see ‘You can take a horse to water…’)
but I’ve not been out to Ukerewe Island for about 3 years.
It’s a 4 or 5 hour boat ride from Mwanza so a group of us went for a couple of days rest and relaxation to cycle round the beautiful, peaceful island
but it’s a thriving business community with farms. fishing and textile making.
There’s one ferry a day so we ran for the afternoon ferry back, along with a couple of hundred people and huge bags of crops, fish and handmade goods going back to Mwanza to sell in the markets there. The inside seating area of the boat was full to bursting so we crammed on the front deck. There’s never an option to turn people away because a boat ( or bus or train) is too full here. As we set off, the rain started to fall and eventually the Captain took pity on us and let us shelter in a narrow, cramped corridor behind the wheelhouse for the rest of trip of the slow and choppy voyage.
Every other trip is like this – high-spirited and friendly but cramped and overcrowded .
It still comes as a shock though when the accident waiting to happen, actually does.
MV Nyerere was coming in to dock at Ukara, the next island to Ukerewe, At 2.30pm on Thursday 20 September. The capacity of the boat was 100 people and 25 tonnes of freight. More than 200 people were on board and the goods including cement and building material for a project were way over the weight limit. By all accounts the Captain was not on board and had left a boat hand to steer the boat in. A turn taken too sharply, people rushing to one side of the boat as it neared the shore and a flat-bottomed boat – the whole thing just flipped over in seconds. Anyone inside was lost even if they could swim as the goods shifted and blocked the doors. Very few people here can swim so, of those that jumped clear, very few made it to the water’s edge only 50 metres away where people gathered but stood helplessly as they couldn’t swim out to help them. Those that did come eventually from other boats to help wore life rings themselves as they were not strong swimmers.
We take a lot of things for granted in the UK. The RNLI is definitely one of them. A charity, financed by donations, To save lives at sea. In the UK, within minutes an RNLI boat or a helicopter would have been at the site . Divers would have been at the site with rescue equipment. And here there is nothing…..and here there is worse than nothing because there is bureacracy and corruption. The police boat that was the first responder couldn’t get there because it ran out of petrol. The police don’t get paid much and frequently siphon off money for themselves so did not have a full tank. There were no underwater lights available to help with the rescue. Dar es Salaam Yacht Club put out a call to members and shipped a case up on the late flight. But there was no-one on site from Customs and there might have been VAT to pay on it so the collector was told they would have to wait until the following morning to take the lights. Intervention from a badly behaved mzungu got the crate out eventually – already 1 am by then.
There was an initially speedy response from Social Welfare. With more than 120 women dead, there may be orphans/families in need of additional suppport and we were asked to send a Social Worker. Intrepid Vicky set off on Wednesday 26th.
No priority for workers travelling to the area so she didn’t arrive until Friday ….and then was told that, although more than 220 bodies had been identified, no assessment of need for their remaining families could start until the boat was turned over and the rest of the bodies removed, identified and buried. So she sat and helped families burying their relatives in sight of the upturned boat.
After a few days they started the assessments for children. It had been market day so people had come across from a number of different islands around making tracing relatives a long and complicated task. And once word got out that there was compensation then they also had to weed out the people who were not really relatives or would not be spending the money on the children. 190 families lost one or both parents in the accident – the youngest child is 4 months old , most are over 1 year. An unimaginable high number of carers and wage earners for a group of small communities . The impact will be felt for a long time.
10 days after she left we hear from Vicky ( there are very limited communication systems on the islands) . She, and another social worker, have identified relatives to care for all of the children so none need to be brought back to Forever Angels and we will be monitoring the youngest via a social worker on Ukerewe to ensure that they can be fed properly or, if not, they will join our Outreach programme.
The boat is back in service. And you can only hope there have been some lessons learned. Must admit feeling a bit nervous about our next trip across the water.