Res­ur­rect­ing the African Queen

Ef­forts are be­ing made to re­store an old WW I gun­ship so she can ply Lake Tan­ganyika’s wa­ters once again

The Independent on Saturday - - METRO - DUN­CAN GUY dun­can.guy@inl.co.za

A CEN­TURY is long enough for old World War I weapons left in cen­tral Africa to be rusted, but short enough for a gun­ship-turned ferry to still be ply­ing the wa­ters of the world’s sec­ond deep­est lake.

Off and on.

The Tan­za­nian-reg­is­tered MV Liemba has been run­ning er­rat­i­cally over the past cou­ple of months.

A source in land­locked Zam­bia’s port of Mpu­lungu said lo­cals hoped it would be up and run­ning again be­fore next year.

Word also came from Bu­jum­bura, cap­i­tal of land­locked Bu­rundi, that the ves­sel had not called in at the op­po­site, north­ern end of Lake Tan­ganyika for some time.

Be­tween Zam­bia in the south and Bu­rundi in the north, the lake shore cov­ers hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres of Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo soil on its western bank and Tan­za­nian ter­ri­tory on the east.

Kigoma, the main town in the lat­ter coun­try, is the Liemba’s home port.

It’s also where Kaizer Wil­helm II’s sol­diers sunk the ves­sel, then called the Graf von Götzen, a cen­tury ago at the end of The Great War. It was later brought up to the sur­face again, re­named af­ter the lo­cal name for the lake and put back into ser­vice.

The clos­est The In­de­pen­dent on Satur­day could get to an official ac­count of the boat’s ac­tiv­i­ties was from the out­spo­ken op­po­si­tion MP for Kigoma, Zitto Kabwe, who said in an email: “Yes, the Liemba is still sail­ing. But it is still chal­leng­ing be­cause of it be­ing old and be­cause of poor man­age­ment.

“She is key for trans­port in our vil­lages. Her planned re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion will en­able it to con­tinue serv­ing our peo­ple longer and keeping the his­tory.”

Kigoma res­i­dent and for­mer Nor­we­gian aid worker Od­dvar Jakob­sen said if the 70m, 1 200-ton “grand lady” was restored to her for­mer glory she would be “such an as­set”.

“Not only to the tourists, but also to the pop­u­la­tion liv­ing along the shores who de­pend on Liemba as a link to the out­side for travel and goods.”

Ef­forts to get comment from Tan­za­nian mar­itime au­thor­i­ties were un­suc­cess­ful.

Built as a steamer in 1913 in Ger­many, the ves­sel was dis­man­tled into thou­sands of crates and shipped to Dar-es-Salaam and then railed to the lake on a newly built line.

Re­assem­bled in 1915, she was equipped with ar­ma­ments and put to work de­fend­ing the 673km-long and 72km-wide Lake Tan­ganyika against en­emy forces that con­trolled en­emy shores – Bel­gium in the case of the now-Congo and now-Bu­rundi and Bri­tain in the case of Zam­bia.

When the Ger­man forces re­treated ex­actly a cen­tury ago, they scut­tled the ves­sel near Kigoma.

The vic­to­ri­ous Bel­gians sal­vaged her, but she sank again in a storm.

In 1921, Bri­tain, to which the Treaty of Ver­sailles had given Ger­man East Africa as a man­date ter­ri­tory, or­dered it to be brought up to the sur­face. Much to the sur­prise of the Bri­tish sal­vage team, the en­gines were found coated in a grease layer.

Six years later it started a new life of­fer­ing a pas­sen­ger and cargo ser­vice along the lake, call­ing in at a hand­ful of es­tab­lished ports, vis­ited by small lo­cal craft that pad­dled out to it from lake­side vil­lages.

The Liemba be­came a diesel-pow­ered ves­sel in the mid-1970s.

Jakob­sen added that the Liemba was thor­oughly re­fur­bished by a Dan­ish com­pany from Sk­a­gen dur­ing the 1990s.

“Her sched­ule had changed af­ter un­rest in Bu­rundi, and was short­ened to Kigoma-Mpu­lungu-Kigoma, can­celling Bu­jum­bura af­ter a cou­ple of en­coun­ters with armed rebels,” said Jakob­sen.

“Fur­ther­more, the sched­ule changed from a weekly sail­ing – de­part­ing every Wed­nes­day, re­turn­ing on Sun­day – to sail­ing only every other week.

“Then, over the past year, even the fort­nightly sail­ings be­came very un­re­li­able and for months the Liemba has been in the har­bour in Kigoma, al­legedly for a num­ber of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, eco­nomic, tech­ni­cal, labour, etc.”

Jakob­sen added that the Liemba’s “sis­ter” ship, the MV Mwon­gozo, had been con­verted to do seis­mic stud­ies, and was not in ser­vice.

“Lo­cal boats are ply­ing the lake, but that is some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. At­tempts have been made to es­tab­lish a re­place­ment for Liemba, but have been so far un­suc­cess­ful.”

The Liemba’s ear­li­est days, as a World War I gun­ship called the Graf von Götzen, in­spired au­thor CS Forester to write the novel

which later be­came a Hollywood film star­ring Kather­ine Hep­burn and Humphrey Bog­art.

THE pas­sen­ger ferry MV Liemba has been ply­ing the wa­ters of Lake Tan­ganyika, on and off, be­tween re­fur­bish­ments, since it was a World War I gun­ship pro­tect­ing Ger­man East Africa (now Tanzania) from colonists who were their en­emy in North­ern Rhode­sia (now Zam­bia), Bel­gian Congo (now the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo) and the Urundi part of Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanda and Bu­rundi).

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