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
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).