Pas­sen­gers hope for the best rid­ing fer­ries on Lake Vic­to­ria

The Star Malaysia - - World -

LUANDA K’OTIENO: Time-worn and weather-beaten, the MV Mbita III tilts slightly to the left as it creaks out of its Kenyan port on Lake Vic­to­ria.

“There’s no prob­lem,” smiles the ferry cap­tain, Eric Charles, as he heads into the calm wa­ters of Africa’s largest lake, which lies within three coun­tries, car­ry­ing a few dozen pas­sen­gers and ve­hi­cles.

But on the deck, not every­one is con­vinced, with the mem­ory still fresh of the sink­ing of the MV Ny­erere two weeks ago, just over 200km away in Tan­za­nian wa­ters, leav­ing 228 dead.

The ac­ci­dent showed the risks for the res­i­dents around the lake who must use crowded or poorly main­tained boats in a re­gion where few know how to swim.

“I’m not wor­ried about over­load­ing; the ques­tion is the main­te­nance of the ship,” said fish­er­man Peter Ochyeng, 25, cast­ing a scep­ti­cal gaze over the paint peel­ing off the ves­sel.

“Me, I pray to God that noth­ing hap­pens like in Tan­za­nia.”

As he guides the boat from western Kenya to the town of Mbita – sav­ing pas­sen­gers an hours-long jour­ney by road – Charles in­sists that “Kenya is not Tan­za­nia”.

“This boat has a ca­pac­ity of 400 pas­sen­gers and I will never let more pas­sen­gers in,” he said.

The MV Ny­erere was car­ry­ing more than three times the amount of pas­sen­gers rec­om­mended, and cap­sized just me­tres from its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, the is­land of Ukara – but those who died were un­able to swim to safety.

“Most peo­ple here don’t know how to swim; it’s a cul­ture thing,” said 39-year-old busi­ness­woman Josephine Akini, on her way to visit fam­ily in Mbita.

“When I was young, my par­ents told me don’t go close to the wa­ter be­cause there are wild beasts like croc­o­diles or hip­pos.”

In African coun­tries, bod­ies of wa­ter are also of­ten as­so­ci­ated with dis­eases such as bil­harzia, an in­fec­tion caused by a par­a­sitic worm found in fresh wa­ter.

A 2014 re­port by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) found that more drown­ings take place in Africa than any­where else in the world, with nearly 8 of 100,000 peo­ple suf­fer­ing the fate – a fig­ure dou­ble that of Europe.

In 1996 some 800 peo­ple drowned when an over­loaded ferry cap­sized in Tan­za­nian wa­ters of Lake Vic­to­ria, and in the years since, nu­mer­ous such tragedies have claimed hun­dreds of lives.

“There is huge gov­er­nance prob­lem. Be­tween the po­lice, coast­guards and port au­thor­i­ties, there are enough peo­ple in port cities to en­force safety mea­sures that al­ready ex­ist, but it is not done,” a mar­itime source said on con­di­tion of anonymity.

How­ever, he points out that not all boats, es­pe­cially in Kenya, are run down.

The shiny MV Cap­tain Dan, op­er­ated by a pri­vate com­pany, car­ries pas­sen­gers up and down the Kenyan coast, for 160 shillings (RM1.37), only 10 shillings (RM0.90) more than its fad­ing coun­ter­part.

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