Passengers hope for the best riding ferries on Lake Victoria
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.