An untold number of people are missing after a ferry capsized on Lake Victoria on Wednesday morning. The official death toll is 11 – or 28. Nobody really knows, because there was no passenger manifest, a detail which is all too often missing here.
Onlookers told the AFP press agency that the ship was carrying at least 60 people when it capsized during its journey between the Ssese Islands and Port Bell in Uganda. Just two people were saved, according to press reports.
Maritime safety often comes last on Lake Victoria. Many of the vessels in service are floating deathtraps – short of lifejackers, rafts and lifeboats and often unseaworthy. Overcrowding is common and the ferries regularly sail with much more cargo than they were built to carry.
Yesterday’s sinking was by no means the worst maritime disaster on the lake.
On May 21, 1996, the large motor ferry MV Bukoba capsized as it approached the Tanzanian port of Mwanza at the southern end of the lake. Officially, more than 500 people drowned when the ship rolled over, trapping them in the cabins and in the third class accommodation. But rescue workers reckon there were more than 800 souls on board, many more than the Bukoba’s official carrying capacity of 430.
Many of those who drowned were schoolchildren going home from their boarding school in Bukoba, the town for whom the ship was named. Also among the victims was Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military commander in Kenya.
After the sinkings all sorts of accusations were levelled. At the Belgian builders. At the Tanzanian Railways Corporation (TRC) who operated the vessel. At the captain and the crew. At the hundreds of passengers who rushed aboard at its first port of call after leaving Bukoba, even though there was no room for them. But, as Andrew Purvis of the TIME magazine wrote in a moving story on the sinking, the fact remains that there were serious safety concerns over the vessel.
In his book Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes, author Andrew Reynolds noted that the MV Bukoba was a badly-built ship, with serious inherent stability problems. So serious, in fact, that it relied for stability on two ballast tanks in the hold, each filled with 100 tonnes of water.
Speculation at the time of the sinking was that the ballast tanks had not been properly refilled after engineers had carried out stability tests. What onlookers agree on, however, is that when she sailed from Bukoba on the late afternoon of May 20, 1996, the ferry was seen to be be rolling slowly and heavily and taking two minutes or more to recover from each roll.
The next morning, as she altered course to port for the run to Mwanza harbour, the ship listed heavily to starboard, and did not recover. The captain ordered all the passengers to the port side and as they rushed over, the ship rolled with them and capsized.
The Bukoba did not sink immediately and the first rescue ships on the scene could hear passengers trapped in air pockets inside knocking frantically on the upturned hull. Rescuers with oxyacetylene torches cut a hole in the hull, freeing two people. Cutting a second hole, however, let the remaining air blast out of the ship and she sank rapidly in 25 metres of water, taking her trapped victims to the bottom of the lake.
The Tanzanian government appealed for help. The South African Navy responded by dispatching a team of 28 divers to Mwanza. By the time they arrived there was no-one left to save and they were given the task of retrieving bodies from the grim and dangerous confines of the wreck.
Recounting the experience years later, one of the divers remembered that the water around the wreck rapidly became a health hazard and the recovery operation was called off after just a few days.
Officially, 114 people were saved, although it is quite likely that many more people did not notify the authorities that they had survived the sinking. The official death toll was 547. Given that rescue workers reckon there were nearly a thousand people on board, the real toll was probably about 800.