By Marycelina Masha
MV Bukoba moments before she disappeared from the surface of Lake Victoria on May 21st, 1996
ON the morning of May, 21, 1996, a ship christened MV Bukoba, carrying more than 1,000 passengers and cargo, overturned and sank in Lake Victoria, just half an hour before docking at Mwanza Port.
According to a report issued by the government’s probe commission, over 700 people perished while 114 others were lucky to survive the accident.
The government was overwhelmed by the crisis and sought assistance from Neighbouring Kenya and South Africa for concerted efforts to remove the bodies of those trapped in the sunken ship.
A tower of memories was built at Igoma on the outskirts of Mwanza town where victims were buried in a mass grave. Nyaisa Simango was one of the survivors of the worst marine transport accident in Tanzania.
Inspired by a burning desire to tell the world what happened before and after the ship capsized, Simango who now works with the Bank of Tanzania wrote a book titled Sitasahau MV Bukoba, in which he chronicles the horror as it unfolded during that fateful morning.
This is a true heartbreaking story, a depiction of how negligence, complacency, greed and corruption on the part of the establishment, could cost the nation very dearly. The book is available in bookshops across the country.
For the sake of preserving history and the love for our nation, this review recommends it as one of Tanzania’s Best Sellers. Title of the book: Sitasahau MV Bukoba. Author: Nyaisa Simango. Publisher: E&D Vision Publishers ISBN No: 978-9987-521-43-2 Preface: Professor Haroub Othman Genre: Nonfiction, tragedy Style: Narrative Reviewer: Marycelina Masha
Nyaisa Simango, then a prison warder at Ukonga Maximum Prison, leaves Dar es Salaam for Mwanza by train in the company of a colleague Sergeant Nico.
They are escorting a prisoner who they are scheduled to hand over to the authorities in Bukoba. On arrival in Mwanza, the trio proceed to the port and board an overly crowded MV Bukoba, after jostling and shoving their way through the crowds to get some room in the restaurant cabin.
Tickets were available through the backdoor, even if you came late. As night falls, Nyaisa is shocked to see that the vessel almost overturns when an irresponsible crew member messes up with the ship’s wheel.
He narrates: “All hell broke loose when the ship swayed violently as we were sipping our soft drinks. The refrigerators dropped on the floor with a loud bang! Bottles of beer and soda broke into pieces and littered the floor. I feared for my life… .” The ship anchors in Bukoba though, the end of the first leg of Nyaisa’s journey.
Chaos reigns at Bukoba Port on the following day of May 20th May, when Nyaisa prepares for boarding for a cruise back to Mwanza. A cargo of bunches of bananas, cars, suitcases and all sorts of luggage, flood the basement of the ship.
Multitudes jam the dock with their belongings as if fleeing a war zone. Those who fail to board hurriedly hire taxis in order to catch up with the vessel at Kemondo Bay.
It was a frightening scenario, but no authority, not even the Tanzania Railways Authority which operated the vessel, came forward to quell this manmade storm.
Throughout the voyage, Nyaisa, who has never travelled on a ship is a very worried man, often looking for a lifebuoy or consulting with a passenger about it, though none is keen to listen.
This weakness makes him naïve and nervous. Had the ship arrived in Mwanza safely, we would accuse him of being a nuisance to other passengers. Suddenly, the vessel sways to the left then right… left then right.
He writes: “My mind veered off from the swaying ship and reached my home village. I saw my younger sib lings screaming and wailing after my body is brought home from the accident scene… . I wanted to throw up and release the beer I had just sipped, so I went to the bathroom, but I couldn’t… ” In the middle of the night Nyaisa gets tired of the ship’s swaying and rocking.
He squeezes himself to a corner where a woman is sleeping with his children and falls asleep, only to be awakened by screaming voices. He is lying in a pool of water, alone.
Other passengers are assembled in the upper part of the ship. Some are praying but many are screaming. The ship sways again, left, then right, left, right, left… “Oh my goodness! The vessel has gone adrift… some passengers have been tossed overboard!” Someone yells.
The swaying stops and Nyaisa goes to take a shower, soon the ship will dock at Mwanza Port. This must be due to heavy weather, though no authority speaks. It is 7.00 am. and the sky is clear enough to see the view of Mwanza town.
While he is brushing his shoes, the impossible happens. The ship tilts to the left, then right and then makes about turn! She has overturned! Nyaisa writes: “Impossible! No ship overturns.
No! ships sink… Good God! My life is over… ! I’m dead!” This episode could be the climax of the story as it revolves around fear and agony but with a desire to live. Nyaisa finds himself in a new but frightening world. He sees people dying, many of them.
The ship now lies upside down and water penetrates through the walls. There is darkness and the door has closed from the outside, the floor is submerged! When three courageous men appear from nowhere, he joins them to drill an escape hole.
This particular trick works after a great deal of laboring and Nyaisa hauls himself into the lake! He can’t swim, he has never done so. He seizes an object, while waggling in the water. It’s a human being’s leg. He holds it firm, until he manages to grab a lifebuoy.
Finally he climbs onto the sinking ship’s hull where he, together with a few other victims, are rescued by fishing boats, four hours after the ship overturned! Prior to the post script, E&D Vision Publishers added some colour to the book by including a piece showing how Tanzania’s press reported MV Bukoba accident, plus an interview with some of those who lost their loved ones in the accident.
Nyaisa unwittingly predicts the occurrence of a disaster well before he leaves Dar es Saalam. While chatting with his cousin about the journey, he asks him where he would get a life jacket in case of an accident.
Three more times he talks to himself about a looming accident. At a certain moment, he unchains the prisoner’s handcuffs and says “I don’t want to be blamed for the prisoner’s death if the ship sinks…”
On the journey back to Mwanza, and after taking three bottles of beer, he whispers to a fellow passenger and asks him whether he could get a life jacket.
The author’s tone
After reading the book several times about manmade tragic episodes, depicting negligence, greed, inefficiency and corruption, I expected no mercy on those responsible for this calamity.
However, much as Nyaisa clearly punches holes on the performance of the authorities, he does so with a sober mind. Sometimes he even adds humour when he says:” Someone grabbed my underpants as we hassled for the lifebuoy. I felt somehow relieved because when you are under the water, your clothes are nothing but a heavy burden.”
He continues: “I was completely naked. The only thing I was wearing was my watch… When the rescue boats arrived, we were given clothes, BUT some of us rejected them… It did not matter, men and women sat together, all naked… “
The Preface by Professor Haroub Othman, tells it all. Prof Othman criticizes the then Ministry of Communication and Transport’s inability to rein in corruption, negligence and inefficiency in the TRC.
In particular, he questions the country’s ability to deal with disasters and the whole issue of safety in the transportation sector. If everyone executed their duties diligently, the accident would not happen.
On 21, May, (this coming Sunday) someone will be commemorating the 21st anniversary of the sinking of MV Bukoba, in remembrance of those who perished with it.
It is a historical event which must not be allowed to die. It must be told again and again for everyone to get to know their role and responsibility towards protecting lives whenever they are on the steering wheel.
Sad to say, this anniversary comes at a time when hearts are still bleeding for 33 children, two teachers and their driver who died in the Karatu school bus tragedy. May God rest their souls in eternal peace.