A YEAR ON FEAR AND APPREHENSION PREVAIL
It is exactly a year today that the MV Spice Islander I sank between the Zanzibari islands of Unguja and Pemba, taking, according to a report by the commission of enquiry, at least 1.529 people with it to a wet grave. At the time, many promises were made, arrests were made, prosecutions were started and the maritime authorities told to shape up or face the wrath of the powers that be. Yet, on 19th July this year, a previously grounded vessel, subsequently released back into service under unclear circumstances, the MV Skagit, went under with the loss of at least another 136 lives. Smaller vessels too have since then sunk, taking more lives in the process as the island, and the union government in Dar es Salaam struggle to not only strengthen supervisory capacity and a full, incorruptible application of the existing regulations but also re-write those regulations to bring them into the 21st century.
Combined with the Lake Victoria disaster of 21st May 1996, when the MV Bukoba sank within sight of Mwanza port, claiming over 1.000 lives, the true number may never be known as the overloaded vessel had no manifest for the under deck 3rd class passengers, it makes maritime journeys in Tanzania as hazardous as it comes.
Travel between the mainland of Tanzania to Zanzibar and other islands, and of course between the islands themselves has grown in leaps and bounds, spurred by growing populations and many budget and adventure travelers are known to opt for this form of cheaper transport to explore the islands and go places. Tourism reportedly accounts for around a third of Zanzibars economic activity and contributes to more than two thirds in terms of foreign exchange earnings, the balance coming largely from spice exports. The other islands too enjoy growing demand but both cost of transport as well as its safety are often reasons potential travelers stay away. But it is not just tourism which is potentially affected and at stake. The life of ordinary people on the islands depends on food and other provisions being shipped there on a daily basis and a lack of safe shipping capacity has already driven prices up, combined with the regular inflation a double whammy many find hard to cope with.
In a country like Tanzania, which has several bigger islands like Unguja, Pemba, Mafia and so forth, ocean transport, safe ocean transport is very important. It is a function of government to provide transport links the people can afford. Most cannot afford to fly, so they depend on ferries and ships to cross from one island to the other or to the mainland. Government should maybe invite tenders to provide this public service provided by private sector and subsidize operations for wananchi to afford the tickets and for goods to be sent there at lower cost. There are many ways that can be done. And in addition government can offer concessions for transport, but what is important is that we get good new ferries and ships and that the crews are well trained. I think this is the biggest challenge besides having the maritime authorities from the mainland and Zanzibar undergo a shakeup and undergo reforms. Right now we have a poor reputation about travelling by ship to and between the islands and that must change. We have wasted a year and they are still discussing better regulations, stronger implementation and also fines and condemning old ships which no longer are seaworthy. The public has to know that there are enough life rafts and life vests on board in case something happens and that they crew knows how to react in case of an emergency said a regular source from Dar es Salaam, when invited to comment on the anniversary of the MV Spice Islands I going down.
A year on since the disaster, reported here within hours of it happening, it is still wait and see and hope, as the families and friends of those lost at sea on that fateful evening, will gather to remember, gather to pray and probably gather to once again voice their demands that things ought to change, fast and comprehensively. Watch this space.