Air to water disaster in Bukoba and my naïve love of flying

Workers use a crane to pull the crashed Precision Air aircraft out of Lake Victoria

Workers use a crane to pull the crashed Precision Air aircraft out of Lake Victoria in Bukoba, Tanzania, on November 8, 2022, after it crashed on November 6, 2022, while trying to land.

Photo credit: AFP

I had hoped that we would be chatting about light and delightful matters, like our athletic power engines, female and male, conquering yet another world-class marathon. I was also delighted and amused by Uganda’s “She-Cranes” netballers beating some of the best in New Zealand, and crowning their victories with provocative gyrating dance jigs. But then, Bukoba happened.

The plunging crash of Precision Air Flight PW 494 into Lake Victoria, just a few score metres from the airport of Tanzania’s north-western city of Bukoba, left me badly shaken, for several reasons. First, I love flying, and ever since I first took to the skies in 1965, I look forward to most of my flights and enjoy them.

Secondly, I have travelled frequently on Precision Air flights, all over East Africa, and always appreciated their hospitality, courtesy and efficiency. I have the impression that Precision, a private entity incorporated in Tanzania, could teach us quite a lot about the viability of internal air travel within our region.

More significantly, Bukoba, where the Sunday morning accident occurred, is startlingly close to me. I mentioned to you, when we had a destructive earthquake there, that the Kagera Region, of which Bukoba is the capital, is arguably the heart of East Africa. Bukoba is, indeed, one of the key lakeside cities, among them Kisumu, Musoma, Mwanza, Entebbe and Jinja, forming the ring that unites Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda around our common Lake.

Moreover (isitoshe), the River Kagera (locally pronounced as “Kajera”), after which the Tanzanian region is named, originates in Rwanda, and its current flows through Lake Victoria into Uganda. Bukoba would be just about three hours’ drive southwest from Masaka, the Ugandan city where I was born, and four to four and a half hours from Kampala.

Neighbourhood

We are a “neighbourhood”, and we, the Bahaya, Banyankore and Baganda, are ethnically and linguistically quite close. When Kiswahili regional “accent” hunters try to locate mine, the nearest they get is usually “West Lake”, the former name of the Kagera Region.

Anyway, whether by accident or design, many of my very good friends and colleagues in literary and Kiswahili studies, like Profs Abdul Khamis, Kulikoyela Kahigi and Mugyabuso Mlinzi Mulokozi, come from Bukoba. Now mostly in retirement, they frequently commute between Dar es Salaam and their upcountry homes in Kagera.

My friend and longtime KU colleague, Prof Nyambura Mpesha, though Mt Kenya-born, also identifies as a Kageran, not only through marriage but also through a long-time personal and scholarly immersion in Haya culture.

You can thus imagine my first thoughts on getting news of the plane crash. Could one of my acquaintances or their dear ones have been on that ill-fated flight? This is not far-fetched, as memories of the loss of a couple of my friends and KU colleagues in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines disaster are still fresh in my mind.

In any case, as I suggested earlier, Bukoba is a mini-East Africa in its own right, and all of us in the Community are likely to be impacted in one way or another when the full tally of the losses is done.

Already, our news reporters are bringing us in-depth and harrowing stories of the disaster, including that of the bereavement of the young family of Flight PW 494 co-pilot, our own Peter Omondi Odhiambo, who perished alongside his captain, Buruhani Rubaga. I have also been hearing from acquaintances who lost relatives, one of them two.

Impact mitigated

Still, we count our blessings that some 24 of the 43 people on board the flight survived. It could have been much worse. Indeed, my nonprofessional’s assessment of the situation is that crashing into the lake probably mitigated the impact on the plane and on the people on board. Hitting the hard, dry land or tarmac at or near the airport would probably have resulted in a 100 per cent loss.

As always in such situations, questions are likely to be asked, and maybe blame apportioned, especially regarding the disaster preparedness of those concerned. But for many of us, the truly moving positive aspect of the disaster was the readiness of the ordinary fishermen near the crash scene to rush with their mitumbwi and ngarawa crafts to the rescue of the plane-wrecked passengers. This, in spite of the fisher folks’ probable ignorance and fear of the machine and what might lurk beneath it, was utu (humaneness) at its best.

A curious coincidence that was not lost on me was that just a day or so before the Bukoba disaster, the airport authorities at Entebbe had carried out a disaster response drill there. I did not watch it, but my sister in America had seen it in the media and it looked so real that she believed a plane had actually crashed there. She sent me a message saying she was hoping and praying that I was not on the plane that had “crash-landed”. Was this some kind of telepathic foreboding?

Anyway, my faith in, if not love for, flying persists, and Tanzania’s skies are believed to be among the safest in this region. I will certainly be on my Entebbe-JKIA flight before month’s end, especially now that the maneno (shenanigans) at my favourite KQ are clearing. I cling to a statistic I stumbled upon somewhere that you are 50 times more likely to have an accident on the road (even without the matatu and bodaboda madness) than on a modern jet plane. I do not know if there is a way of objectively verifying that.

Meanwhile, join me in condoling with all our bereaved ndugu following the Bukoba disaster, and wishing quick recovery to the survivors. The Almighty will receive the departed into his mercy. Our hearts go out particularly to Fiona Ndila Mutuku and the rest of Rubani Peter Omondi Odhiambo’s family, and to the family of Eunice Ndirangu, another of the victims.

Makiwa! Poleni sana.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 

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