Memories of Mtongwe deaths flood back after ferries stall

Anxious commuters wait to cross the Indian ocean at Likoni after ferries experienced mechanical problems. Photo/LABAN WALLOGA

As frequent ferry mishaps send chilling shivers down commuters’ spines in South Coast, the question now on many people’s lips is: How safe are these ferries that ply the Likoni and Mtongwe channels?

Last Thursday saw mv Kilindini “dance” precariously on troubled waters with human cargo, sparking memories of the 1994 Mtongwe ferry disaster, Kenya’s worst sea accident.

Said regular commuter Suleiman Said: “If Mtongwe (incident) made us cry, I don’t know what Likoni will make us do.”

The chaos and pandemonium witnessed when two ferries broke down calls for urgent and drastic measures to be taken to avert disaster.

Likoni resident and political activist Mwakio Ndau, wants the Kenya Ferry Services Limited (KFS) investigated over its management and operations because the frequency of ferry mishaps is worrying. “There’s need for independent inquiry by marine experts to tell us whether these ferries are maintained as claimed by the management,” he said.

Lifesaver rafts

In case of an accident, many people would die because some of the ferries’ lifesaver rafts are piled and locked together at one side of the vessels. Mr Ndau added: “Except for mv Nyayo where people sit on the rafts, the rest of the ferries they (rafts) are locked together.”

He also questioned why the KFS disbanded its own engineering department that used to repair and maintain the ferries at its own dockyard.

During a normal working day, three ferries operate at peak hours from 6am to 9am before one ferry is released. It resumes at the other peak hours from 4pm to 8pm.

This allows 180,000 people and more than 3,000 vehicles to cross the channel daily, putting a strain on the aging ferries. Mv Pwani has been in service since 1975, for example.

A slight problem on either of the ferries would disrupt business for the billion shillings hotel industry in South Coast that depend on the link to connect Mombasa island to other tourist destinations.

Hotelier Raymond Matiba is concerned that the frequent ferry chaos and mishaps are a threat to tourism, the lifeline of investors in South Coast. “Likoni channel is an essential transport link and any disruption puts at risk the billions of shillings invested here (South Coast),” he said in a telephone interview.

According to him, Likoni Channel has featured in industry meetings quite often. Some of the investors plan to visit the Coast provincial commissioner to discuss the issue and its effect on tourism. “If the PC can make an incognito visit to Likoni Channel during peak hours, he will see what goes on there,” Said Mr Matiba.

He urged the Government to move fast and “do something”, saying delays at Likoni were not only worrying to investors, but also discouraging potential investors from investing in the pristine beach fronts.

Repaired thoroughly

Saying he witnessed what happened on Thursday, Likoni MP Mwalimu Masoud Mwahima said all ferries should be serviced.

“Between now and December, when we expect the new ferries to arrive, the current ferries should be repaired thoroughly to stop frequent break downs,” he said and warned that “danger lurked” at the crossing.

The MP said he talked to KFS managing director John Ria, who promised to release the ferries at intervals for major repairs at the Southern Engineering Company.

This year’s Budget, according to Mwahima, allocated funds to the Dongo Kundu Project, earmarked as the alternative route to South Coast via Miritini.

He said: “Give me time to get you the right figures when I check the parliamentary books.”

For a long of time the Government has grappled with the idea of finding an alternative route to ease movement between Mombasa island and the South mainland. But the plans to build a bridge or underground tunnel have remained “a pipe dream” that experts doubt is attainable.

When problems erupt at the Likoni Channel, motorists get the brunt of it for having to endure hours of waiting to board the ferries which during peak hours are overwhelmed by tens of thousands of commuters.

Spending two to three hours before embarking from the ferries is an “agonising ritual”, Tiwi Beach Resort driver Ali Guya is familiar with. When he has a Likoni trip, he starts early to be on time to collect his seniors from the island. “There is nothing more frustrating than to be kept waiting without being told why,” he said adding that this wasted fuel and manpower.

An exhausted tour driver Hamadi Omar with five tourists waiting for their turn to board the ferry lamented that he had been waiting for three hours to cross the channel. They left Neptune Beach Hotel early on their safari to Tsavo East and Amboseli Game Reserve but ended up being trapped at the channel.

He thinks the Government should urgently develop an alternative route to save the tourism industry from relocating elsewhere due to the problems at Likoni Channel.

“Our clients cannot understand why it takes so long to cross the channel while the safari started early,” he said in Kiswahili so his passengers wouldn’t understand what he is saying.

Mr Ria blames lack of steel used for ferry repairs locally for the delayed maintenance of mv Harambee and mv Kilindini. “The prowls of these two ferries are in a pathetic state, but lack of iron materials which is a global problem, is also affecting us locally,” he said and added that immediately their agent got the materials the ferries would be released for major repairs.

His only hope of redeeming the situation at the channel is the expected arrival of two new ferries in December which he believes will alleviate the mid-course stalls and drift-away of current vessels.