Down Lake Tanganyika on the venerable MV Liemba
18.01.2007 - 18.01.2007
17th – 19th January 2007
I woke up early and re-hung up my washing, it wasn’t rinsed at all, so it was still heavy and dripping from the night before. I went out in search of coffee and breakfast, and to book and pay for my ferry, which I had no idea if it was on time and was the only reason I had just rushed through five countries in as many days.
That night I had got at least 12 hours sleep, almost as much as my combined sleep since Nairobi on the 11th.
So I was happy to be frisky again and made it to the ferry terminal to wait in the queue. The ticket office didn’t open an hour later at the scheduled time, and a nice lady came to explain to us why. The ticket man was at the Scandinavian Embassy doing a training course in computers. Joy! So I strolled around the harbor and persuaded a military policeman to give me a guided tour of the venerable MV Liemba. It cost $55 in 1st class (2-bed cabin), $40 for 2nd class (6-bed cabin) or $35 for 3rd class (a dingy rat hole deep inside ship’s bowels).
The ticket man eventually arrived and couldn’t give me change for my dollars. I had only brought with $50 and he refused to let me pay the difference in shillings. He booked my cabin and promised he wouldn’t sell it until I got back. On returning to my hotel, I realized I had left my keys in the room, and after a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a spare key, a locksmith had to be called in. He eventually gave up trying to pick the lock and must have fucked up his shoulder barging through the door.
My morning involved an extensive search for replacement headphones and buying groceries for the ferry.
Kigoma had become a major refugee centre over the previous decade, accepting tens of thousands of Rwandans, Burundians and Congolese, escaping from their respective wars, genocides and upheavals. It is the major Tanzanian port on Lake Tanganyika and the end of the line for those who’ve slogged their way across the country on the Central Line train. My afternoon was taken up strolling and getting lost in the lively market which was filled with color and a variety of produce, from fresh fish and rotten meat to mountains of pineapples, limes, onions and dried Kapenta. After searching high and low and being sent from one electronics shop to another, I splurged on a quality pair of earphones for my iPod.
I got a taxi to the port and bought my ticket. I was told I had to get my passport stamped at immigration, so the taxi took me back into the city, only to find that a freight train was blocking the entrance to the customs building. I risked leaving my luggage in the taxi and jumped through the train in search of that important stamp confirming I’d left the country.
It took half an hour to explain to the monkeys what I needed, walking back and forth on the lakeside to speak to the ticket man to confirm that I was in fact leaving Tanzania and not arriving. The taxi had to accept my dollars and some Zambian Kwacha.
I initially had the two bed cabin to myself, but soon into the journey I was introduced to my new roommate, a French speaking Congolese businessman. We were forced to communicate because we had to coordinate the sharing of the single key to our cabin.
I soon met Pascal, one member in a group of six illegal immigrants on their
way to South Africa. They had paid a Rwandan businessman (whose cover entailed fetching a few cases of Red Bull from SA) $300 to get them in, which included all food and transport.
All along the way, small dhows and dugout canoes docked against the ship, sometimes in the middle of the night, collecting and bringing passengers, food and mainly Kapenta. The small dried fish is the livelihood of thousands of residents living in relative isolation, up and down the lake.
Our ship collected hundreds of gigantic bags filled with the precious commodity, which Zambians cannot live without. It’s their main source of protein and flavor to accompany their otherwise bland Nshima (maize meal), and as they are a land-locked country this is their only access to fish.
For a change, I wasn’t the only Mzungu on board the ship. An American couple (I found out before I boarded, from a UN worker, that he was the Ambassador in Uganda who had just finished his four year post) was travelling in the presidential suite, and I tried unsuccessfully to engage them in conversation. He politely told me that he didn’t want to talk politics as he was now on vacation. He also refused to divulge his profession or where he was going. What he did tell me was that Lake Malawi had a similar ship plying its waters and he was told it was an unforgettable journey, not to be missed.
I drastically changed my plans. I was supposed to continue to Lusaka, Livingstone, the Okavongo Delta and Namibia’s famous dunes at Sossusvlei. At the last minute I decided I’d rather do Malawi and head home through Zimbabwe.