Why Lake Victoria maritime safety remains a mirage

Boats are the only means of transport between Usenge mainland and Mageta Island in Lake Victoria. Commuters are usually crammed up in boats with no safety jackets. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

A group of men loads goods into a boat as passengers scramble to board at Usenge Beach.

There is a rush by the boat crew to make it to Mageta Island before the tides start to rise and make the trip treacherous.

A few metres from where the boat is, a man struggles to restrain a bull. It’s hard to tell what his intentions are until the coxswain asks passengers who had sat in the middle of the boat to scoot over to create space for the new passenger, the bull.

Squeezed between passengers, the bull snorts as the crew restrains it with a rope from both sides of the boat in readiness for the journey to the island.

Two fishermen are unfurling their nets after a fishing expedition in a boat that had just beached crack a dark joke. “You are going to bless the boat,” one said. It’s widely believed that when a boat capsizes and people die, it unlocks business for the boat owner.

For someone visiting the place for the first time, boarding the boat alone is enough to send shivers down your spine and make you have second thoughts about the journey.

The locals, however, are used to this. It’s one of the many journeys they have made between the island and the main land.

Not even the deaths from boat accidents scare them. None of them bothers to wear a lifejacket during the boat ride. 

The situation mirrors the grim reality of how rogue boat operators, unconcerned passengers and the failure by the authorities to implement laws aimed at improving safety in the lake contribute to the deaths of many people in the lake.

So dire is the situation that in most beaches across Nyanza region, only a handful of passenger boats have lifejackets. Most of the boats are also poorly maintained.

A spot check by The Standard across several beaches established that safety is not a priority by boat operators.

During the trip to Mageta, this writer encountered a near-death experience after the boat had departed Usenge beach.

Drifted dangerously

While deep in the lake, the vessel ran out of fuel and started drifting dangerously as huge waves rocked it.

Passengers held their breath while some women started screaming as the coxswain scrambled to the front of the boat to retrieve a bottle that had some fuel.

It took more than 10 minutes for the crew to restore power and restart the journey.

A number of passengers told The Standard that they do like to wear lifejackets because the jackets are dirty and have bedbugs.

Josephine Okinyo, who claims she has survived several near-death experiences in her frequent travels on the lake, tells us that she prefers not to put on lifejackets.

“The jackets are very dirty and some have bedbugs. We always believe that we are in safe hands because the coxswains have enough experience,” she says.

The cost of travel between Usenge and Mageta is Sh150 per person and the operators keen on making more profit from the journey overload the boats.

“The cost of fuel is high and we have to also have targets at the end of the day,” Stephen Oloo, one of the boat conductors says.

Despite the obvious risks, most passengers using lake transport do not protest to the crew even when they are overloaded dangerously.

Rescue efforts

Barely a month passes without a fishing boat capsizing in the lake with rescue efforts being largely unsuccessful.

It is estimated that about 5,000 lives are lost each year to marine accidents.

And, as the search for more bodies of the victims of the latest boat tragedy in Homa Bay continued, safety of travel in the lake became a topic of debate.

By yesterday, the death toll had risen to eight after the bodies of a three-month-old baby and a woman were retrieved from the lake.

The search was on for three other people who were unaccounted for as the boat was said to have had 19 passengers at the time of the accident. Eight people were rescued. 

The deaths add to a growing list of people who have lost their lives in the lake. This year alone, there has been more than four major boat accidents that has claimed more than five lives.

In March this year, another fatal boat accident at Arongo beach Seme in Kisumu County claimed the lives of five hospital workers who had visited the lakeside city to attend a burial.

Early this year also, another fatal boat accident claimed the lives of 10 people at Honge beach in Siaya County. Some 20 passengers had boarded the ill-fated boat from Uganda to Honge beach before strong winds and heavy tides capsized their boat.

Investigations have established that most of the coxswains are not trained and do not have valid licences.

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