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Lake Victoria travel remains risky as safety takes a back seat

An overloaded boat ferries passengers with no safety jackets from Usenge mainland to Mageta Island. Residents are calling on relevant authorities to provide better and safer means of transport. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

A boat trip from Homa Bay pier to Godhe island reveals the grim dangers that continue to dominate lake travel as rogue operators and unruly passengers risk their lives in the treacherous journey.

Inside the overloaded boats is all manner of goods including livestock while at the centre of the boat, passengers have to continuously remove water seeping into the boat using small containers to prevent it from capsizing.

The journey itself sends shivers in first-timers and the condition of the boats does not inspire hope. Most boats are in a dilapidated state while only a few have life jackets.

Some passengers who also claim the life jackets are infested with bedbugs defy calls by operators to wear the safety vests which are stacked in sacks.

Despite worrying statistics of frequent deaths and accidents that continue to cast a dark cloud on Lake Victoria’s maritime transport, residents and boat operators still fail to take precautions and appear oblivious of the dangers they are exposing themselves to.

A number of operators told The Sunday Standard that the lack of proper passenger transport channels in the region has made it difficult for the few operators to enforce safety rules.

Francis Obengo, a boat operator in Homa Bay says they have been forced on several occasions to force some passengers out after boarding the boats while drunk.

“It is true we have a problem with maintaining safety but we are trying our best. In some cases, some passengers blatantly refuse to wear life jackets,” said Obengo.

He claimed that at times they are forced to overload passengers to escape strong tides in the lake.

“Most of the islands in the region including Mfangano are accessible when waters are calm. When there are strong waves, especially in the evening, it is not easy to travel safely,” he explains.

A similar experience is also reported in Siaya where passengers have been forced to share boats with livestock when accessing Mageta and Sifu islands. The boats have designated times with the last one normally leaving Usenge beach at 6pm. 

This means that most boats have to overload especially when there is a burial ceremony on the mainland.

“Whenever there is a burial, several people require boat services and that is why it is hard to accommodate all of them and provide them with life jackets,” said Maurice Okello.

This comes even as the region continues to register a high number of accidents involving both fishing and passenger boats.

In Migori County, 14 accidents have happened this year alone with some leading to the loss of lives. Four people died after they drowned.

In April, one person from Senye Sumba area in Muhuru Bay died and has never been found after he fell off a boat.

Early this month, two people from Got Kachola area died in the lake and only one was found. This was after their boat capsized.

"We are going on with the search for the one who has not been found," Julius Odhiambo, the Migori Beach Management Unit (BMU) chairperson told The Sunday Standard.

Odhiambo says those who survived the accidents were wearing life jackets.

He said as BMU leadership, they have been urging fishermen and boat riders to put on life jackets whenever they are on the lake.

"Sometimes when the weather is warm and sunny, they remove life jackets not knowing that they are risking their lives," Odhiambo adds.

County Commissioner Meru Mwangi has asked boat riders and fishermen to take safety precautions when sailing in the lake.

"We are asking everyone to comply with safety measures while on the lake like wearing life jackets, and ensure boats are in good condition," Mwangi said.

He warned those sailing in the lake without adhering to the law saying such individuals would be arrested and charged.

Authorities are putting efforts to ensure compliance with safety measures in Lake Victoria despite some challenges impeding the process.

It is required that every boat providing transport services on the lake is in a good condition. Passengers travelling in the boats are also required to put on life-saving jackets.

But failure to adhere to safety measures continues to cost lives in the lake.

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