African Ferry Bukoba Disaster
By James Donahue
When the Tanzanian cargo and passenger ferry Bukoba sank in Lake Victoria, Africa, on May 21, 1996,
it carried an estimated 1,000 passenger to the bottom of the lake with it. It thus became one of the worse ship disasters
in the world, yet because of its remote location, few people in the outside world heard of it.
The Bukoba was a 17-year-old vessel that, like so many of the operating ferries in the area, was an
overworked, under-maintained and overloaded vessel at the time of the disaster. It was traveling from Bukoba to Mwanza, Tanzania
when it foundered near Kariemo Island, about 30 kilometers from Mwanza, sinking in 14 fathoms of water.
The ship’s manifest showed 443 passengers in the Bukoba’s first and second class cabins,
but the company kept no manifest for the cheaper third class accommodations. It was known that the vessel was overcrowded,
and some estimates suggested that as many as 1,000 people died in the disaster.
Survivors said the ship appeared to sway and bank before it sank. Among the dead were school children,
a church choir, two Uganda Catholic priests and East African businessmen.
Other vessels that came on the scene recovered about 125 survivors. They said most of the passengers
were trapped in their cabins when the ship foundered.
Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa declared three days of national mourning after hearing the news.
Criminal charges later were brought against the ship’s captain, the manager of the owning company, Tanzania Railway
Corporation, and eight other company officials.
Former Kenya Naval officer and consultant on marine navigation, Captain Joseph Muguthi, described
the Bukoba as a disaster waiting to happen. In his report, published in an area newspaper, Muguthi listed the lack of adequate
life jackets, life boats, fire-fighting equipment, and distress signal equipment as major problems on this and other ferries
operating in the area.
Muguthi said these vessels do not have mandatory dry docking inspections every 18 months, they lack
proper safety equipment and the coxswains were not licensed to navigate on the lakes.
"One wonders how they obtain their seaworthiness licenses," Muguthi wrote.
One of the survivors, Kamuli Magolanga, of Kenya, said he read a report in a Kenyan newspaper that
the Bukoba was believed unseaworthy and that its operations had been temporarily stopped because of mechanical problems. When
he booked passage on the Bukoba, he said he wore a life jacket. "I knew that there was something wrong with the ship’s