Notes on a Zanzibar tragedy

by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein on September 11, 2011

Searching, Waiting Photo taken by Emmanuel Kwitema 2011.

This is not a news report on an enormous tragedy. I don’t have all the facts. No one does – yet. This is me in tears writing down the terrifying reality of a capsized cargo ship, the overloaded MV Spice, and its hundreds of passengers, mostly teenagers and children, who all sunk down in the middle of the night on Saturday, September 10, at 1:00 a.m. or so, off the coast of Tanzania.

Earlier that night, hundreds of teenagers, children, babies, and their mamas, along with other travellers Pemba-bound, boarded this cargo ship that had never been approved as a passenger ship, setting sail for an overnight journey.

The rumour is that not only was this ship not a legal passenger ship, it also had serious engine problems but passed inspection due to a slippery 3 million shilling bribe accepted by those responsible for regulating maritime safety and security.

Ironically, a conference on maritime security had taken place in Zanzibar in March of 2011. I can’t help but wonder who was at the table that day. What was discussed ? How were the power points? How was the buffet ?

Over 600 tickets were officially sold for Saturday’s journey, yet everyone I’ve spoken to assure me that up to 1,000 people could have been on the boat that night, for having paid just a few thousand shillings on the down low. This is standard practice. Overloaded ships are a major issue here, and the use of cargo ships for passenger voyages, a common yet illegal practice. Yet some say that before this ship set sail, even passengers who were accustomed to overloaded boats were cramped beyond a reasonable doubt and asked to get off before the ship departed.

Most passengers on board were returning to Pemba, the sister island to Unguja, after a long Eid celebration with family and friends on the island of Unguja.

The journey to Pemba is notoriously rough. No doubt, most passengers throw up at some point on the choppy waves that define this distinct route from one island to the next. It’s a nauseous, grueling journey that many often take because of close family ties between the islands, as well as opportunity on Unguja that do no exist on Pemba.

On Saturday night, due to the overloaded ship combined with roiling sea conditions, the enormous boat holding cargo and people simply turned over on its side and started sinking, not too far from the northern coast, near Nungwi. No one knows the exact cause.

Passengers began calling family and friends from their cell phones with panicked messages. We’re sinking. We think we are going to die. We need help. Please pray for us. No one knew where they were exactly on the sea, but described being five to six hours into the slow over-night journey.

By two a.m. the boat had completely sunk into the sea. Family and friends started receiving calls by four a.m. confirming that the MV spice was lying at the bottom of the ocean with hundreds trapped inside.

The response? Yes, there was an emergency response. Divers were sent out to sea in search of survivors. Private dive companies went out to sea. Local fishermen volunteered their small dhows to search for people who’d managed to swim their way out of the boat, grabbing onto anything they could – mattresses, fridges, tanks – to float their way to safety.

But a lack of resources, leadership, and strategic information made it hard to coordinate efforts. There was a great deal of confusion yesterday as to where to go for information concerning loved ones who might have lost their lives in this terrifying calamity.

Local residents were told to meet in a large field, Miasara, just near the coast to identify dead bodies brought in on large fishing boats by volunteer coast guards and police. As a result, mobs of people gathered in this space, hovering for information that would lead them back to their lost. A small voice on unconvincing bull horn encouraged people to follow instructions that would keep them at least an arms distance from the four tents set up with Red Cross workers and a meagre supply of gray army blankets.

I went to this field at 10 a.m. with my partner, in search of information about his 42 family members who had climbed onto that boat to return to their native Pemba. We stood in the scorching sun waiting for direction, pressing against the meek yellow security tape, trying to crane our necks to see past the crowds and into the empty tents waiting to receive dead bodies.

At some point in the day, it became clear that more bodies and survivors were being brought in to town near the main port on large ships that had gone out to sea on search and rescue missions. We realized that our presence at Miasara wasn’t helping at all, so we went home and turned on Zanzibar television.

I cried watching familiar faces climb down from boats, survivors, having been in the depths of the ocean, and emerging triumphant with looks of shock and relief on their faces. Grown men were crying. Children looked stunned or exhausted. My partner recognized two of his cousins climbing out of rescue boats. We cried together, held hands, relieved.

Call it a miracle, divine intervention, luck of the draw, that so many did survive, that having been under water for so long in a closed space, they were able to emerge, fight for their lives, and find their way back to the surface of things.

By late afternoon, everyone was talking about this tragedy, and, having left work or home, were wandering the streets, stopping in small clusters to swap information and share condolences.  Waves of people walked to and from the field where dead bodies were laid out for identification. In the streets, sirens wailed. Police vans and ambulances raced at highest speeds to and from emergency sites.

Everyone knew someone who had been affected by the events of the last twenty-four hours. Zanzibar is very small – all are interlinked and touched personally by the strange slow-motion pain of enormous loss.

Our local shopkeeper’s wife had been on board this ship, nine months pregnant, heading back to Pemba to give birth to their child. No one has heard news yet of her whereabouts. When I spoke to him, he seemed resigned that he had lost her. His face was slack, his body, quiet.

Zanzibaris are quite stoic about pain – at least in public. In the late afternoon, I passed my neighbours whom I know each had family members on board that ship. When I asked them about it, they shrugged their shoulders, looked up at the heavens, and basically said, tumeshapoa meaning, we have already recovered. They’d heard the news, wailed if so moved behind closed doors, and were now presenting steely exteriors to the outside world, waiting simply for a body to bury, a funeral to execute.

The word is that there will be a national funeral and three days of mourning while authorities continue to uncover the facts of this terrifying event. And yet, Miss Tanzania was aired last night despite all of this, and as of this morning, no official statement from either the Zanzibar or Tanzanian government. Reports from Twitter reveal that the story was barely covered at all on the mainland, while it was reported on international networks like BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC, CBC, CNN, and others.

What gives many great relief (but deeply confuses me) is the belief that all of this has been written by Allah – all of the great tragedies and triumphs of our time have all written already and we are merely actors in the great human drama written and directed by god. I can see how this world view offers powerful solace at times like these – when inexplicable and avoidable events cause tidal waves of sorrow.

But I don’t believe that this was a necessary act in the great human play that is life. This could have been avoided. There is an element of recklessness, a need for accountability on the part of those who thought it was fine to overload a cargo ship with human lives and all their necessary objects.

I am waiting, like others, for more information, for clarity, for the chance to mourn in public and in private with so many who were linked to those who lost their lives. The numbers climb to somewhere around 225. Survivors number over 500 or so, which means that the total of those on board far exceeded the official 500 reported by the government.

Many of us here in Zanzibar are hoping that something like this will unleash discussion on maritime reforms, regarding the safety and security of passengers who board these large ships to set sail on choppy waters. It also makes me think a lot, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, about the nature of emergency response plans. How does a nation handle a crisis? What plans are in place to assist and inform? What can anyone do to translate their helplessness into action?

I don’ t have answers. There’s a blanket and sheet shortage at local hospitals. There are far too few medical personnel, a general lack of leadership and direction as to where to go for information. But people are trying their best, and I guess with any tragedy like this, it’s the local people – brave, gutsy, fearless people who do everything they can to make a horrible situation a little better, a little less desperate.

There’s a local meeting at 11 a.m. this morning to discuss fundraising ideas.

There are families being reunited with survivors.

Apparently, boat service on regular passenger ships resume this evening to Pemba.

Life goes on.

But none of us, having lived through any of this, can ever be exactly the same.

We grapple with our confusion, we deal with our gods, we console each other, we live with the mystery of having survived.

"Tangazo la Kifo" meaning, "Death Notice" written on a neighborhood wall this morning

Brothers and Sisters of the islands of Unguja and Pemba: This is an announcement of the deaths that took place today there in the ocean because of the sinking of MV Spice — it is already down, nothing more will come out. God bless the dead and give them a good place in heaven. They have already passed, we are going the same way.




Myoma September 11, 2011 at 4:28 am

I am truly shocked at the whole story and it is truly sad. These children did not have to die this way. It is true that even in the bible the Lord says that when it is the end of the world there will storms, deaths and so on but this is just awful. To add on we as Tanzanians need to stop letting povert rule over us.. One sacrifices human lives for a mere 3M Tsh ??? I was also shocked to know CNN and other international media aired the news but our local TV’s did not show the news and to make things worse we do not power so we can’t see anyways!! Let us leave it up to God and it is a fact that our governments cannot control situations!

Eng. Anasa September 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm

things will get more worse if we tanzanians will continue with dis say’ let us leave everything to God’ i hate dis….. U got to b strong n do something… Jah z with us

Michael September 11, 2011 at 6:08 am

Thank you for the well detailed and written information.My Wife is Zanzibari and Just returned to United states One week prior with my 2 daughters..we are in shock and praying for those who are touched by this tragedy…Yes we all know Families that were effected by this tragedy….Our Prayers with all of you…

Yasmin Shariff September 11, 2011 at 6:40 am

A very heartfelt account of a tragedy.

This tragedy with the sinking of the boat is symptomatic of the difficult problems the Tanzanian Government are facing. The transportation infra structure is overloaded and under invested. It is almost impossible to drive through the centre of the capital. The problems can be solved with intelligent investment but it requires an honest broker who delivers what is needed rather than making a fast buck by providing a false solution.

Tanzania has resources and with the gold price soaring it should be able to get the additional income from mining alone to transform its transport infrastructure into a modern state of the art exemplar. There is no need for yet more back patting conferences and reports that wallpaper over the problems.

The government and the people of Tanzania have an opportunity, out of the tragedy that has occurred to demand real change. There are lots of examples of how this can be done- just look at Mexico City or Curitiba. Let us look to the future and enable the lives of those people who were victims of this terrible tragedy be positivity remembered as the agents of change.

Mambokadzi September 11, 2011 at 8:26 am

Our hearts & thoughts are with nation of Zanzibar. Natoka Zimbabwe but have a lot of family there. I pray for peace & comfort for all. Thanks for this fantastic, well written article

Iffa Nassor September 11, 2011 at 10:07 am

As everyone I would like to thank you for writting this blog ,pls let us know about the fundraising when you have a moment being a zanzibari ,I’m very sadden to hear about this horrible news ,my ALLAH save them ,ameen.
we are far from home but we can come together and help our people of zanzibar
best regard’s
iffa nassor

Courtney September 11, 2011 at 10:08 am

In our baffled, emotional states, it is great to find someone that is able to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Very well written, I’m passing it on to friends and family.

Jaki September 11, 2011 at 10:10 am

‘We are going in the same way…’
No, not everybody will go in the same way. Some have the privledge of peace when they fall asleep. They close their eyes with dignity; they greet their God with the eyes of one having woken from a deep, liberating rest. That is not idealism, that should be our struggle in this life. We cannot erase mortality from ourselves, but doesn’t what we do here & now with this mortality define us? If you think our life in this world is so cheap, how will you value eternity? Myself, I would have first wanted to see those children get a good place here on earth. There is some deep spiritual and psychological infrastructure needing to be built before people can handle the force of material development…. infants transported with the same care as common livestock… rage at this, mothers of Africa.

Eleanor September 11, 2011 at 11:04 am

So well written Amanda about a subject i never wanted to read about. where is the rage? where are those asking questions, demanding answers? someone said to me yesterday “but this is life”. No i replied angrily, this is not what life is about… this is negligence, this is corruption and total disregard for human life. I find the response of the Zanzibaris on the one hand admirable and on the other, completely frustrating. i refuse to believe this is God’s will. When i saw the bodies of those infants, small children and many others being carried on to the beach at Nungwi, i wept. This is not life or at least not what it should be…

Suzi September 11, 2011 at 11:34 am

Thank you for your well written articulate blog at a time when so many are coming to terms with so much loss. One thing that I have not seen reported, probably because it is little known except for those who went out to rescue the survivors and help, is the fact that there were local boats out there looting the luggage out of the sea and completely ignoring the plight of those passengers still in the sea, alive and in need of help. What sort of world do we live in?

Jamal Al Ismaily September 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Thank you Amanda for the well written tragedy !

Suzanne Degeling September 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Dear Amanda,
Thank you for decribing this terrible tragedy so beautifully. It sounds like a contradiction but you have written it down exactly as it feels to me too and so many others, I am sure.
Let’s hope and keep or take an active role in making sure that rules are made and kept so that people can travel safely from one place to another. My heart goes out to all that have lost their loved ones and to all the thousands of people who are still waiting for news.

Steve T September 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm

We watched in horror as the news scrolled along the bottom of our TV screens informing us of the boat tragedy in Zanzibar. I was certain it was one of the Azam boats that I used to take so frequently when I worked in Zanibar a few years ago. This always has been a tragedy in the making. Do the port authorities in Zanibar not know what an overloaded boat looks like? I have very unpleasant memories of the Azam ferry i was on floundering helplessly on a choppy sea with a failed engine. The boats that ply between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar and Zanzibar and Pemba aren’t just plagued with the problem of overloading, but they lack maintenance, and are little more than floating death traps. The unfortunate thing about this is that little will come of this tragic accident. A fabricated report will eventually conclude that there were no more than 600 people on board; that in reality, no more than half the number of people who actually died did die and that the boat was in great shape. Apart from those in government, few will fall for these lies and they will continue receiving bribes so that more lives are endangered. I am certain the owners of the boat will have little to cry over. The boat went down not because it was overcrowded, poorly maintained and held together with rust but because “Allah wished it so”. They’ll get their hefty insurance payment and may pay the bereaved families peanuts in compensation before they go out and buy another piece of junk to ply between the islands of Unguja and Pemba. So we mourn not only for the massive loss of life in this tragic accident but also for the fact that the system is set up for a repeat of the situation.

wahida mbarawa September 12, 2011 at 2:05 am

This is very sad news, all in all this could have been prevented not to happen, people and authority concerned should be tasked accordingly, we Zanzibari are tired of all these tragedy happening , and yet no one is tasked and no action are taken, mioyo yetu imechoka mnoo!!!!, tokea kizazi mpaka leo ni mateso tuu, vifo tolkea wazazi na sasa wajukuu, mpaka lini
Guys we should all stand up for our rights

Amanda September 12, 2011 at 2:32 am

My deepest thanks & love to all of you who took the time to read my words and share with me the pain, anger, and confusion of this tragic event. We are still sorting through the pieces. For those of you who requested more information on secure donations and/or how to help the people of Zanzibar, please go here: My heart is with Zanzibar. Your thoughts, prayers, ideas, and questions all help to heal and move forward with our lives. Much love, Amanda

Tamalyn Dallal September 12, 2011 at 10:10 am

Dear Amanda,
I just read your blog about the tradgedy in Zanzibar. Thank you for the well written observations and sharing your feelings and experiences. This is such sad news indeed.
Miss you all.

Claudia Herrera September 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

What I write, I know, I should not but, I feel, that you, the common people of Zanzibar are responsible for their tragic consequences because is the ordinary people who accept bribes and makes, the common people watching that situation does nothing to change for example if the boat is overloaded and I realize that just do not use it for travel and if I realize that all the tickets are not sold because I try to sell another at a lower price. If everyday life is marked by ethics, corruption does not happen and tragedies can be avoided. Corruption is not the politicians, can be created and accepted by us, ordinary people.
I hope my comments are understood not as a cruelty in a moment of such pain. And I apologize if I’m causing more pain, but I feel I must write it. Thanks

Rugeiyamu J Kahwa September 14, 2011 at 1:47 am

Claudia, it is not as simple as that. When you are kidnapped and your kidnappers are demanding a ransom you have very little power. You have only two choices. Pay or face the consequences. You are at the mercy of your captors. That is the situation with poor ordinary Zanzibaris and Tanzanians in general. They have to move about for survival, emergencies, social/family problems, etc. and the ferry boat owners, with connivance of corrupt politicians and civil servants, take advantage of them. It was reported on the news last night that ferry fares from Zanzibar to Pemba have now been hiked by almost 25% and the tickets are being sold illicitly. It is the people who are going to attend funerals of their lost ones who are again the victims of the ferry boat owners.

sabrina September 12, 2011 at 11:37 am

To GOD we belong and to whom we return. may GOD rest their souls in peace Ameen.

sabrina September 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

To God we belong,to whom we return, may ALLAH rest their souls in peace AMEEN.

wiselar September 14, 2011 at 4:30 am

A sad day for Africa. Such negligence is common place in our society. If only rules & regulations were enforced… because you can not equate human life with 3000 shillings bribe.

Sincere apologies to the bereaved families. Comfort in these trying times.

cecil mcdonald, jr September 14, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Dearest Amanda

It pains me to read your account of such a tragic event; additionally I mourn the lost of the Amanda before, such event. And while you are still here among the living and this is indeed a blessing, the Amanda who possesses such a capacity for love and laughter has somewhat been extinguished. I am taught that this is a fact of life that through tragedy and death we come to shed our optimism, our hope for humanity, But as I read your account, I envisioned the Amanda I know leading, question and comforting everyone around her.

I thank God for the Amanda’s of the world.


beth September 16, 2011 at 10:14 am

i am deeply saddened by these events and i’m holding you and these families in my heart. thank you for sharing this detailed and moving account with all of us. stay strong sister.

Rafiki Yangu September 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

Arriving in Dar on the first Sunday after the ill fated MV Spice Islander retreated at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and still grieving over the lost of close friends, acquaintances and house helps makes me furious that the five major dailies including the said the most respectable daily in town showing a wrong picture of the sunken boat. The photo on the front page was taken from the ship that sunk in the Philippines ages ago. How dare these daily who suppose will gave us the right information mislead the people by not checking their facts or they are just concern of having a sensationalize headlines and photos to capture the readers to buy there papers.

maria grazia bocedi September 21, 2011 at 2:24 am

Cari filippo e jolene,ho letto i commenti alla trgedia di Zanzibar.concordo con Jaki

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