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Wednesday November 19, 2003




The restless ghosts of Mtongwe


Early on the morning of April 27, 1994, 400 people boarded a ferry that was to carry them from Mtongwe in Likoni on the south coast, to the Mombasa mainland.

Mv Mtongwe was designed to carry a maximum of 300 people, but it had often crossed the Mtongwe channel safely with many more on board. The vessel was crammed tight with people, each eager to get to the other side as soon as possible to get to work, to school, to business. 

Coxwain Mwinyi Ramadhan Mwakinyezi steered the ferry towards the mainland. But barely 40 metres from the Mtongwe shoreline, tragedy struck, and the ferry capsized. 

Of those on board, 270 people died in the Mtongwe ferry disaster. One of these was Isaac Ringoma Nyange.

"This day will forever remain in my mind as it robbed me of an important person in my life," says Nyange's widow, Gidnorah Mrunde Nyange.

Nine years after she lost her husband, who was 40, in the Kenya's worst maritime disaster, Mrunde is still waiting for the government to compensate her for his death. 

But she is just one of the 280 relatives of those who died when the overloaded mv Mtongwe ferry capsized on April 27, 1994, killing 270 people awaiting compensation from the government.

Life has not been easy for Mrunde, a Mombasa municipal council empoyee, since Nyange's demise. "When he died, I became the sole breadwinner," she says. 

Still, she has not lost hope.

It is taking too long to get the compensation. But I have not despaired and I am optimistic that something good happen in the future, says the mother of three. 

Claimants had been hoping that the compensation would be between Sh1 million and Sh2 million, but this appears highly unlikely, since the government is unwilling to pay anything within this range, even after five years of intense negotiations. 

It is high time the government brought this issue of compensation to an end. We cannot wait indefinitely, complains Mwinyihaji Kastomo, 60, who lost his son, Said Marembera. 

Some of the relatives have despaired, while others have rejected anything less than Sh1 million.

Any offer less than Sh1 million will not be acceptable to us. When making the payments, the government should consider the period we have waited, argued Sammy Wameo Ombeja, 26. He lost his mother, who was a casual worker in Shimanzi.

The relatives have a suit pending in the High Court. They want the Kenya Ports Authority and the Kenya Ferry Services (KFS) to pay them more than Sh300 million as compensation.

Following the tragedy, then president Daniel arap Moi appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the accident. After listening to testimony for several months, the commission, chaired by now suspended High Court judge Mr Justice Mbogholi Msagha, presented a report that did not apportion blame for the accident. This prompted the bereaved families to file suit in court in November 1994. 

But their legal path has not been smooth. Their initial attempt to have the Kenya Ports Authority enjoined in the suit was resisted by the parastatal's lawyers, and it was not until March 28, 1996, that Justice Philip Waki ruled that KPA, which then had a role in the management of the ill-fated ferry, be enjoined in the suit.

After this development, KPA and KFS were quick to accept liability. In August last year, an agreement was reached on liability for the accident: the deceased were 30 per cent liable as they boarded the vessel knowing that it was overloaded, while KPA and KFS accepted 70 per cent liability.

Lawyer Sammy Anyanzwa says it has been difficult to convince KPA and KFS to accept a proposal that each family be paid between Sh197,120 and Sh263,590.

There have been discussions on the amount to be paid out but the government seems reluctant to accept the offer, Anyanzwa says.

A lower figure has been proposed, based on the argument that many of the victims were casual labourers with unknown incomes. But KPA and KFS have refused it, arguing that it is still too high. 

"Though the accident was regrettable, it was an eye opener for KFS. Since the tragedy, service has become very safety conscious," says John Ria, its public relations and marketing manager. 

Stringent measures were introduced in January, 1995, to ensure passenger safety. 

Counting and controlling devices were installed to restrict the number of passengers boarding the ferries.

At Mtongwe, the KFS has fitted turnstiles and hand-held counters, while at Likoni it has installed passenger paddocks, which allow in only the licensed number of peoples. These are further boosted by private guards, National Youth Service personnel and police officers to ensure that loading procedures are adhered to. Strict segregation of vehicles and passengers is also enforced.

Safety measures have been heightened as passengers' safety is a priority to KFS, Ria says.

As a further precaution, each vessel now has safety and life saving gadgets, including rafts, life buoys and fire fighting equipment. KFS has also put in place a safety policy that is audited routinely to ensure that the security standards in the vessels are maintained. In addition, it has a disaster management team that meets regularly to assess safety procedures and guidelines that have been established for all the vessels that ply the Likoni channel. 

The KFS-operated vessels that currently ply the Mtongwe channel are mv Nyayo, mv Kilindini, mv Harambee, mv Pwani and mv Mvita. They are registered with Lloyd's and are inspected regularly to ensure that they are sea-worthy.

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