Kenya: Homa Bay Boat Operators, Travellers Keen on Safety After Lake Tragedy

At the Homa Bay town pier, the September 21 boat tragedy that claimed 10 lives is still fresh in the minds of traders and others on the shores of Lake Victoria who depend on boats to travel.

Dozens of women at the local fish market who use water vessels daily to travel from villages in Mbita Sub-County to Homa Bay town to trade continue with their usual activities.

One of them is Ms Helen Adhiambo, a frequent boat passenger between Ndhuru and Homa Bay.

The lucky woman, who survived the accident by holding on to a floating piece of wood, has not given up on her business and still relies on risky vessels, though she is still traumatised after losing a close friend in the accident.

When the Nation caught up with her at the market, she had just alighted from a boats with her catch.

In the past, Ms Adhiambo was not keen to wear a life jacket, always rushing to get to the market as quickly as possible to sell fish. So she would board a boat without bothering about her safety.

Not without life jacket

But today, she won’t board a boat without a life jacket.

“Once bitten, twice shy. I will not risk being in a boat where safety is violated. I would rather fail to get to the market than risk my life,” she says.

Ms Adhiambo says she will always check on other safety issues like the number of passengers on a boat before setting off on a journey.

A few things have changed in Lake Victoria since the September 21 tragedy.

On the day the boat capsized, no one on the vessel was wearing lifesaving gear. The life jackets were stashed in a sack at the back of the vessel. Nobody bothered about them.

Passengers only realised the mistake they had made when it was too late, after the boat started drawing in water, with the jackets floating away.

Today, a section of the lake is dotted with orange life jackets as passengers are now keen to stay safe while travelling on the water.

Most of the jackets are brand-new. Some are old and ragged, reeking of a bad odour, a factor that has greatly contributed to passengers shunning them.

Unlike before, all passenger boats now have the jackets placed on each seat and all are required to wear them, whether old or new.


The tragic incident was an eye-opener for all stakeholders in the lake transport business – they need to invest in safety.

Agencies maintaining law and order on the lake swung into action after the accident to enforce safety measures.

To avoid similar tragedies in the future, the government requires all people using boats on Lake Victoria to have life jackets and vessel operators to acquire formal skills to operate a boat.

Kilometres away from the Homa Bay town pier at the Mbita town beach, however, things are a little bit different.

The beach is a fish landing site and also a gateway to several places like Mfangano, Remba, Takawiri, Kiwa and Ngodhe islands.

Supplies like milk, bread and even construction materials are loaded onto water vessels before being ferried across the lake.

Boats to and from Uganda also dock at the beach, making it one of the busiest on the lake, with hundreds of passengers and tonnes of goods in transit every day.

Operators here, however, seem to have relaxed safety requirements despite being at high risk, because of the long distance they cover to their destinations. It means rescue efforts could be a nightmare if an accident happens.

Household items

The Nation team saw boats carrying household items like furniture, fridges and other goods with a few passengers on them, yet new government regulations require boats to be designed to carry either goods only or passengers.

Another major defiance is evident in the lack of passenger manifests.

After the accident in Homa Bay town, vessel operators were instructed to get personal information from passengers before the journey begins.

This is to enable the government to account for all occupants of a vessel when an accident occurs.

Homa Bay County Commissioner Moses Lilan said the government will continue with the crackdown on unseaworthy vessels.

Back at the Homa Bay town pier, another frequent boat passenger, Ms Pamela Adoyo from Soklo village, decided to take personal initiative to protect herself when travelling on the lake. She bought her own life jacket, which she puts on before boarding a boat.

“My idea is very good because some of the boats do not have enough jackets. Besides, sharing jackets can spread skin diseases,” she says.

A few other women are also doing the same and all have their names branded on their jackets just to avoid confusion.

Jackets in short supply

Like two different worlds, the less privileged, however, continue to be at the mercy of boat operators, who are now under pressure to have more life jackets, which are in short supply.

Most wooden boats have no formula for determining the capacity of their vessels.

Operators have now implemented a new system where the number of passengers boarding should correspond to the number of available life jackets.

Mr Martin Ouma, who operates a boat at the pier, says his vessel was designed for 35 passengers.

Today, however, he carries fewer passengers depending on the availability of life jackets.

During our interview with him, he docked at the pier with 28 passengers and some luggage.

“Today was a lucky day for me. My passengers share these jackets with other people who do business on the lake,” Mr Ouma says.

Borrow from fishermen

Every morning, the coxswain and his colleagues must borrow life jackets from fishermen who spend nights on the water.

“The jackets must be given back to the fishermen later in the evening when we are done with duties on the lake. The fishermen give the jackets on a first-come-first-served basis,” Mr Ouma says.

Passengers are shying away from boarding boats because no one has acquired these tools.

Mr Ouma says his income has reduced from Sh2,000 per day to below Sh1,000.

“Some of the people we depend on are now using motorcycles to travel to the market. They say it is safer for them to use the road,” he says.

Government rules have forced vessel operators to work twice as hard in order to maintain their daily income.

Another requirement by the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) is for a motorised boat to have a fire extinguisher and first aid kit.

While more attention is put on life jackets, there are other areas of concern that operators are keen on.

At the pier, all operators who spoke to the Nation said they are not trained to operate vessels as required.

KMA requires all vessel operators to be certified. But the six-week course is too expensive for most people, with students paying an average of Sh70,000 in tuition fees.

Mr Ouma says he is considering going for the training but only if he gets sponsorship.

Appeal to state

Beach Management Unit (BMU) officials in Mbita say there are several areas where the government should help boat operators.

Mr Bernard Otieno, a committee member at the beach, blamed the government for responding to issues on the lake only when an accident happens.

He asked MPs whose constituencies border the lake to sponsor coxswains to acquire maritime training.

“BMU officials have a responsibility to safeguard passengers on the lake. But we can’t do this without the help of the government,” Mr Otieno says.

Suba North MP Millie Odhiambo called on the government to hasten the establishment of a search and rescue centre near Lake Victoria to help fishermen and other water vessel users address emergency issues.

This followed the deaths of three fishermen, who drowned at the Mbita causeway bridge on Sunday morning.

The men died after their boat was overpowered by wind and massive waves at 1am.

The rescue centre to be established by KMA on the shores of Lake Victoria should have water ambulances and trained emergency personnel who can save lives when a boat capsizes.

After the recent accident, fishermen rowing boats were the first at the scene and saved two men.

“If we had a centre, maybe more people would have been saved,” Ms Odhiambo reasoned, further calling on agencies responsible for maintaining order on the lake, such as KMA and Kenya Coast Guard Services, to cooperate with locals during emergencies.

Mbita Causeway dredging

There are fears that more accidents could happen, with boats capsizing due to the ongoing dredging of the Mbita Causeway bridge to allow large water vessels to pass with ease.

While it is good economically, fishermen and transport vessels must be extra careful as the work is making that part of the lake deeper.

Ms Odhiambo said there are issues on Lake Victoria that fisher folk grasp that outsiders may find hard to understand.

The MP said the Suba North NG-CDF will deploy two patrol boats to the beaches around the lake in Homa Bay to help in emergencies.


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Author : Nation

Publish date : 2021-10-14 09:42:44

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