ON Lake Tanganyika, a century-old relic of World War I that became the stuff of Hollywood legend still plies the slate-grey waters—but it is not clear for how much longer.
Once a feared gunship defending the African lake for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the legendary vessel—which inspired the 1951 classic “The African Queen”—has been sunk and refloated twice, renamed and repurposed as a ferry.
As it marks 100 years of service, the MV Liemba, originally a symbol of colonial power, is now an essential lifeline for the people who live along the lakeshore.
“Liemba is the only safe means of transport along the lake,” said Mathew Mathia Mwanjisi, the ship’s captain.
“Historically it’s very important to Tanzania as a country, but again it’s very important for the people along the coast of Lake Tanganyika.”
The tale of the warship and the battle for lake Tanganyika inspired British novelist C.S. Forester to write his 1935 novel “The African Queen”, later adapted by Hollywood in the movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Piled high with pineapples, maize and rice—as well as up to 600 passengers—the MV Liemba navigates the world’s longest lake every two weeks, from Kigoma, Tanzania, in the north to Mpulungu, Zambia, in the south.
The journey of some 600 kilometres (350 miles) is meant to take some three days, but is often longer as the ship hops from village to village, transforming into a lively aquatic carnival at each stop.
Children in leaky canoes paddle alongside to sell fresh mangos.
Farmers and fishermen haggle over prices. Launches laden with revellers come to welcome newlyweds home.
‘History of the country’
Lai Bakari Kiunguti is a ship-bound trader with a makeshift stall below deck to serve the ship’s passengers. Like many others, her livelihood depends on the boat, and as the MV Liemba ages she worries for the future.
“When the Liemba stops travelling I will stay at home. That would make me poor because it means I wouldn’t work,” she said.
The MV Liemba requires constant maintenance, and may not stay afloat much longer without a complete overhaul.
Tanzania asked the German government for help repairing or replacing the vessel in 2011 and KfW, a German government-owned development bank, is assessing whether rehabilitation might be possible.
But it may be cheaper to simply replace the MV Liemba with a new ferry, ending a century of fascinating history.
“It is carrying the history of the country,” said Bertram Mapunda, a professor of history at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salaam.
Mapunda said the ship should be celebrated, and preserved, just as German colonial-era buildings and railway lines are throughout the country.
The MV Liemba began its life in a shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, in 1913 where it was named the Graf von Götzen after German East Africa’s former governor.
Before setting sail, the steamer was taken apart, packed into 5,000 numbered crates, and shipped to Dar es Salaam.
Scuttled, sunk, afloat
Then it was taken by railway and porter to the shore of Lake Tanganyika where it was reassembled in 1915, armed with cannon, and put to work defending the waters against Belgian and British soldiers.
Measuring 70 meters (230 feet) long and weighing 1,200 tonnes the Graf von Götzen dominated the lake for nearly a year, dwarfing all other ships.
But when the outnumbered German land forces retreated the warship was filled with cement and scuttled.
The Belgians salvaged the Graf von Götzen, towing her to Kigoma harbour after the war but she sank again during a storm.
In 1921, Winston Churchill ordered the ship raised once more. Despite the years submerged the Graf von Gotzen was still useable because the German crew, hoping to see the ship sail again, had coated the engines in thick protective grease before sinking her.
Rechristened the MV Liemba, after the local name for the lake, it was put into service as a cargo and passenger ferry in 1927.
The original steam engines continued to operate until the mid-1970s when they were replaced with diesel.
Subsequent books, such as Giles Foden’s “Mimi and Toutou Go Forth”, have also explored the ship’s history and its role in the Great War’s East African Campaign.
The MV Liemba has also seen the effects of more recent conflicts in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 1997, she was used by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to carry more than 75,000 refugees returning home to DR Congo after fleeing war.
Today captain Mwanjisi and his crew say they are proud to work aboard this storied vessel and of the vital service the MV Liemba provides as the unlikely lifeblood of the lake’s economy and society.