Dominion of New York


September 12, 2011

Dangerous Ferry Rides in Zanzibar

More articles by »
Written by: Kelly Virella

Jambiani, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Children play on Jambiani Beach in Zanzibar, May 2011 Photo by Kelly Virella


ne of my biggest complaints about vacationing in Tanzania in May was the exorbitant cost of everything. Because tourism operators on the island of Zanzibar frequently and openly charge Westerners more for transportation, hotels, etc., my husband and I often found ourselves paying American prices for things. Our 45-mile ferry ride between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar cost $35 each way, while the locals paid a few dollars. I hated my attitude then, my sense that I was entitled to a low cost vacation, even as I feared that my money was lining the pockets of wealthy ex-pats. And now that at least 200 people have died on one of the very ferries I was complaining about — because the owners were trying to squeeze as much profit as possible out of the riders, mostly impoverished locals — I feel even worse.

An overcrowded ferry carrying about 800 passengers — between two islands of the Zanzibar archipelago, Unguga and Pemba — capsized Saturday in the predawn hours and deep waters of the Indian ocean. 619 survived, but 192 dead bodies had been identified by Sunday morning and 28 more awaited identification, according to The National. Rescue workers admitted it was unlikely they would find more survivors among the bodies they expected to recover, The National reported.

Most Tanzanians don’t really have a choice to travel more safely, because there safe travel is a luxury.

The ferry departed from Unguga late Friday night, loaded with passengers, motor vehicles, bags of food and cement and other building materials, The National reported. When it entered the open ocean between the islands, where a deep and strong current runs, it began to rock from side to side, Catholic Online reported. As the rocking increased, people began to panic and scream. Minutes later, at about 1 am local time, waves came over the side, flooding and killing the engine, and capsizing the ferry, Catholic Online reported.

Most of the victims, including many children, managed to survive because they were able to cling to flotsam, Catholic Online reported. Some floated in the ocean for several hours. (See photos of the catastrophe’s aftermath.)

Zanzibar is a mostly rural archipelago of 1 million people — almost entirely Muslim blacks — in Tanzania, a country where people live off less than $2 per day. Thatch-roofed mud huts, in which windows and doors are an afterthought, line the roads in rural areas. At the end of May, when we landed in the mainland city of Dar Es Salaam — the capital of Tanzania — frazzled by life and responsibilities in New York City, we headed directly to Zanzibar, seeking rest, relaxation and romance on its white-sand, turquoise-water beaches.

We arrived at the loading dock wearing the conservative attire prescribed by the guidebooks — lightweight long sleeve shirts and long pants — and bearing virtually no luggage, only carry-ons bags. Around us in the open-air waiting area, hundreds of women and girls in hijab and the occasional burka and scores of men queued up, waiting to board the small ferry. Many families were carrying multiple sacks of grains and multiple large suitcases. Others carried durable goods like giant cathode ray TVs. Pushing and shoving our way into the ferry, we climbed to the roof to enjoy the open air and view, taking two of the last seats. But when the seats were gone, people and cargo kept coming to the roof, sitting on the floor and on the stairs leading to the first floor of the ferry, until virtually all floor space was covered.

A beautiful woman in a kelly green Muslim dress, her waist girded by a rhinestone belt, sat comfortably on the floor — amidst a brood of children — applying eye-makeup, relaxed as if the crowding was routine. When I got up to go the bathroom downstairs, I hopscotched over a child here and a woman there, excusing myself and asking for permission to pass, uprooting people in the path. On the way back I repeated the process, completely oblivious to the danger we were all in.

Our ferry didn’t sink of course. But it happens much more than it should in Tanzania, where transportation infrastructure is limited and nearly all forms of public transit are overcrowded. A ferry sank in Zanzibar in 2006, claiming hundreds of lives, The Telegraph reports. In 1996, another sank on Lake Victoria, killing 615 people. Some locals put up with the overcrowding because they don’t realize its dangerous. As New Yorkers, we suffer the inconvenience of it everyday on the subway. But most Tanzanians don’t really have a choice to travel more safely, because there safety is a luxury.In the hours after Saturday’s sinking, the government strongly discouraged journalists from reporting the event and tried to restrict information about the accident.

Safety inspections could easily prevent these tragedies. So could conscientious operators, and improvements to the transportation infrastructure. Cancellation of the country’s foreign debts and better trade agreements would certainly help. But I can’t overlook the role of Zanzabari tourists in paying our fair share for the infrastructure we wish to use.

During our one-week stay in Zanzibar, and throughout our entire 3-week Tanzania-Kenya vacation, I felt highly ambivalent about my interactions with local economies. I was always scrutinizing whether I was putting money into the hands of black Africans or into the hands of East Africa’s wealthy Indian and European capitalist ex-pat class. In urban areas, hustlers swarmed us trying to swindle cab fares and other fees from us.

In such a climate, it was really hard to know what economic justice was and how to spend my tourist dollar in a manner consistent with my political views. But it seems pretty obvious that, in the hands of scrupulous operators, the subsidies we paid could be used to literally keep ferries afloat and save lives.

About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah