In the early hours of September 11th, as night turned into early morning, a ferryboat traveling to Pemba capsized and sank off the coast of Unguja killing over 200 people in the process. The boat in question, the MV Spice Islander, began its journey in Dar es Salaam where according to Reuters,
[I]t was loaded with passengers, motor vehicles, bags of food and cement and other building materials…When it reached Zanzibar, also known as Unguja, it took on more passengers and cargo for the trip to the archipelago’s smaller island of Pemba.”
By the time the Spice Islander departed Unguja port at 10pm, it was reportedly carrying 1200 passengers, almost twice it’s official capacity of 600.
Kassim Abdalah, one of 619 rescued survivors, in his harrowing account of what happened, would later tell The Guardian that he started noticing something was wrong immediately after they left the port:
‘[M]ost of us…were not comfortable with the condition of the ship…the vessel was tilting, something that worried many passengers, including me.’
But their journey continued regardless. As they started to pass the infamously treacherous waters of Nungwi Bay, things began to go horribly wrong:
“It seemed as if the ship was sinking…fear and tension gripped most passengers on board…[t]he situation worsened…after one of the ship’s engines stalled.”
The captain urged calm, assuring his passengers that he can get them to Pemba safely. Soon after, however, the second engine shut down. Water started pouring into the boat, causing panic:
“The ship had started to sink, slowly. Every passenger prayed to God for some miracle…to save our lives. There was nothing we could do except to pray,” Mr. Abdalah said. “It reached a point when almost half of the ship was covered with water…it is at this point when many children and infants died, as adults, like me, struggled to save our lives.”
Less than an hour later, the MV Spice Islander was completely underwater. It is the worst maritime tragedy to have ever hit Zanzibar.
‘Instead of mourning with the rest of Tanzania, they are playing silly music’
A lot has been said and written about the alleged negligence and regulatory and moral laxity that lead to the sinking of MV Spice Islander. But what also became clear during the hours immediately after the news broke was the media’s outright failure and/or inability, may be even unwillingness, to report on the story. In the first twelve hours of the tragedy, the press were nowhere to be seen or heard. Here is one blogger’s experience reflecting the frustration many felt at the time:
“Like many people in Tanzania, I spent much of Saturday flicking between TV channels desperate for breaking news on the tragic events taking place in Zanzibar. I struggled. All I could find was imported soap operas, music videos, discussions on sporting issues, and eventually, live broadcasts of Miss Tanzania…There is almost nothing on any Tanzanian TV channel about the tragedy.”
Radio did not fare any better. For most of Saturday, almost all national radio stations proceeded with regularly scheduled programming. It was an eerie feeling. On the one hand one was aware that something awful was happening. Yet, for the majority of the broadcast media, theirs was a posture of business as usual.