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MV Liemba – launched 100 years ago and still in service

A ship built 102 years ago in Germany is the main ferry on a big African lake today. The MV Liemba has a fascinating history.

Kigoma is a small port town in Tanzania, East Africa. More than 1,000 km away from the ocean, it lies on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, the longest fresh-water lake in the world.
Every two weeks on Wednesday afternoon, a ferry is loaded on the wharf for a 500 km trip. The MV Liemba will sail along the Eastern Shore of Lake Tanganyika to the Zambian town of Mpulungu.
It is a combined freight and passenger ferry that transports everything needed by the communities along the route: Food, machinery, building material and of course people.
200 tons of cargo are loaded one bag or crate at a time into the ships hold, before it is covered. Then the deck fills up with more cargo and up to 600 passengers until no one can move around anymore.
There is a different approach to safety regulations or efficient freight handling here.
Once packed to the limit, the MV Liemba starts her three day journey.
Stops are frequent and since most of the villages along the route do not have ports, those stops have even less resemblance to western standards.

Once the Liemba comes into sight, a flotilla of small boats makes its way to the ferry. Everything from dug out canoes to 10 meter long open boats (sometimes with a outboard engine) is used.
Loading and unloading offshore can last for hours before supplies and passengers go back ashore and local products like dried fish is brought on board.

Local boats on the shore of Lake Tanganyika (By JBenoit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
For most of the villages along the route, the MV Liemba is the only link to the outside world.
Road connections are poor, if existing. Even Kigoma, as the center of Western Tanzania, only has dirt road connections. It is the only rail-head on Lake Tanganyika though.

A ship for Lake Tanganyika

The idea for a ferry on the lake dates back to the early 20th century. The Eastern Shore of Lake Tanganyika was part of the German colony of East Africa back then.

A railway line from Dar es Salaam on the East Coast to Lake Tanganyika was under construction since 1905 and a connecting ferry on the lake was proposed.
Construction of the ship that became the MV Liemba started in 1913 at the German shipbuilder Meyer. (Who is among the leading builders of cruise ships today.)

Following preliminary assembly, the ship was broken up, loaded into crates and shipped to Hamburg by railway.

The 5,000 crates of ship components were brought to Dar es Salaam on three steamers and were then loaded on the newly finished Central Line railway for another 1,200 km journey to Kigoma.

The final assembly was done at Kigoma in 1914 by German engineers, Indian railway workers and local people.
It was launched on 5. Feb. 2015 under the name of Goetzen in honor of the colony’s former governor.
By that time the First World War was well underway and had already reached Africa. The Goetzen would not be used to improve local transportation for some time.

First World War

The German colony of East Africa was surrounded by colonies of its enemies: British to the north and south as well as Belgians to the west. British control over the Indian Ocean also was soon established leaving the colony isolated.
Guns from two scuttled German warships were brought to Lake Tanganyika, where the Goetzen was transformed into an armed steamer.
Together with two small armed vessels, the German ship had control over the Lake for most of 1915. In 1916 however, the Belgians had established an airbase on the Western Shore and the Goetzen was threatened by raids.
The land war in East Africa also did not go well for the Germans and their commander decided to scuttle the Goetzen. It was carefully sunk on 26 July 1916 ending its brief first career as a warship on the lake.


The MV Liemba (By RocheDirac (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The MV Liemba

It took until 1927 before the ship was back in service. It was then given the name Liemba.
For almost 90 years now, the MV Liemba does what it was designed for: Transporting people and goods along the shore of Lake Tanganyika to help the local communities.

It also participated in a UN mission to transport 75,000 refugees from Zaire in 1997 as part of the relief effort for the First Congo War.

The Liemba received several upgrades over the years: The original steam engines were replaced by diesel engines, a deck crane was added and the passenger capacity increased. It has however not received a general overhaul.

During the last couple of years, ideas to either replace or renovate the Liemba are under way. However, until a solution is found, it will continue to work as a ferry on Lake Tanganyika.

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