In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle

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A positive Legacy from the Colonial period in Tanzania?

A positive Legacy from the Colonial period in Tanzania?


All aboard the MV Liemba… (literally)


In 1915, the German war effort temporarily came to Tanzania and a ‘battleship’ (built in 1913) was transported overland to help the ‘fatherland’ maintain control of its East African colony. 100 years later, we found ourselves at the pictureseque lakeside port of Kigoma, competing with a plethora of local traders to load ourselves and our bicycles onto the same ship. This eccentric relic from the colonial era kept us entertained for 48 hours and saved us 10 likely gruelling days of cycling the only (dirt) road to Zambia. More importantly, it plays a vital role in the local economy….

Boarding the Ship   BMW

Boarding the MV Liemba and discovering a BMW once it had been unloaded 2 days later! 


This is my second visit to Tanzania having cycling nearly 2000km from South to North along the East coast back in 2011. There I was competing for road space with trucks taking minerals from the Copperbelt of Zambia/DRC to the busy port of Dar-es-Saleem. This year, we entered from Rwanda and headed  South West to the more remote and relative economic backwater that is the Kigoma region. Compared to the clean street and relative organization of Rwanda, Tanzania is dirty and chaotic and we arrived in the main town covered in dust and ready for a few days of R&R before taking the ferry. Unusually, it was running to schedule! Like any good transport operation, there was clear price discrimination in action. We paid $105 each for a ‘1st class’ cabin  with 3rd class fares dropping down to less than $15 for locals.  The ‘Mzungu’ price for third class (where you MIGHT get a seat and some shelter if you are lucky, otherwise you will be sitting on the deck) is still $50!

It was sunk in 1917 as Germany withdrew fro the region and then brought back up by the British seven years later as the colony (renamed Tanganyika)  had been transferred to British rule after the war. It has been used as a passenger ship ever since. With independence  in 1961 the British gave the ship to the Tanzanian government.

Picture of region (from Map, including route?)

As I mentioned in my last blog, we were lucky to meet Alex & Beatrice who run a small agricultural NGO, helping farmers boost their palm oil production. Previously agnostic of its importance in the global food supply chain, we learnt that it is the most valuable (legal) crop globally when measured in dollars per hectare. When farmed commercially, it can yield c $5000 per hectare, which is around 5 times the most productive corn harvest in the US, for example. By introducing seedlings of a hybrid variety, Seed Change are helping local farmers boost  their yield (and thus their income) more than 10 fold with obvious medium and long term positive multiplier effects for the local economy. On a macro-level, Tanzania is a net-importer of palm oil but doesn’t need to be. ‘Baby steps’, Alex cautioned with a wry smile when I asked if he thought this deficit would become a surplus. As we hustled and bustled our way onto the ship, it was no surprise to find hundreds of containers of this valuable commodity being loaded on too.

tending seddlings Beatrice with Palm Trader 1

The early supply chain of palm oil from seeling to fruit to oil on board the MV Liemba with Hurama being taken to market.


I meet with two traders who depend on the Liemba for their livelihoods. Huruma & Armani are taking palm oil and bananas down the coast and plan to return with dried fish. They tell me they buy 25L containers at  Tsh 5000/L (around £2) and will sell it on for around 15,000, making a tidy profit, even with the transport cost and tax they have to pay the ship and TPA (Tanzanian port authority). What about the fish on the return journey?, I ask. ‘Depends on the price’…, Armani smiles, ‘If the price is high, I buy for 5000 per kg and sell for 17,000’. Also travelling with us on the boat, as we discovered on the second morning that buried underneath much of the other cargo was a BMW 3 series -  we are not sure where it was heading!

  Trader 3    Trader 2

Armani and colleague keeping watch of their cargo


The ship stops at more than 15 villages/towns en route to Zambia, providing a vital lifeline to the remote lakeside communities. As it only sails twice a month, it is no surprise to witness the aggression that the local boats compete for the cargo and passengers being taken off the boat, day and night. Like moths to a flame (better analogy), they sprinted for the Liemba as the captain sounded his horn sounded to warn the locals of its arrival. 

dayloading  nightloading

 Trade with local boats happened day and night! 


From the bridge, we discussed the history of the ship with Captain Titus and his ‘marketing director’ Joe both with impressive English and visions. 

‘Is it full?’, we asked. His laughter told us the answer. ‘This ship can take 600 people and 200 tonnes of Cargo’. Titus beamed proudly.  ‘There’s maybe 50 tonnes and 250 people today’, Joe interjected helpfully.

joemanager captain

Joe & helmsman 


Getting on board was chaotic enough and the bodies sleeping on every inch of deck space made us wonder what it would be like full, or indeed what the EU health and safety directive would say about this!  Also slightly disconcerting to Claire were the number of women and children camped out in the  ‘1st Class bathroom’ taking advantage of having a sink with running water to wash themselves and seemingly all their clothes.

The ship also provides employment for some 40 local crew. Alfred, who served us dinner, told me he’d worked for AKO catering, the company used for the remarkably good food, for the last 8 years. He makes Tsh 25,000 per month (less than £100) but seemed happy enough - less than 15% of the population have a formal job after all. 

IMG 7507 freshfish2

Alfred and some of the fresh food being prepared. P&O take note.


The ship recently supported the humanitarian effort during the recent Burundi refugee crisis. when it was ‘commandeered’ by the UNHCR and paid around $25 per refugee taken from Burundi to Kigoma. This is certainly a worthy use of the vessel but being out of action for around four weeks had a big knock on effect on the coastal villages. ‘They found it much harder to trade during those weeks.’  said Joe  'They had to rely on their little wooden boats, most without motors, and  maybe just go to the next village. They are very pleased the Liemba is back in service!’.  We met a Burundian in Kigoma (easy to spot as the only man who spoke to us in French!) who seemed happy to be in Tanzania but hopeful of a better future for Burundi. We were meant to cycle through this tiny country one of  the  poorest in the world but were advised not to given the issues there circling around the election (Claire’s blog on Rwanda talks a little more about this). We don’t think there has been much reporting on Burundi in the UK probably given the column inches that have been devoted to the European migrant crisis which we also saw also reported from a different angle in a local rag in Tanzania (below).



We docked in Mpulungu on the Southern shore of the world’s longest and most voluminous freshwater lake and thanked the crew for an unforgettable 48 hours. An interesting microcosm of Europe’s colonial footprint in Africa? One positive legacy is certainly the infrastructure, neglected from independence until last 10 years where Chinese have been dominating this sector, as we’ll discuss in the next blog….

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