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Lake Tanganyika: Tanzania’s Masterpiece

Kigoma and the lake – A lake calms me down, and calm is what I need today. Yesterday, my girlfriend Alice Inggs and I drove 440km: from close to the Rusumo border post between Rwanda and Tanzania, to Jakobsen Beach and Guesthouse just outside Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The drive took all day, mostly along decent gravel roads with a short stretch of tar leading into busy Kigoma. It was a nervous drive, even if I tried to hide it. This western part of Tanzania is off the major tourist routes.

In September 2016, we left Cape Town in a Toyota Fortuner and drove to Tanzania via Zambia. We went to Dar es Salaam first, then explored the parks in the north of the country before entering Rwanda in early November. Rwanda is where we turned around, heading back south, with a few scheduled stops along the way. I had heard that there was a time, not too long ago, when tourists had to be escorted in armoured convoys through this part of Tanzania. The region had become unstable after refugees had fled from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.


The situation had improved by the time we arrived, although I still saw a big refugee camp from the road. We didn’t stop often, just to fill the Fortuner with diesel and ourselves with cold Coke and slap chips. When you drive a nervy stretch of road, a prayer or two is always close at hand. All day I kept my fingers crossed. No flat tyres, please. Fuel when needed. May the summer rain stay away so the road remains dry. And – most importantly – may the destination typed into the GPS actually exist. Jakobsen Beach exists, and now we’re here. Ten seconds after taking a dip in the clear water of Lake Tanganyika, Alice and I decide to stay for two nights, not just one as originally planned.

I mean, it’s paradise! It even looks like paradise: calm, warm water perfect for swimming; a palm tree; a fisherman fixing his net; big boulders like the ones you see in pictures of Llandudno… I’m glad I’m here with Alice. She’s a good co-pilot. She reads to me when the road gets long. She passes me snacks. She makes me laugh so I stay awake when the afternoon sun hits me in the face. But most of all I like her being here because, like me, she marvels at the world. Marvelling at the world is what Lake Tanganyika makes you do. It stops you in your tracks. You want to pick up each moment like a pebble and slip it into your pocket.

Ujiji and the old man – By 1914, the Germans had built a railway line between the coast and the lake – Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, a distance of 1250 km. The railway is still operational today and delivers you right to the harbour. From there, you can board a variety of watercraft to take you north to Burundi, west to the Congo or south to Zambia. Before the railway, however, the centre of strategic importance was the town of Ujiji, about 6 km south of Kigoma. Ujiji was a hub in the era of ivory and slaves, when Arab trade routes infiltrated some of the most remote places in Africa.

Ujiji Beach
Ujiji Beach

Scottish-born missionary and explorer David Livingstone was one of the major anti-slavery campaigners of his time. In November 1871, no one really knew where Livingstone was. The New York Herald sent Henry Morton Stanley to Africa to “find” him, and on 10 November 1871 he found Livingstone at Ujiji, sitting under a mango tree.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” said Stanley. (Although whether Stanley actually said these famous words is in doubt; Livingstone couldn’t remember him saying it. You know, journalists…) Now Alice and I are standing in front of the closed gate of the Livingstone Museum in Ujiji. On the other side of the fence, a herd of cattle are grazing with horns bigger than most elephants’ tusks. A security guard opens up and we meet the museum guide, an old man called Kassim Govola Mbingo. “Aha,” Mr Mbingo exclaims when he hears we’re from South Africa. “You must know my friend Kingsley Holgate?”

He met Holgate years ago, during one of the bearded explorer’s African journeys. We stroll to the memorial near two mango trees. The original mango tree is long gone, but these two were grown from its cuttings. We sit down on a bench while Mr Mbingo talks us through Livingstone’s many travels. I’ve been to several notable Livingstone sites in Africa: a tree in the Northern Cape where he preached once; the ruins of his first mission church in Bechuanaland; the lonely place where he died in Zambia; and now here. A block-mounted poster inside the museum is captioned: “Dr Livingstone sitting under the mango tree thinking about slavery at Ujiji.” I do the same. So much of our continent’s hardships have their roots in the savagery of the slave trade. It’s humbling to think that 146 years ago, almost to the day, another man sat right here thinking about how to stop the madness.

Ujiji is sleepier than Kigoma. In the old part of town, hints of Arab architecture prevail in the low, weather-beaten houses. Along one street women sit embroidering bedspreads and other things. We stop to buy one such bedspread, fabric the colour of blue vitriol, with an embroidered peacock fanned out in black, white, red and yellow. It’s a unique keepsake, and I know it will transport me back to Ujiji every time I unfurl it back home. Down at the lakeshore, fishing boats are dragged out onto the narrow beach. Boat builders are hard at work with hammers, chisels and saws; wood chips fly from the stern or bow of the vessel they’re building. Huge baskets woven from grass and filled with ripe tomatoes stand ready to be carried to a boat moored offshore. A few crates of Kilimanjaro beer too, and some boxes of London Dry Gin.

Lake Tanganyika
Lake Tanganyika

We buy a short wooden paddle from a fisherman – a gift for Alice’s mom back in Cape Town – and some boat builders invite us to join them for lunch. We sit in the shade of a half-built boat, rolling balls of pap between our fingers and dipping them into little bowls filled with fish and chicken gravy. One of the bigger boats nearby says “Kwa Neema Ya Mungu” on its side – a Kiswahili phrase that means “By the grace of God”. Lake Tanganyika’s best-known ship is much bigger than any of these boats. The MV Liemba was built in Germany in 1913 and originally named the SMS Goetzen. After it had been built, it was dismantled and shipped to Dar es Salaam in thousands of crates. The railway to Kigoma had barely been finished when these crates made their way to the lake, where the 71-metre-long ship was reassembled. Although it was destined to be a passenger and cargo ship, it was almost immediately called into military action at the outbreak of World War I, to give Germany dominance over Lake Tanganyika.

By 1916, however, the tide of war had turned against the Germans and they decided to scuttle the Goetzen – carefully, with plans to salvage the ship later. But they lost the war – and their East African colony – and it was British engineers who eventually salvaged the ship in 1924. Despite having been underwater for nearly a decade, the ship was still in remarkably good shape. It was repaired, refitted and by 1927, resumed service as the MV Liemba. During our visit, the Liemba was in the Kigoma harbour for repairs. Someone told us a group of tourists had rented it for a day trip, just to say that they had been aboard.

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