“If the Liemba could talk, she would tell a long story.” — Joseph Mbwiliza, Tanzania
Deep in what was once considered the darkest heart of Africa, on one of the world’s largest and most pristine lakes, the MV Liemba doggedly perseveres, ferrying passengers and cargo up and down the remote eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. For nearly a century, the ship has served as the primary means of travel, and a critical avenue of commerce, for soldiers, traders, missionaries and migrants on Lake Tanganyika – the geographical link between east, central and southern Africa. The MV Liemba has witnessed many sea- changes in Africa’s troubled history from the era of European colonialism, through African independence in the 1960s and up to today’s emerging global marketplace. This documentary uses the story of the Liemba to bring that history to life while also taking the audience on a present day journey on the oldest operational passenger ship in the world.
Originally christened the Graf von Goetzen, the ship was assembled in Papenburg, Germany in 1913, only to be taken apart piece by piece and shipped in wooden crates to Dar-es-Salaam on the Indian Ocean in what was then German East Africa. From Dar, the pieces of the 1300-ton steamship were transported 800 miles overland to Kigoma, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, first by train and then on the backs of local porters. This journey took over three months and extolled enormous costs – including great loss of human lives. Once reassembled, the Graf von Goetzen was launched on Lake Tanganyika to serve as a German gunboat during World War One. The ship’s wartime exploits inspired the book, and later film, The African Queen. When defeat was certain for the Germans in 1916, they scuttled the ship to avoid its capture by the British. After 8 years on the bottom of the lake, the vessel was brought to the surface by the British, renamed the MV Liemba and put into service as a passenger and cargo ferry.
Today, the MV Liemba plays a critical role in the communities of the Lake Tanganyika region. Lakeside villages remain totally cut off from the grid of global development and are without electricity, telephones or paved roads. Villagers use dug-out canoes to race and meet each passing of the antiquated ferry, attempting to sell their produce, chickens or dried fish or to buy goods imported from the markets of southern Africa. The floating open-air markets that erupt around the Liemba when she stops constitute many of the villager’s only contact with the ’modern’ world. The ship generates some of the few economic opportunities available in the area beyond subsistence farming and fishing. It also serves as the sole means by which many people can access life-sustaining supplies and services such as medicine and hospitals. This film brings the relationship between the ship and these Tanzanian communities alive through the personal stories of an array of unique characters found on board.
The MV Liemba is many things: a physical relic of European colonialism; a vital lifeline for otherwise isolated communities; the principle means of transport for cargo and people traveling in the region; a meeting place where Africans from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds come together — a floating microcosm of Africa. Narrated by the late world music star Chiwoniso Maraire, Liemba features cinematography by Academy Award Winner TJ Martin and an award winning locally-recorded soundtrack. This documentary brings Liemba’s colorful history to life and celebrates her role in this region of Africa. Compelling passenger narratives, breathtaking footage and upbeat music combine to take the audience on an unforgettable trip down Lake Tanganyika.
“The Liemba is just a fantastic experience and it’s something that everyone should really know about…. It’s history and what it does for the people.”
Chris Job, South Africa