It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, mostly due to full-time duties over at Today something happened that linked the last year at Storyful and my trip to Africa immediately preceding that together – the tragedy in Zanzibar.

It was the main news story of the day, a boat carrying 800 people which capsized, tossing them all into the sharky waters between the Zanzibari islands of Unguja and Pemba. I’ve been to Zanzibar twice, learned to scuba off the beach where today hundreds gathered hoping for news of relatives and friends. And what’s most bizarre is that a year ago, I sat drinking cocktails on the beach in one of Stone Town’s favourite tourist bars, watching the very ship that capsized on Saturday being unloaded and reloaded by hand.MV Spice Islander - the fatal ferry

As you can see in the pic, the boat was driven up on the beach, with its ramp lowered onto the sand. Guys shuttled back and forth on the sand carrying on their backs barrels, fridges, carpets and stacks of coloured mattresses (which became liferafts for today’s survivors). Trucks backed down to the beach, and the team of ad hoc beach dockers hoiked superhuman loads down across the soft sand, onto the rusty metal ramp and into the bed of the ship.

When the name of the ship was mentioned, I found it hard to believe that they had the name right. Putting together our news alerts for Storyful clients, I contacted Twitter sources in Zanzibar seeking confirmation that the boat was the Spice Islander, a craft clearly not build for carrying the number of passengers that were on board. Zanzibar is served by numerous ferries from the mainland, all of which are sea-buses with rows of seats. Most are high-speed catamarans. The Spice Islander, by comparison, was an ocean-going flatbed truck. But sure enough, the sources came back confirming it (despite hoax pics suggesting a different vessel had sunk).

When we watched it from the bar, we never saw it fully-loaded, and it was gone the next morning. Boston architect/designer Joe Liao, on the other hand, looks like he took a trip on the Spice Islander at max capacity, which is something that the spirited traveller in me would, at one point, have been happy to do, even though I’d be looking back on it now considering it to have been a lucky escape.

It’s quite bizarre to think that any number of those workers may have been on board today, and the spectacle of its loading, which we sat marvelling at over vodka sundowners, was its fatal undoing. Zanzibar’s a small place, and such a high death toll on the island will send reverberations around the community there for years to come.



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