A short story to fill in a small gap. Coming up soon, “Charity is crippling”, “Education”, and “Nuclear Energy”. Readers are welcome, and encouraged to leave comments on this blog-site
PIRATES ON LAKE MWERU.
Lake Mweru is around 50 km wide and 140 km long. Its longitudinal axis is skewed to align with a NE / SW axis. It sits on the international borders of Northern Zambia and Zaire (Now Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC), and approximately 200 km west of the southern end of Lake Tanganyika.
On the Congo side of Lake Mweru the mountains rise straight out of the lake and are densely forested and sparsely populated. Those inhabitants are occupied with subsistence fishing where the lake is accessible, and forest products further away from the water’s edge. These forest products include the making of charcoal, and sawing timber planks. The charcoal is bagged in the forest, and transported to the various trade centers by bicycle. The timber planks are restricted in size because they also must be transported to the coast and various trade centers, by bicycle or carried by foot. One important use for these timber planks is boat building, but vastly more-so on the Zambian side compared to the Congo side. The main town, market and administrative center on the Congo side is Kilwa. Although thus described is a stretch. There is also the mostly abandoned town of Pweto on the northern tip of Lake Mweru. Interestingly this is the source of the famous Congo River.
The Zambian side is flatter; more densely populated by far, and is involved in fishing and farming on a commercial basis. The main town, port, trade center, and administration center is Nchelenge, although Mununga further up the coast is significant. It is in these two towns where the standard Lake Mweru fishing boats are built – by the hundreds.
These fishing boats are basically standard, but come in two sizes. Five meters long, and seven meters long. They are built with the timber planks cut out of the Congo Forest on the other side of the lake. The planks are cut to be butted together, and not overlapped clinker style. The unavoidable gaps between the planks are made semi watertight with rags soaked in paint pushed into the gaps. They have a prow front, and a stern board at back. By luck the stern board design can be fitted with a small outboard motor. The crew for these boats must always include a bailer.
The 5 meter boats with 15 horsepower outboard can easily carry 2 x 200l drums of diesel, and the 7 meter boats with 25 horsepower outboard can easily carry 3 x 200l drums of diesel and some assorted cargo. I had made use of them often to fetch fuel and other usables from Nchelenge when I was working out of Kilwa in 2000. I had also used them to take myself and my Honda XL125 to Nchelenge on shopping and phoning expeditions. There was a Mission Hospital in the vicinity where medical supplies could be obtained, and they had a landline phone. It was usually a 3 day 2 night trip.
A quick glance at the map will reveal the existence of Kilwa Island situated between Kilwa on the Congo side and Nchelenge on the Zambian side of Lake Mweru. Although the island is technically part of Zambia it is closer to Kilwa and seems to be more Congo orientated. Lake traffic between the two towns always steers to the south of Kilwa Island. This is the shortest route, but I am also led to believe that the gardener / fisher people live on the south side and the pirates live on the north side of the island. It is easy to understand the rumors that the pirates prey on Congolese lake traffic to the north of the island, and then run back to safety on the Zambian administered island, but not always. The pirate rumors certainly persist, but the language barrier prevented me from gaining a firm grasp of the situation until………
I had made arrangements in Johannesburg weeks before to meet a colleague in Nchelenge on a particular date to take possession of some translated documents. My colleague would be driving up from Lubumbashi on other business, and had kindly agreed to bring the documents to Nchelenge for me to collect. Usually I just go down to the Kilwa port area to find a boat and skipper, but this time, in order that I should not miss this meeting at Nchelenge I made arrangements two or three days beforehand with one of the Congolese boat skippers to take me across the lake the afternoon before my meeting. This was my mistake, and I should have known better. By departure time everyone in the vicinity of Kilwa and Kilwa Island knew the Musungu (me) was traveling across the lake to Nchelenge that particular afternoon.
Lake Mweru is a very hot place. Keeping cool and hydrated is a constant concern. The lake water is often mirror smooth with no hint of a breeze. The trip across the lake can take 5 to 6 hours depending on break-downs, bailing and general condition of boat and motor. Abandoned fish nets often cause delays when they get caught up in the boat’s propeller and break the shear-pin in the transmission shaft from motor to prop. Because of the heat the boat owners / skippers are in the habit of removing the cowling from the outboard motors in the mistaken belief that the motor will run cooler being exposed to ambient air. To make matters worse the air-cleaner is incorporated in the cowling, and thus removed allows the now exposed carburetor to suck more air and causes the motor to run lean on fuel often causing spark plug failure. On top of all this, the single spark plug in the 15 HP motors or the 2 x spark plugs in the case of the 25 HP motors, are completely exposed to moisture from the wake, rain or splashing. Needless to say these boats usually carry a longish oar, and a barge type pole. Also surprisingly enough, in yachting terms what would be called a “Man Overboard” marker buoy.
These were the circumstances I was exposed to on that afternoon. I was huddled in the front of the 5 meter boat with a wet jacket pulled over my head and arms in an attempt to keep cool and shady. The bailer was constantly bailing with his 5 liter paint tin. The skipper was hopefully keeping the boat aimed at the destination. The open carburetor was making enough excessive noise to kill any attempt at conversation – not that I could speak comprehensively in any language to the skipper or crew. I was resigned to a good few hours of utter boredom; staring at the bottom of the boat, and thinking what kind of logic prompted these guys to partially disable their otherwise reliable outboard motors by removing the cowling the way they did. I think it was here where I coined the phrase “Logically Illogical”. It was just plain boring, hot and noisy – but not for long.
I had just peeked out the left side of my jacket the see we were clearing the eastern end of Kilwa Island. Ah, so what, still a long boring way to go, back to looking at the bottom of the boat and thinking about exposed outboard motors. Looking down between my knees I noticed the emergency oar was floating in the bilge water – hey what is this, we are taking on water, but then I heard the renewed action of the bailing can, and the emergency oar settled to its spot on the floor again – OK, back to daydreaming. Gradually another sound interposed our carburetor noise – similar but not the same. Was our motor misbehaving?? I had better take a look. Another boat, the 7 meter variety with twin cylinder 25HP motor was coming up fast in our feeble wake, and bristling with manpower and hand weapons. I looked at my skipper who had also noticed the other boat – he had gone very pale and I could see he was speechless. But for me; who had just come out of my daydreaming trance had not yet grasped the reality. It was only when the other boat swung out of our wake to the starboard and begin to overtake us with shouts of “Musungu Dollars, Musungu Dollars” that I realized we were under attack by Lake Mweru Pirates. The pirate boat overtook us about 20 meters to starboard, I could see six men on board, one steering, and the other five waving sticks, spears and machetes – no sign of any firearms -, and continuing their chant “Musungu Dollars”. As it drew ahead of us I could also see the exposed twin spark plugs sticking out of the back of the 25HP motor. When the pirate boat got 50 – 60 meters ahead it did a “U” turn to port, and came back past us in the opposite direction, but further away. Now I know I can pretty much trust myself in surprise situations, and begin to figure it out. They knew I was coming, stood to at the east end of Kilwa Island and waited until I got into open water, and then commenced their attack – yes these guys are serious alright, but they are still heading away from us. I no sooner thought this when they commenced another “U” turn to port, and begin to come straight at us from astern.
Sub-consciously I already had the answer to this current problem. I had been thinking about it for the last hour. I looked hard at the skipper. He was frozen, but knew he needed plan, and somehow he sensed I had a plan, and was receptively alert to get that plan. Words would be useless, and too slow anyway. I signaled him to keep the throttle open for now by means of a wrist action. I also signaled him to close the throttle when I tell him by means of drawing my finger across my throat, and the reverse wrist action. I just had time to repeat the signaled instructions to the skipper when the pirate boat was upon us, but I think my skipper understood me the first time. The pirate boat was coming up under full power; when its bow was about 2 meters behind our stern I signaled my skipper to cut our power. I had one hand on the emergency oar. The trick was to cut our power before the pirate boat was ready to throttle back. Our timing was perfect. Our little 5 meter boat had quite a bit of water on board almost stopped dead. The 7 meter pirate boat which was probably only launched 15 minutes ago, and high in the water, went sailing on, and only slowed when its stern and outboard were level with me in the bow of our boat. I was ready and waiting with the emergency oar in both hands now, and managed to bring it down hard on both spark plugs hopelessly smashing them and the cable connecting caps. I now signaled my skipper to open up full throttle, and veer away from the pirate boat, and pointed towards open water and Nchelenge, and away we went. I managed to keep hold of the emergency oar and bring it back on board, and it was a good thing I did. The bailer re-doubled his efforts to get our boat higher in the water, and the skipper was now fully focused.
On the pirate boat confusion reigned. It took a few seconds for their skipper to realize what had happened, and then too many of the crew moved to their stern to try and fix the problem, and just got in each other’s way. I am sure they are used to changing spark plugs, but with inappropriate tools, and the broken plugs and cable caps will not make it easy for them. Whatever they were doing, their boat remained stationary and facing south, and was not coming our way. I suspect they were drifting or had anchored. They were certainly not under power.
In the meantime we were chugging along nicely. The pirate boat was just discernible as a spec, and still facing south. The radio tower at Nchelenge had become visible, other fishing boats were coming into view closer to the Zambian shore reminding me that we should be looking out for fishnets, but I was reluctant to take my eyes off the pirate spec to the west, and the sun was diving into the western horizon at full tilt. It was then our motor picked up to peak revs, and our boat begin to slow.
It did not take long to figure the problem. The propeller had fouled in fish net, and jammed solid almost instantly shearing the shear-pin. This is meant to happen when the propeller hits some obstacle in shallow water, and is designed to save the propeller and / or transmission shaft, and gears. Of course in shallow water the operator can jump overboard and replace the pin. In deep water mid lake it is not so easy, and takes some time and delicate work. I was not too surprised to discover the supply of original shear-pin spares had long since been used up. The skipper uses any thing from a nail or bolt to some fencing wire. Hardly the correct tensile strength. The sun had well and truly set when the skipper indicated he had fabricated and fitted a new shear-pin. On attempting to re-start the motor the skipper managed to break the pull start rope more or less in the middle, and the longest half un-wound of the motor and sank into the lake water. We all now looked anxiously to the west to see if the pirate boat was coming – this 5 meter Lake Mweru fishing boat was not going anywhere for a while-, but it was too dark to tell for sure. I indicated that skipper and bailer should hold the boat steady while I urinated over the side, as if this would free-up my brain and I would come up with a solution to our motor problem. The skipper then indicated he also wanted to urinate, and the bailer and I should hold the boat steady, and then the bailer wanted to urinate, so we all had a turn, but still no solution on how to start the motor.
I went over what we / I had on board. I remembered I had a Swiss Army knife and cigarette lighter, and then spotted the “man-overboard” buoy which I knew had a decent piece of nylon rope attached to it. Without the knife and the lighter the rope would have been useless. With the aid of the knife to cut, and the lighter for light and to burn the ends of the nylon rope we soon had the means to start the motor. Of course the original self-rewinding pull rope had been discarded along with the motor cowling long ago. I was also amazed to find a 20kg rock was attached to the other end of the rope on the “Man-overboard” buoy. I insisted this rock be thrown overboard immediately. As the lake gods were now smiling, the motor started almost immediately, and we were on our way, but to where? – It was so dark now we could not see anything, and it was certainly a waste of time looking out for fish nets.
The lake gods again immediately saw our predicament; and the lights at Nchelenge came on, including the radio tower. It was now pitch dark, and plenty of stars. We were underway. Being a surveyor by profession I realized I should take a star bearing on those lights just in case they decide to go out again – I have had experience with Northern Zambia’s electricity supply in the recent past.
We were going well; the skipper was again on full focus, and the bailer was still bailing at full strength – he had been at it all day. His endurance amazed me, as some of these Congolese often do. It looked like we were going to make it this time; I could now actually see some detail of the lights, maybe 2 or 3 kilometers away. Just then the revs of our little motor went sky-high again. To verify the skipper reached over the back and plucked up a hand full of fish net still attached to the propeller. I passed him the Swiss Knife to hack off all that he could, which took quite a while before he indicated we were free again. At that very moment the lights of Nchelenge – not unexpectedly – went out. The bailer and skipper did not need to be told that it is paddle time as I hauled out the emergency oar. To their credit they took it in turns to paddle and bail, and to my credit I was able to star guide them towards our destination. It came as a surprise to all of us when the bow of our boat suddenly crunched into the sandy beach of Nchelenge, not exactly where I wanted to land, but close enough.
We dragged the boat onto the beach a little further. The bailer would stay by the boat, the skipper would go to a friend, and I would find my way to the rest house (B&B). We would all report to Zambian customs and immigration in the morning. Quite a day.
—– RIDE HARD, SHOOT STRAIGHT, AND SPEAK THE TRUTH —-