Twelve days after 32 people died when a boat capsized on Lake Victoria, city businessman and Buganda kingdom official JOHN FRED KIYIMBA, commonly known as Freeman, has given an account on how things unfolded. In an interview with Salt Television at his home in Lungujja, Kiyimba said the ill-fated boat was in a dangerous mechanical condition. Yudaya Nangonzi brings you the full interview.
It is by God’s grace that I came back alive. I want to thank all those who prayed for me. If it wasn’t for God’s mercy, I would also be dead by now.
On November 24, I was on the boat. I am very sure that many people out there get such moments. For many years, people have been having fun on boat cruises. This particular boat was in a poor state. I had not used it before.
We were informed by organisers that it was the only available boat for our party at KK Palm beach. By the way, the only boat that I had used in Uganda is MV Amani owned by Earthwise ferries that docks at Old Portbell, Luzira. Actually, our organisers had booked MV Amani and were supposed to travel on November 10, 2018.
However, the Amani proprietors said that they couldn’t make it and advised us to get another boat. We were forced to reschedule to November 24. When we got on MV Templar, we were also informed that the proprietors also own KK Palm beach, our preferred destination.
Let me give you an example, many of us ride on boda bodas but you will never know that the one you are using today has faulty brakes. The same applies to boarding a taxi and you are not sure whether it has the best tyres.
That is the situation we encountered while on that boat. So, I want to thank God for all those who survived like me and extend my sincere condolences to the bereaved families of our lost friends.
How did you survive?
We were supposed to set off at 2pm but the boat delayed. We embarked at around 4pm. As we were moving, there were other boats on the lake because I saw people having baby showers, another was a bridal shower but on separate boats. Back to our boat, I want Ugandans to know that the proprietors [Templar Bisase and wife Sheila, all dead] were minting money from the boat but not servicing it.
When I arrived at KK beach (Ggaba) on Saturday, the boat was at a distance. We used small boats to transport us to the main boat. Indeed, upon reaching, it didn’t meet our expectations. If I remember very well, the proprietor said the least the boat can take is 90 people and a maximum of at least 110 people. Our organisers worked tooth and nail to ensure that we do not exceed 110 occupants.
As we set off in our boat, a police boat followed us up to somewhere. The police did this three times. Along the way in the middle of the lake our boat stopped for a while. Again, the police marine patrol reappeared and I suspected that they were communicating with our organisers. After a few minutes, we continued with the journey but the organisers insisted that we should try to balance weight of the boat by not keeping on one side.
I found this strange because even if it’s a car, it has shock absorbers that enable it to balance well while on the road. It is from this point that I said to myself that when we reach our destination, I would not return with the same boat. After the departure of the police patrol boat, we moved for about 10 minutes and we realised water was filling up the deck.
By this time the boat engine had stopped running. In simple terms, the boat was in a dangerous mechanical condition. It is at this point that the boat started tilting on one side. A colleague yelled and advised me to move over to their wing.
As I attempted to cross over, I held onto a pole for support. Since the boat was already tilted, I just fell into water and these are the words I said to my creator: “Oh God, I have served you and still serving you, don’t take me… my children…”
I think I mentioned only two names for my children and went down. I tried to ensure that my body remains stiff so that I could swim upwards. I swum for about 10 metres –and got back to the top. The lake was choppy. People fell in the water and everyone was left to his or her devices! There was this lady, Becky Nassuuna, who was behind me and started shouting Uncle Freeman.
Nassuuna lost her husband whom she had introduced to her parents a month ago. I attended their function. Her husband Michael Kaddu was my good friend while her mother is my classmate. She tried to pull my life jacket but I told her to hold my belt instead so that we swim out. We moved slowly amid rough waves.
The place was about 800 metres to KK Palm beach. We swum for about 12 to 15 minutes until we were rescued and dropped at Mutima beach. Actually, some boats also bypassed us and went to rescue people that were afar.
It was a very trying moment for everyone; people were praying while in water, talking about their families and life on earth. Everyone wanted to survive. Nassuuna managed to get onto the next boat with me but she knew her sister Esther Namutebi and husband Kaddu were already dead.
The rescue operation and recovering the dead took about an hour. For those who were not recovered within that time; all didn’t survive. The boat capsized between 6:30pm and 6:40pm. There was still ample light time for one to see the shoreline. But many were engulfed with fear and shock; they couldn’t swim. Most people swallowed a lot of water while screaming for help. Yet, what was needed is to be calm. Anyway, it was all God’s decision.
Disappointed, not arrested
There were rumours that government had sent Special Forces Command (SFC) operatives to my house and my home was cordoned off. That is not true. I was one of the people who were invited to have fun on a boat cruise like any other persons!
There was nothing wrong with having fun because the year is coming to an end. If you check other boats on Lake Victoria, they are already booked for boat cruises. But I was disappointed. I didn’t have fun at all.
I was seated in one place given the sorry state of the boat. There is a weakness with regulations and supervision of vessels on the lakes. The boat was in a sorry state. It was a DMC, and not fit to be on water. We were about 90 to 100 people on the boat before it capsized. Nothing beyond that.
I would like to appeal to government to deploy the same vigilance they have used to control road accidents on the highway on the water vessels. Operation Fika Salama reduced accidents on the roads. The same should be done on water.
People have been dying because of the poor state of the boats transporting people on water. If the capacity of the boat is 60 persons, there is no need to overload it. There are so many cities in the world which were built over the water, but you will never hear of such accidents like they happen here. Government needs to take drastic action to save lives.
The owners want to make money and will tell you that the boat is proper. The passengers lack the technical expertise to tell a faulty boat. They should withdraw and destroy the boats that don’t meet the standards just like they have done with those involved in illegal fishing.
Social media "rumours"
I am not under house arrest as it was alleged on social media networks. Yesterday, I received a call from the director, CID, Grace Akullo, requesting to meet me and highlight on what exactly happened on the boat.
Whether we like it or not, we should know that this is the government in power and it ought to know. President Museveni wants to know what happened so that he can better explain to the nation because they need to give a clear position on this incident.
Remember, people lost their loved ones; friends and children and are demanding for answers. There were [seven] issues that they wanted to know. First, what was the intention for attending this boat cruise, how many were aboard, departure time, what happened before the boat capsized, how were people affected, how was the rescue situation and the people I suspected to be dead or alive. Individually, I really cheated death.