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Last updated: 22 December, 2008 - Published 12:31 GMT
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Malawi: Sixty years of the MV Ilala

The MV Ilala docked on Lake Malawi

One of Malawi's most popular passenger ships, MV Ilala is facing an uncertain future.

It was built by Yarrow & Company in Scotland in 1949 and almost 60 years on, it provides Malawians with a crucial lifeline to the outside world.

Her future rests with the International Maritime Organisation, which is trying to phase out single-bottom boats like the Ilala for safety reasons.

'Lake of stars'

Travelling on MV Ilala is the equivalent of taking a local bus service up Lake Malawi, which is Africa's third-largest lake and covers one fifth of the country's total area.

The 19 Century explorer David Livingstone called Lake Malawi "the lake of stars" because of its glittering surface.

Sixty years on, the ageing and rather battered Ilala is still a star of the lake, providing a vital service for people living on its shores - both in Malawi and Mozambique.

One of my fellow passengers, a health worker from Nkhata Bay, makes the journey north once a month to deliver free anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive patients in remote communities.

 Sixty years is a long time for a ship
Captin Nyasulu

Ilala's voyage from one end of the lake to the other is about 300 miles.

Making several stops on her journey, excited passengers crowd into the lowered lifeboats - battered and barely seaworthy - to disembark.

People are clutching children, enormous white plastic sacks of maize, big brown cardboard boxes of electrical goods, furniture, dead chickens, bicycles and everything else imaginable.

Likoma Island is one of the busiest stops on the Ilala's schedule.

The island belongs to Malawi, even though it lies just a few kilometres from Mozambique.

Although now at peace, some parts of Mozambique are still very isolated from the rest of the country, and for most people here the main contact with the outside world is the ship's twice weekly call.

The island has a population of around 6,000 people, who are nearly all dependent on the Ilala for supplies and transport and the only way to reach most of these isolated fishing villages is by boat.

Fishing is hugely important to the lake's economy and canoes paddle furiously to meet the Ilala, selling fish, fruit, small carvings and curios to passengers.

Ship in pieces

The Ilala is celebrating her 60th birthday in March next year.

When she was built, her parts were shipped in sections via Mozambique and transported overland by rail to Malawi.

Some 780 cases of components and equipment were transported this way, the heaviest weighing 18 tonnes.

The only river outlet - the Shire - which eventually joins the Zambezi to flow into the Indian Ocean is not navigable from the lake to the sea.

This resulted in the Ilala being transported overland and reassembled on the lake shores, under the supervision of expert ship builders sent out from Scotland.

In June 1951, the Ilala was finally ready to be launched at Monkey Bay, the largest port at the southern end of Lake Malawi.

 The Ilala can go on for another 100 or even 200 years
Captin Nyasulu

The ship's captain, William Nyasulu still uses navigation maps that date back to the 1950s.

Some of the vessel's riveted steel panels have had to be welded and repaired over the years, and the original engines were replaced in the mid 1990s.

"Sixty years is a long time for a ship," said Captin Nyasulu.

"But if she is well maintained and well manned, the Ilala can go on for another 100 or even 200 years," he added.

Shorter route

Captin Nyasulu may be a little optimistic about the future of his ship, which has had a few accidents along the way.

The Ilala has ended up on the rocks at least twice but fortunately with no fatalities.

These days the vessel, along with her younger sister ship the MV Mtendere, is operated by the government-owned Malawi Lake Services but there are plans to privatise this vital service in the near future.

In the 60 years since her maiden voyage, the Ilala has clocked up around two million miles plying up and down Lake Malawi.

She used to sail as far north as Karonga and visit the Tanzanian shore as well, but the route was discontinued a few years ago.

These days she docks in Chilumba on the Malawian side of the lake before sounding her siren a final time and retracing her long, slow voyage south back to Monkey Bay.

Ruth Evans is a freelance journalist based in the UK.

*This is a free online version of the article that appears in the January - March 2009 edition of BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.

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