Infrastructure of a Former Empire

There’s an interesting piece on the BBC News website today about the MV Ilala, a ship that’s been plying the waters of Lake Malawi for 65 years. She’s described as a ‘rusting lifeline’, and the only way of reaching some settlements. This isn’t merely a passenger service, as the ship can carry up to 90 tonnes of cargo as well.

MV Ilala was constructed by Yarrow Shipbuilders, back when describing something as Clydebuilt was a guarantee of quality. No sooner had she been completed than she was broken down into pieces and brought in overland: if the idea of a ship reaching a large African lake in this way makes you think of Humphrey Bogart’s adversary in ‘The African Queen’, you’re not far wrong… although that story is set on a different lake. (There was a brief naval action on Lake Malawi: the first of the First World War… but a single shot decided it.)

The BBC described the Ilala as facing an uncertain future back in 2008. She is a single-bottom type, and therefore not compliant with the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. (As far as SOLAS is concerned, Lake Malawi is ‘at sea’…) More than seven years on the Ilala is still in service, but showing further signs of long usage.

MV Ilala

On a freshwater lake, time has taken its toll all the same [BBC News]

MV Ilala

MV Ilala, docked and unloading [Photo:]

When maintenance is required some of the Ilala’s duties can be performed by the MV Chilembwe (launched in 2014) although that is a considerably smaller vessel. The MV Mtendere (in service from 1980) used to stand in, but is currently in storage, with plans to break her up. The other grand old lady of Lake Malawi, launched in 1901 and generally acknowledged as the oldest ship still afloat in Africa, is the MV Chauncy Maples, undergoing conversion to a floating medical clinic. The small Tanzanian ferries MV Songea and MV Iringa (each launched 1974) also operate on the lake, but have their own itineraries. Thus, maritime transport on Lake Malawi appears to offer a very fragile lifeline indeed.

In this decaying infrastructure I see parallels with the end of an earlier empire: when the Romans left Britain around 410 AD, they left behind a road network that continued to define the landscape. For well over a thousand years, no better roads were built. We lacked the skills, the political will or perhaps just the money to significantly improve our infrastructure. Instead, people just had to make do, while the roads crumbled.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the Malawian government, nor any of the nations that border the lake… but it poses real challenges for those who depend upon such services. Although I go to Malawi once or twice a year, I’ve never seen the MV Ilala. Perhaps I never will, now.

If the ‘rusting lifeline’ can’t be sustained, she’ll still be in good company. I come from a country that used to offer supersonic passenger flights, but stopped – and the only country ever to have abandoned a successful space launch capability*. The Americans don’t fly the Space Shuttle anymore, either. Is this the ‘new normal’? Must we concede that our forefathers could do things that we can’t? I think that in some cases this might be so. Opportunities are fewer, now, with materials more scarce and constraints more abundant. One of the greatest challenges must surely be providing for a nation with a growing population: there were 2.75 million Malawians when the MV Ilala was first launched, and 3.79 million by the time Malawi obtained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. The 2015 population figure was 16.79 million, and projections suggest 30 million by 2035.

Already there is news of food shortages, and I doubt one old steamer more or less is going to resolve matters.


[*] In 1971, the British Black Arrow launcher put a single satellite into low Earth orbit: the last hurrah of a programme that had already been cancelled. The satellite was called Prospero, after the sorcerer in Shakespeare’s Tempest who chooses to give up his powers.

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