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Zanzibar Divers Take on Role of Ocean First Responders

(L to R) Abushir Said Khatib, Hemedi Mwinchande Hemedi, Ali Makame Madaha, and Omar Mohammed Ali are members of the Zanzibar Rescue and Diving Community, a volunteer-based water rescue NGO. Image by Claire Felter. Zanzibar, 2015.

In September of 2011, the MV Spice Islander I, a passenger ferry traveling between Unguja and Pemba, the two islands of Zanzibar, capsized. Though the carrying capacity was approximately 700 people, close to 2,500 passengers were on the ferry at the time. The incident was considered Tanzania's worst maritime disaster in 15 years: More than 1,300 were never accounted for and 203 people were confirmed dead.

Ten months later, a smaller passenger ferry, the MV Skagit, was traveling from mainland Tanzania with an estimated 300 people on board when it sank close to Zanzibar. 73 people died, and at least 70 were unaccounted for after the accident.

"There are many cases of accidents happening in Zanzibar," says Omar Mohammed Ali, secretary for a water rescue NGO that stretches across both the islands of Zanzibar. Ali says these accidents were the primary reason for founding the Zanzibar Rescue and Diving Community (ZAREDIC).

In the months after the disasters, the government received a number of applications for NGO status from groups of men all over Zanzibar who had been participating in rescue efforts for years and were trained in diving. Rather than recognize various smaller groups, the government chose to tell the applicants to organize across village lines to form an island-wide group of rescue divers.

"We were involved in rescue in Zanzibar every time a disaster was happening, but we were involved individually," Ali says.

Now it's been more than three years since ZAREDIC was first established. Each member has his day job: Ali works for the Community of Development of Fishermen of Kojani, known as KOFDO, which focuses on community fisheries. Hemedi Mwinchange Hemedi has worked for a number of the dive centers in Nungwi, on the northern tip of Unguja, and is a certified master diver. He now works as an assistant construction manager. Ali Makame Madaha is a fisherman. There are more than 60 members across the islands, mostly on Unguja but a few are on Pemba, and all are part of ZAREDIC on a volunteer basis. Any costs come out of their own pockets.

When a water incident occurs, Hemedi says ZAREDIC will get a phone call from a ship captain or from someone on the beach. Taking action immediately, though, is not that easy. The group does not have much equipment to call its own, so Hemedi will go to one of the dive centers on the beach where he is well-known to request a boat.

"To get the information, it's there happening, but to start to go to save people, they do not go quickly..." says Hemedi. "Even one hour, two hours."

The slowness to react can mean more lives lost. Much of the time they're not rescuing but instead retrieving bodies. To improve the situation, Hemedi says he would ask for two things.

"Better equipment and better communication," says Hemedi.

This includes radios for fishermen and boat captains to contact rescue divers when something goes wrong. The men also understand the need for a good boat, since they're putting their own lives at risk when they carry out a search and rescue mission.

"Sometimes the weather is very tough, and the boat is very small," Hemedi says.

If an accident happens during strong winds or rain, the rescue boats can easily capsize or take on water. And when they reach the location of the accident, the boat can become overloaded after survivors climb in.

Sometimes the government provides oil for boats, but usually only when the disaster is of a large enough magnitude. Generally, when it comes to supplies, the organization must look elsewhere. Still, Ali says the government has done a lot, referring to the initial mobilization of the different groups as well as the provision of training to ZAREDIC members on disaster management.

There does exist a parallel group of first responders within the government, a special police force that has been trained to handle both fire and water emergencies. But the government office in charge of such accidents has been around less than a decade and its capacity for emergency response remains small.

"Disaster management is very new for our country," says Ali Juma Hamed, Director of the Disaster Management Office under the Second Vice President of Zanzibar.

As a result, Hamed says they rely on groups like ZAREDIC.

"Disaster management is not only for government—there needs to be cooperation with corporations, international organizations, civil society organizations," says Hamed.

For the time being, these civil society organizations like ZAREDIC have taken on a lot of the responsibility.

They not only respond when an incident like the MV Skagit's sinking occurs. Hemedi says they respond just the same when a small boat hits bad weather and only a few need rescue. Since the organization's founding, the group has dealt with 7 or 8 larger accidents and between 10 and 15 smaller accidents.

Hemedi says survivors even from Mombasa, Kenya, returned after an accident to show gratitude for ZAREDIC saving their lives.

"They have thanked us," says Hemedi. "They have returned and they have thanked us."