It's really all his grandfather's fault. When Hermann-Josef Averdung was a boy, his grandfather would often tell him about the most wonderful ship he had ever helped build -- and about the great adventure it embarked upon.
Averdung is now 66 years old. His hair is white, and he is a councilman in the northern German city of Papenburg. But the years have not dimmed his memory of this story. The story, in fact, has brought him to where he is now: standing at dawn on a rusty pontoon on Lake Tanganyika, in the heart of Africa. As a large ship slowly glides up alongside the pier, Averdung goes weak in the knees, and tears well up in his eyes. Its name, Liemba, is still visible on the front of the hull.
The ship is pockmarked with dents suffered in a war and collisions with thousands of boats and wooden canoes. Its timbers press against the sheet-metal hull like the ribs of a hungry dog. The Liemba shudders and belches out thick clouds of smoke. Though almost every part of the ship is broken, it still sails up and down the world's longest lake ferrying traders, prostitutes, diamond smugglers, refugees, fishermen, missionaries, soldiers and prisoners.
Long ago, gangs of African workers carried it in parts over the mountains to the lake. The ship has been scuttled once and sunk once. Indeed, its story is one of the most bizarre episodes of World War I. But it is also a tale of colonial insanity, African massacres, Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood and a British naval officer who wore skirts and was worshipped as a god. This is the tale of the Liemba, which once carried the name Graf Goetzen, the story of the last gunship of Kaiser William II.
Germany 's Jewel in Africa
"I knew that the ship still existed," Averdung says, "but I still can't believe it." In early March, he traveled to Lake Tanganyika with the intention of bringing the Liemba back across the mountains, back home to Germany. The state-run Tanzanian company that owns the Liemba suggested it would be willing to part with the vessel in exchange for a newer one.
The day after he arrived, a propeller airplane landed on the red clay tarmac of Kigoma's airport. Its passengers included the German ambassador to Tanzania and a large delegation from Hanover. Christian Wulff, the governor of the German state of Lower Saxony, also wants to preserve the ship -- but for and in Africa. As part of this effort, he dispatched this delegation and recently approached Germany's foreign and development aid ministers in Berlin for help.
After all -- though it might have served the German Reich and its story really starts in Berlin on the eve of World War I -- the Liemba was built in Lower Saxony. At the time, rival European superpowers Britain and Germany were locked in an arms race. German strategists knew that they would have trouble keeping the country's colonies, and they were particularly reluctant to lose the country's most important overseas possession, German East Africa, which made up of what are today Burundi, Rwanda and the mainland part of Tanzania.
The Germans tried to derive as much profit from their colony as possible. They even laid a railroad -- the "Central Line" -- more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) into the heart of Africa from the coastal city of Dar es Salaam. A massive station, able to handle up to 30 trains a day, was erected at the planned terminus in Kigoma, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, though so many trains wouldn't ever arrive. On the hill overlooking the town, Kaiser William II had a palace built for himself. But he never made it to Kigoma, either.
A 1,200-Ton Jigsaw Puzzle
Modern-day Kigoma has a population of 120,000 living in huts along potholed roads. There is a hospital and a base for the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency. But Kigoma is the only city in western Tanzania.
From the imperial palace, you can see the black mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo some 50 kilometers away, on the far shores of the lake. In 1913, Belgian forces occupied the Congo, while British troops were stationed at the southern end of the lake, which juts into what was then Northern Rhodesia.
If Germany was to hold on to East Africa, it had to control Lake Tanganyika, whose 670 kilometers in length make it the world's longest. Lake Tanganyika was the only way to travel either north or south, and it still is.
Still, the Germans had a problem: Its fleet on the lake consisted of only the Kingani, a small customs cutter, and the Hedwig von Wissmann, a sorry-looking, 60-horsepower steamer. So the Kaiser secretly commissioned the shipyard of Joseph Lambert Meyer, in Papenberg, to fill its largest order ever. With a length of almost 70 meters and beam of 10 meters, the new steamer -- which bore the model number 300 -- was to be the biggest ship the yard had ever built. Most importantly, the model had to be constructed out of pieces that men could carry over mountains by foot, wherever they were in the world, before assembling them into a ship.
Meyer handed the task over to Anton Rüter, a tough, hard-working man who was also his most capable employee. Rüter's team began screwing together hundreds of thousands of small parts into a ship. In essence, model number 300 was a 1,200-ton jigsaw puzzle, none of whose pieces was too heavy for a man to carry on his back.
The Long Haul to the Lake
In November 1913, the Kaiser's emissaries arrived in Papenburg to inspect the ship, which was to be christened the Graf Goetzen, after a former governor of German East Africa. After the ship was approved, Rüter could disassemble the Goetzen so that it could be transported to Lake Tanganyika.
Rüter may have been his boss's right-hand man, but he still only lived in rented accommodations. Believing that it was his big chance to earn enough money to buy his own house, he volunteered to accompany the ship to its final destination. But there were downsides, too. The trip to Africa would be long, and he'd have to leave behind his three daughters and his wife, Helene, who was pregnant with a child whose birth he would miss. Even so, he decided to go, though he could never have dreamed how long he would be away from home -- nor how much the world would change while he was gone.
The parts of the Goetzen were loaded onto ships in Hamburg. Rüter took with him an apprentice and a riveter. Once they made it to Dar es Salaam, the 5,000 boxes were transferred onto freight wagons on the Central Line.
Unfortunately, track-laying for the Central Line was nowhere near complete, and it ended far from Kigoma. To take the ship's parts the rest of the way, the Germans recruited hundreds of natives to serve as human pack mules. For three months, they schlepped the parts of the Goetzen -- as well as Rüter and his two assistants -- through the jungle to the lake.
Rüter soon wrote back to Meyer, saying: "I have employed 20 hard-working Indians and 150 blacks. When riveting begins, I will need 100 more blacks." But just as the pounding of the riveting hammers began echoing across the bay, war broke out in Europe.
A Ship Symbolizing Life
Today, the Liemba is a time machine into Africa's past. The villages dotting the coastline of Lake Tanganyika are connected by neither road nor rail. There is only the Liemba, which comes by about every two weeks on its journey from Kigoma to Zambia and back.
Captain Titus Mnyanyi leans forward on his well-worn stool. He stares out into the night as he guides 1,200 tons of steel along its fortnightly slalom. The water is dotted with hundreds of canoes. The villagers fish at night, and they suddenly appear in the beam of the ship's spotlight with fearful eyes. They cry out until their canoes are left bobbing up and down in the ship's wake. "She is nimble," Mnyanyi says. "She can do anything. There's no better ship."
At a certain point, Mnyanyi cuts the engines, though nothing can be seen in the pitch black of night. Almost without delay, dugouts and dhows race toward the Liemba. They crash against the hull to the sound of splintering wood and scraping metal. People jostle for space alongside the ship. They clamber up and over the side of the ship; more than a few have died trying.
To them, the Liemba symbolizes life. They drag woven baskets filled with 70 kilograms (154 pounds) of fish on deck that they hope to sell in the market in Kigoma. Before long, the air reeks of fish, and is full of buzzing flies and a cacophony of shouting men. Chickens flutter to and fro, goats buck around and oil sloshes across the deck. In the middle of all this, mothers lie on the hard steel floor nursing their babies. Captain Mnyanyi has brought many children into the world. They are known as "Liemba babies," born on the long journey to the hospital in Kigoma.
Men slip overboard, cockroaches scurry across the deck. The ship is a magnificent horror. Its custodians have allowed it to become dilapidated. As it makes its way up and down the lake, the engines sputter and machinery rattles. There's no money to whip it back into shape. With its up to 600 passengers only being able to pay a few shillings for its service, its operators only make a meager profit, which is cut even thinner by the government's tax on diesel fuel. But with the help of donations from rich countries, the Liemba somehow still keeps on going.
The passengers take all this in stride. It's part of their nature. It's the same thing they've been doing for centuries. With its own rituals and rhythm, the ship is a lot like them, a lot like all of Africa.
The 'Insane' British Plan
In early 1915, an English big-game hunter named John Lee boarded a ship heading for London from German East Africa. There, he had been hunting bull elephants for their tusks -- but he couldn't stand the Germans anymore. When he arrived in London, he headed to Whitehall, the seat of the British Admiralty, where he explained his plan for controlling Lake Tanganyika to the head of the Royal Navy.
All that was needed, he suggested, was to ship two fast gunboats to South Africa and travel north by rail from there to the end of the line, near the Mitumba Mountains. From there, Lee claimed, with the help of some 2,000 natives, they could cut a path through the jungle, cross a plateau at about 2,000 meters (2,187 yards) above sea level, and then bring the boats down to the lake.
The plan was insane, but the admiral still loved it. As he put it: "It is both the duty and the tradition of the Royal Navy to engage the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship."
Still, neither the elephant hunter nor the head of Britain's navy knew just how insane the idea really was. And a big part of that had to do with their total ignorance of the colossus Rüter was building in his jungle shipyard.
Mimi and Toutou
Although most of his officers were already involved in the war effort, the admiral knew just the person to take on such an adventurous expedition. The man he had in mind was a braggart, a liar and a daredevil whose torso and arms were elaborately tattooed with butterflies and snakes. But while his colleagues were preparing to do battle with the Germans, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson sat in his dimly lit office in Whitehall smoking custom-made cigarettes bearing his name in sky-blue letters.
Spicer-Simson was 39 years old. He had gray eyes and sported a goatee. After a number of disastrous failures that left him the oldest lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, the elephant hunter's plan was his chance to redeem himself. While Lee caught a ship back to South Africa, Spicer-Simson assembled his team and outfitted the two boats for the expedition. More yachts than warships, they were 13 meters long, with extremely powerful engines at the stern and a far-too-powerful canon at the bow. The first time it was test-fired, the recoil ripped the gun off its base on the deck, catapulting both weapon and gunner into the River Thames.
Spicer-Simson wanted to name his boats Cat and Dog, but the Admiralty considered that a bit too flippant. So, knowing that his superiors wouldn't get the joke, he christened them Mimi and Toutou, the terms French children often used to describe a cat and dog, respectively.
A cruiser carried the Mimi and Toutou to Africa, and Lee's army of natives began hacking a trail through the jungle. The plan was to have two iron-wheeled steam engines haul the boats up and over the mountains and down to the lake, but improvised bridges collapsed under the weight of the strange contraptions and, time and again, the steam-powered tractors got stuck in ruts or aardvark burrows. A solution was found in the form of dozens of oxen, which were tethered to the front of the boats to help drag them along.
In the evenings, clouds of mosquitoes harried the sailors, and lions circled the camp at night. Three months after setting out, Spicer-Simson reached the Belgian military base in Albertville, on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.
A Lake Surrounded by War
Albertville is now called Kalemie. It's a name that occasionally crops up in the news as the site of yet more mindless slaughter in the Congolese civil war that has, at one time or another, embroiled seven countries and various rebel groups based around the lake. More than 4 million people have been killed -- so far. Fighting flared up again in January, when a UN-backed military operation called "Amani Leo," or "Peace Today," was launched against Rwandan rebels. Further north, crazed members of the so-called "Lord's Resistance Army" recently carried out another massacre of innocent civilians.
War is almost constantly being waged around Lake Tanganyika, whether it is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda or Burundi. Whenever it breaks out, refugees flee across the lake to the camps set up around Kigoma. And, every now and again, the UN charters the Liemba to ferry them back home.
In 1915, spies among the local tribesman told the Germans about a rumor, which held that some other whites were hauling two boats over the mountains. But the Germans dismissed the reports as nonsense, believing the Mitumba Mountains to be far too high for such an undertaking to succeed.
Meanwhile, back in Albertville, Spicer-Simpson began meeting his soldiers wearing a skirt. He explained his unusual garb as being something his wife made for him because, given the hot weather, it was very practical. His men kept their comments to themselves. Native Holo-holo tribesman observing the scene suspected that this white man was different than all the others.
The Battle Begins
By this point, the stage had been set for the Battle for Lake Tanganyika.
On December 26, 1915, the German warship Kingani steamed past Albertville. The Mimi and Toutou were sent in pursuit, and the Holo-holo climbed onto the cliffs to get a better view of the proceedings. Though the captain of the Kingani had oil-drenched wood thrown into the boiler's firebox for extra speed, he couldn't outrun the British boats. One of the shells fired from Spicer-Simson's boats tore the German officer to pieces. Spicer-Simson took the signet ring off the dead captain's finger and placed it on his own.
He had the Kingani repaired and rechristened as the Fifi. His men adopted as their mascot a tethered goat that had always traveled on the Kingani to be used for emergency rations, and they even made it an English uniform to wear.
Shortly thereafter, another German warship, the Hedwig von Wissmann, sailed past Albertville in search of the missing Kingani. Again, the Holo-holo tribesmen climbed the cliffs in anticipation of a show. The Hedwig tried to flee, and even opened fire, but it eventually suffered a direct hit and sank.
The Holo-holo now prostrated themselves in front of Spicer-Simson in reverence. Clay effigies of Spicer-Simson appeared along the shores of the lake, and the natives began calling him "Navyman God" and "Lord Bellycloth" on account of his skirt.
The Monster Appears
Even before all this, scouts from among the tribesmen had begun telling him that they had spotted something else on the lake: a monster. And not long after the sinking of the Hedwig, Spicer-Simson saw it for himself. Out of the mist loomed a gray shadow 150 times heavier than the Mimi and Toutou. It was so big that it was first considered an illusion. How could a ship this big, he thought, be in such an inaccessible place? But it was.
The monster, of course, was Rüter's Goetzen. The warship had a large gun mounted on its bow and two smaller ones on its stern. And fluttering above it all like a huge carpet was the naval ensign of the German Reich.
After seeing this, Spicer-Simson lowered his binoculars and returned to his hut in silence. He knew that a single shell fired from the Goetzen could obliterate the Mimi and the Toutou.
Given its size, the Goetzen ruled the lake. But, on land, Allied forces were marching ever closer. The first German fortress to fall was the one in Bismarkburg, on the southern shore of Lake Tanganyika. And, in July 1916, Rüter was ordered to scuttle the Goetzen because his superiors didn't want the ship to fall into enemy hands at any price. But Rüter didn't want to destroy his own ship, so he had it covered in thick grease, sailed it to just off the coast of Kigoma, opened the sea cocks and let it sink.
Almost a Century Later...
The ruins of the German fortress in Bismarkburg can still be seen on its peninsula. The village of mud huts that surrounds it is now called Kasanga. And when the Liemba pulls up at the foot of the former fortress, men with binoculars on the slopes scan the ship for spies taking pictures of the area.
For years now, a unit of the Tanzanian army has camped out in dirty tents between the rubble. The soldiers wear flip-flops and T-shirts, and suspects are taken into a shed for interrogation by a beefy lieutenant and a security guard wearing reflective sunglasses who calls himself "Mister Devi."
"Our neighbors are dangerous," the lieutenant explains. "We must be able to defend ourselves." And in battles waged with Kalashnikov rifles, even an old, delapidated fortress is better than no protection. More often than not, the soldiers merely use their rifles to shoot crocodiles whenever they want to go for a swim in the lake.
After World War I, the Belgians raised the Goetzen from its watery resting place. But they made some mistakes, and it sank in a storm soon thereafter. Later, then-Secretary of State for War Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Goetzen to be brought up again and, by 1927, it was cruising on the lake again, though now under the name Liemba, an old term in a local language for the lake.
A little later, the English novelist C.S. Forester wrote "The African Queen," a fictional work based on the battle for the lake. After World War II, the novel was used as the basis for a Hollywood movie of the same name, in which Humphrey Bogart takes a small boat to try to sink a big German ship. In 1990, the making of that film and, in particular, its tyrannical director, John Huston, became the subject of Clint Eastwood's film "White Hunter Black Heart."
The German Plan to Rescue the Ship
In the meantime, the Goetzen-turned-Liemba fell into disrepair after Tanzania gained its independence, in 1961, and it eventually ended up a stranded wreck. Fortunately, an Irishman who had always wanted to have his own steamboat restored the ship, though it took him many years. In the 1970s, Danish aid workers replaced its steam engines with diesel-driven ones, which they replaced again 20 years later. But, this time around, it is a German who has come to the ship's rescue. That man is Lothar Hagebölling, a state secretary under Lower Saxony's governor, Christian Wulff.
Hagebölling's delegation inspected the Liemba and, after landing at the jungle airstrip, his African hosts celebrated the founding of the "Friends of Liemba Foundation." The event was attended by bishops and politicians as well as one or two people who actually know something about boats. Speeches were given, and Hagebölling spoke about sustainability and friendship, adding that: "The Liemba is in our hearts."
Later that evening, Hagebölling got together with German Ambassador Guido Herz and engineer Jochen Zerrahn, the right-hand man of the Meyer shipyard's present-day boss, Bernhard Meyer -- or, in other words, Rüter's successor. The three men drank whisky or water by the lake as they talked about how much the project would cost and who would foot the bill.
Herrman-Josef Averdung, the man who first wanted to bring the Liemba home, was not at the talks. It may all have been his idea, but Wulff's men managed to sideline the very man who came up with the ambitious repatriation plan. They too wanted to save the Liemba, too -- but to leave it in Africa.
The Meyer shipyard would ideally like to wash its hands of the entire matter because Zerrahn is wary of the ship: If it sank again, it could take hundreds of lives.
But the government of Lower Saxony has a certain quid pro quo in mind. By regularly dredging the River Ems, the government ensures that the shipyard can move the massive cruise ships it builds from Papenburg to the North Sea, and there are even plans to build a new canal. In return for such favors, the thinking goes, Zerrahn could provide technical support to the project to save the Liemba.
Of course, at the same time, Hagebölling will primarily try to get a few million euros in state or even federal funding to prevent the historic ship from falling to pieces. The people around Lake Tanganyika need the money and, apart from the Liemba, there's little else to recall the naval war for Germany's prize colony.
A Very Old Woman in Papenburg
After the war, the Fifi was ready for the scrap heap and sunk. The fates of the Mimi and Toutou are unknown, and the Holo-holo have all but died out. However, while looking through the tribal artifacts at the National Museum in Dar es Salaam, the Englishman Giles Foden, the author of an amusing book about the British expedition ("Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika"), came across something very strange: a 60-centimeter-high (24-inch-high) effigy with tattoos holding something akin to binoculars and wearing a skirt. No doubt, it was Spicer-Simson.
After scuttling the Goetzen, Rüter wandered around the bush until he was captured by the British, and he didn't make it back to Papenburg until November 1919. Germany's postwar hyperinflation swallowed up all the money the shipyard had paid his wife for the construction of the Goetzen.
Of Rüter's colonial dream of working in Africa to earn a house back home, only one thing has remained: a string of imperial rupies -- the currency of German East Africa -- welded together into a bracelet. Rüter brought the bracelet back with him as a gift for his youngest daughter, Änne, the child he had never met. Today, it lies in a jewelry box in the house of a very old woman in Papenburg.
"I still remember the day he came home," the woman says. "Everyone sang for him. I was still young, and I was ill. And I hadn't seen him before. So I looked at this photo we had and then at him. Then I sat on his lap and said, 'You must be my dad.'"
In the decades that followed, Änne Rüter lost track of the Goetzen's fate. A second war followed the first, then the reconstruction of Germany -- and, of course, she had her own family to look after. Today, she would love to be able to stand on her father's ship. But it's too late: She's now too old to travel far.
After all, she was born in 1914, the same year in which the Liemba embarked on its long African adventure.