On Monday, December 9, 2019, Malik Mbwana, Edward Munga, Baraka Kahindi Thoya, and Juma Samuel Nzai from Kipini in Tana River County set out on a fishing expedition in the Indian Ocean.
Then disaster struck. Strong winds accompanied by heavy rains forced their boat to drift far into the Indian Ocean, setting the stage for 17 miserable days.
“We ran out of fuel and didn’t know our exact location. The following morning, we woke up without water and food, not knowing what to do,” narrated Mr Mbwana, the boat’s captain, after they were rescued in the wee hours of Christmas Day.
He said that after nine days drifting at sea without water or food, they spotted a Kenya Navy vessel crew on patrol and heaved a sigh of relief, sure that help was within sight.
But their relief was short-lived, as the vessel sailed away without them.
“We asked them to help us with water and food but they would hear none of it. We pleaded for just drinking water and, despite one of us also being unwell, they just left,” said Mr Mbwana.
But KDF Spokesman, Col Paul Njuguna, on Friday rejected claims Kenya Navy personnel refused to help the fishermen.
“Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) is a credible, mission-capable force deeply rooted in professionalism. It is unthinkable for Kenya Navy personnel to fail to attend to urgent calls for help in the ocean such as highlighted in the media report,” said Col Njuguna.
He went on: “It is therefore of utmost importance to determine the real facts surrounding this alleged unfortunate event in order to determine the truth and stop the unwarranted allegations against KDF.”
Mr Mbwana, the captain of Yahafidh, who has made tens of trips into the Indian Ocean, said they survived on dried fish and seawater. “On the eighth day, we were lucky it rained. We used buckets to collect rainwater for drinking,” he said.
Mr Mbwana, 37, was the oldest and most experienced of the four. The others are in their 20s.
Back home, their families, worried after they failed to return, reported the matter at Kipini Police Station, under OB number 09/10/12/2019.
Mr Munga’s elder brother, John Mramba, said several searches were fruitless.
“The marine police joined the search, which was extended to Mombasa, in vain,” he said.
“What shocked us was that not a single item was found, not even the boat. That is why we suspected they might not have drowned but had been abducted,” added Mr Mramba, who had last seen his brother the day before he left home.
Mr Mbwana said they persevered harsh elements but remained hopeful that help would come. Then, around 3am on Christmas day, their vessel drifted close to Ngomeni village in Kilifi County, some 27km from Malindi town.
“We had neither fuel nor a sail to help us a get to the shore but we are grateful that God did not forget us and brought us back safely after 17 days,” Mr Mbwana said. They were rescued by other fishermen and taken to Malindi Sub-county Hospital for medical check-ups and discharged.
The action by the military personnel was roundly condemned by the public, with Kenyans on Twitter terming it a disgrace.
Watamu Beach Management Unit (BMU) Chairman Athman Mwambire said it was unfortunate that the Kenya Navy crew ignored the fishermen in their hour of need.
“It is the Navy’s responsibility to assist fishermen in distress. Life comes first so they should have given them water and food,” Mr Mwambire said.
He said most BMUS do not have patrol boats to help in search missions and appealed to the Kenya Coast Guard Service to step in to ensure safety at sea.
On Monday this week, the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) warned fishermen and those sailing for pleasure against venturing into the open seas during strong winds.
KMA Director-General George Nyamoko Okong’o said accidents at sea have been rising.
Mr Okong’o added that 50 per cent involved vessels capsizing, while 40 per cent were drowning cases as a result of using unseaworthy vessels.
He further urged people to take the water safety precautions seriously to avoid deaths.