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Serenje tragedy: Pupils’ death points to negligence

SOME of the survivors with their families.

CHAMBO NG’UNI and MALUMO SILUMESI, Serenje
FEBRUARY 16, 2018 started like any other ordinary day at Poosa Primary School nested on Kachipapa Farm, 35km north of Serenje boma.
Teachers and pupils at this school that was established in 1995, went about with their usual daily activities.
The school has a three-room conventional classroom block and two blocks made of mud blocks.
There are 249 pupils from grade one to nine.
Between 14:00 and 15:00 hours of that doomed day, there was a celebration at the dam near the school, and this attracted the pupils.
Lew Steyn of South Africa, and Charles Bennett of Kachipapa Farm in Serenje invited 12 pupils for an ill-fated boat cruise to celebrate Bennett’s father’s 61st birthday that never was.
The Bennetts were celebrating the birthday of Roy Bennett who could have turned 61 that day had he not died in a helicopter crash in the United States of America the previous month.
As fate would have it, Roy’s posthumous birthday celebration claimed the lives of pupils of Poosa Primary School.
It was about 15:00 hours when the doomed vessel capsized and killed six of the 12 pupils that Mr Steyn had invited on a boat that was sailing on a dam belonging to the Bennett family.
Those who drowned are Bethel Banda aged nine, Lillian Chibuye, 11, and her brother Gershom aged 13.
Others were Yaredy Kunda, 14, Peter Kunda, 13, and Nixon Chanda, also 13.
Sunday Mukosha, Hague Chibuye, Regan Chisanga, Don Kunda, Fredah Monda and Newton Kunda survived the mishap.
The grief in the village was overwhelming and understandably so. The Chibuyes for instance, lost two children in that calamity.
Mr Steyn invited the children on the boat just to pamper them, oblivious that the end would be tragic.
However, his mistake was to invite children on the boat without providing them with life jackets.
Actually some members of the community feel Mr Steyn should be indicted for the death of the six children because he put the children’s lives at risk out of sheer negligence.
However, no action has been taken against him as police say they are still investigating the matter.
“He called us to join him in the boat so that we could have a feel of cruising on a boat. I had never been on a boat before and when he called us, I was very excited,” narrated Newton, one of the survivors.
When the mishap happened, other pupils of Poosa Primary School were waiting on the shore of the dam for their turn to sail with Mr Steyn.
Newton says the boat capsized after it hit into something while Mr Steyn was reversing.
Newton, 15, a Grade five pupil shares that seven pupils were rescued by Mr Steyn and another helper. He recalls how one particular girl who had almost been rescued slid into the water and drowned to death.
“I thank God for saving my life. I just feel bad that some of my friends died,” he said.
Another survivor, Fredah, 11, remembers that on the fateful day, several pupils rushed to the dam to catch a glimpse of the boat cruise at the nearby farm.
While the pupils watched with excitement, Mr Steyn invited them to join him on the boat.
“The white man called us to go in the boat. When the boat started moving, he started teaching us English songs.
“We were very happy to ride on the boat, but suddenly the boat capsized. I and some other pupils were covered by the boat,” she narrated as her mother Sofia Monda and other mourners listened.
When the boat capsized the pupils were frightened, and Fredah remembers seeing Mr Steyn rescuing them. He managed to put five children on top of the boat.
A man called Shadreck Chomba also rescued one pupil.
“He [Steyn] tried to look for other pupils but he could not find them because they had drowned,” she recalls.
Ms Monda said she was short of words to describe how happy she was about Fredah’s miraculous survival.
“The death of these children is a sad thing for us here. Some of these children were friends of my daughter,” she said.
Frank Kunda, a farm worker was busy with work that day without knowing that his son Peter was drowning.
Mr Kunda was in the company of other farm workers at about 14:30 hours when he heard the sound of a cruising boat and voices of excited pupils.
“Suddenly I heard the engine [of the boat] switch off, then it started running again. Again it stopped and after sometime it capsized,” he said.
When the accident happened, the pupils on the shore started calling for help.
“We rushed there to help the white man because he was tired. We helped him to pull out the boat.
“Six children were rescued, then I realised that I had not seen my son Peter. I asked his friends, then the one who was holding his bag said ‘he was on the boat’,” Mr Kunda said in low tone.
At this point it dawned on Mr Kunda that his son was among the children that had drowned. When he helplessly gazed at the water, there was no sign that Peter could come out alive.
Marines from Mushili Commando Unit retrieved the bodies of the pupils on Monday and Tuesday. A somber mood characterised the burial of the pupils within Kachipapa area.
Minister in the Office of the Vice President Sylvia Chalikosa who represented President Lungu at the burial said Government was saddened with the death of the pupils.
“I must say losing a child is a worst nightmare for any parent and as a government, we join you in mourning our beloved departed children. It is with a heavy heart indeed that I make these remarks in bidding farewell to the departed six young children,” Ms Chalikosa said.
Central Province minister Sydney Mushanga said the death of the pupils was a sad development for the country.
Minister of General Education, David Mabumba said as a way of mourning the departed pupils, Government in partnership with Kachipapa Farm will improve infrastructure at Poosa Primary School.
And Central Province Commissioner of police Joel Njase said the police are investigating the death of the pupils.
“We have already opened an enquiry file,” Mr Njase said.
Mr Steyn, a South African has not been arrested in connection with the death of the pupils as police say they are waiting for a post-mortem report before taking any action.
But for now many questions linger on the minds of the bereaved Serenje community. For example, why has Mr Steyn not been arrested for getting children on the boat without providing life jackets and getting the permission of their parents? What is the occupancy capacity of the boat which was carrying the 12 pupils? Was the boat overloaded?
Hopefully, police will provide answers to these questions at the end of their investigations.

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