One of the most common boats seen on The Swahili Coast, the Ngalawa is an unmistakable and charming traditional boat.
It’s slim hull approximately 6 metres long is essentially a dugout canoe or Mtumbwi, which is what this vessel most likely evolved from. The raised bow and higher sides to the hull allow for the Ngalawa to reach out into the open seas. A pointed stern holds the rudder.
The outriggers floats are fixed to poles and are attached to the hull usually by rope bindings.
The narrow wooden floats on each outrigger glide just below the surface of the water when on even-keel, these double outriggers allow for greater stability and increased speed when under sail.
A short mast supports a spar and a lateen sail. Great skill and seamanship is required to sail an Ngalawa, made to look easy buy veteran captains and their deck-hands.
Its lateen sail is unfurled whenever possible, to take over from propelling the vessel by paddle or pole in shallower, calmer waters, such as lagoons. With a draft of around half a metre - the Ngalawa is very versatile - and can work on the shallow reefs and lagoons, as well as the open ocean.
Ngalawa’s are commonly used for fishing; by setting nets or trawling in the open seas, and it is not that unusual for fisherman on these boats to land fish as large as sailfish, tuna and shark. They are also a common mode of travelling along the coast and to and from islands, capable of carrying up to 8 to 10 people depending on the size of Ngalawa.
An ngalawa hull is generally constructed from the trunk of a mature mango tree. Having been felled the trunk is partially ‘dug out’ and shaped by hand using an adze (an ancient axe like tool used for rough-carving wood). Once the hull begins to take shape, and has become lighter and easier to transport, it will be moved to the fishing village closer to coast where the digging out and shaping work is finished. Fire is sometimes used to harden the wood and kill off any insects that may still be living and eating away at the new boat.
With the hull finalised, it is then a matter of attaching the mast, outriggers, rudder, and rigging.
There are various traditional methods of treating the wood to help preserve it, and increase the level of waterproofing of the hull. Concoctions can include shark’s intestines and tar.
The exact origin of the Ngalawa is a mystery, however it has many similarities to vessels in Indonesia. Sea-farers to distant shores, or immigrants making their way across the vast Indian Ocean could have bought and shared their craftsmanship and design, influencing the boat makers of The Swahili Coast.
Outrigger canoes are also common in the Pacific; and the use of single or double stabilising outriggers is common sense and a logical advancement to the generally instable and balance challenging dugout canoe.