Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Dakar to Ziguinchor to Dakar
Creaking along on the train from Bamako to Dakar, we passed bent, overturned box cars and tanker cars that had been shunted to the side and forgotten, the result of an accident just a few weeks before. I have little doubt they’ll stay there for years. And I recently saw a statistic that between 2004 and 2005 557 people were killed and 2,581 injured in bus crashes in Peru. Disasters don’t usually change things much in the Third World.
Things seemed different with the ferry between Dakar and Ziguinchor, Senegal. I was a bit nervous buying my ticket for the 15-hour voyage along the coast, past the sliver of The Gambia, which cuts southern Senegal in half, and up the Casamance River into Ziguinchor. The present ferry was new, German built. But so was the MV Joola, which was just 12 years old when it left Ziguinchor late in the afternoon of September 26, 2002, bound for Dakar.
Ziguinchor is a hot, dusty city of 400,000, the capital of the Casamance, a flat world of waterways and mangroves and the Diola people. The Joola had a capacity of 580. But the rainy season was hammering the already bad road to Dakar, and so many people wanted to travel it had taken Pierre Colly, a 19-year-old Senegalese student, and his older brother, three days to get a ticket. By the time the Joola cast off from the concrete mole and glided into the river more than 1,000 had officially purchased tickets. Just as the train from Bamako carried a constantly rotating crowd of freeloaders on the roof, at least another 500 had slipped a little something to crewmembers for a place on board the Joola. The ship was already listing. Even worse in Africa where portents loom large: rumors were circulating that the Joola had swamped a pirogue as it pulled away, drowning a fisherman.
The Aline Sitoe Diatta, the Joola’s replacement, almost seemed deserted, and it gleamed – not a chip or flake or rust darkened its decks or rails. Unusual for the Third World: lessons appeared to have been learned. I claimed a fourth class seat and hit the bar on the stern, slaking my thirst with a lukewarm Royal Dutch lager, and we slipped away under a bright moon at nine, to arrive in baking heat at noon the next day.
But I was conscious every minute, and so were my fellow passengers, of the Joola’s voyage along this same route. As the ship, already overloaded, passed Carabane Island hundreds more swarmed out and clambered aboard. By the time it hung a right out of the river into the Atlantic at least 1,862 were aboard, though no one really knows how many.
Colly and his brother were in the crowded bar; a band was playing. A rain squall hit. Colly was nervous, who can know why, exactly, but he had a bad feeling. He stood next to the window. Around 11 pm the Joola thumped. The lights went out. “What’s happening?” people screamed. The lights flickered on, and then off again. Colly clutched his seat hard, tried to open the window further. Rain. Darkness. The Joola rolled, Colly reached for his brother and a girl next to him, as he clung to his chair. A sound hit, a sound he’d never heard before that haunts him still: the sound of tons of Atlantic Ocean rushing into the bar. Luck. Providence. The ocean sucked Colly right out of the window and he was gasping for air in the waves, where he would cling to a fish trip for six hours as a handful of survivors tired and slipped beneath the water around him. “It was so cold,” Colly says, “but God pushed me out the window and I said I must fight.”
I talked to Colly in a crumbling building in Ziguinchor. He is one of 62 survivors, 61 of them men, known as “the rescapes.” No journalist or government official or investigator had ever spoken to him before, no one had ever offered him counseling. He spoke looking down, choking up.
Colly lost his older brother. He quit school. And he was a marked man in Ziguinchor, a rescape, a freak. “People look at me and think I’m weird. They say ‘why did you survive? Why did you live? It’s not normal!’ People call me the rescape. They say ‘you saved yourself and the rest died.’ Sometimes I want to leave Ziguinchor and go from here.”
We read about Third World disasters in three-line news reports and the dead are numbers. Another bus crash! Another ferry sinking!
Now Colly was a driving a battered yellow taxi with no door handles. It was time for me to go – the Diatta was leaving for Dakar in an hour. Colly drove me to the ship for my voyage back to Dakar. As I climbed out I asked if he’d been on the ship again. “No, never,” he said, looking away.
At 3 pm the Diatta’s engines thrummed and we slid away, and I was happy that the ship looked so new and there were few people aboard. This time, at least.