The Le Joola Ferry Disaster of Senegal

Today is the 11th anniversary of the Le Joola ferry disaster [link] that took place off of the coast of Senegal and which became the greatest maritime disaster in history, although most remain unaware of it even having transpired. The following is a prose poem I wrote at the time. There has yet to be an investigation into the crime; they have yet to recover the victims; the world continues to remain oblivious. I dedicate this poem to the memory of those lost at sea that day, as well as to the survivors aching to establish recognition of their loss; of the fact that the disaster even happened.

Le Joola opened its gangplank wide and people climbed aboard, throngs scrambled up some ticketless, beladen with children, emburdened with bags, the not-Noah’s hordes boarded the vessel designed but for scant hundreds: School-year bound students, a soccer team, a band, endless families in their entireties—leaving Ziguinchor and its bougainvilleas, leaving Ziguinchor and its donkey carts, leaving for Dakar the ferry overflowing and top heavy—they filled the ship. Filled the decks. Two thousand-some passengers clambered up and on and in and the Pointe des Almadies–bound Le Joola headed out from port, burdened beyond Eureka, a ferry trip bridging a Gambia-split Senegal, a nothing but usual ferry voyage, ballastless and top heavy, into storm-threatened seas.

The boat cut calmly through Atlantic waters, strode slowly steaming forward that September night, the cattle-crowded voyagers asleep, or awake, listening to those seasick or an occasional crying child; listening to the droning engines, perhaps to a sea bird, to the ocean; listening to the quickening wind, to the storm-approaching winds picking up; listening to gales rising up, now washing over the deck. The wind whipped the deck and the topside passengers turned; the sea rose and met the rain washing over drenched travelers who veered, got up and turned away.

About, about the boat swayed, the passengers stood and closed their eyes and averted their wet wind-lashed faces; the storm furied and forced them away and across, all crossing the deck, seeking refuge all of them, respite from the storm that followed them, hectored them, found them hiding as slowly, slowly, the now unbalanced ferry bellowed protest and bent to the weight of too many too quickly too storm-menaced to notice the ship creaking, listing, port rising faster, then faster, bare seconds passing, Le Joola’s starboard side now bottom as the sea came up and met the rain, washing over the drenched travelers now asea; now, unseen.

The overturned ship pulled them down save a few, the lifeboats, preservers, vests attached went down and saved few, a few found safety, a raft, a flare to summon help endless hours then hence: four hours to find a flare, eight hours to notify a Navy, ten hours to summon succor ten long hours long too late. And the day broke, and those arriving in their boats and trawlers and fishing vessels looked and stared and searched the nothing all around them, as the day found nothing, the sun bounced off the ocean’s face and found nothing, the light beaming but few feet underwater found nothing, save those saved out of the endless nothing left in Le Joola’s wake, Le Joola, sea-swallowed whole and spat out nothing.

Foreign news cameras capture a Lebanese fisherman, sun-baked as clay, haggard, head bowed, a mariner recounting his rime, regretting his lateness, with his light and air too late he lamented, diving and exploring the ferry long capsized, it’s orange bottom upended, a bright skyward smile belying a ghastly cargo. “Floating around like ghosts,” he said, “they were floating around me like ghosts in a water-filled room.” He paused. “Floating around me. . .” he said, hanging his head, heaving heavy sobs into his hands, here a man who had seen War, and who had lived War, who had survived War, and who had fled War, but who will forevermore be haunted by “ghosts,” he said, “floating around me in a water-filled room.”

And now a town that has lost one of every thirty of its sons and daughters buries one of every thirty of those in sandy mounds like a forgotten Potter’s Field of graves marked by no monument, remembered by no memorial, the town’s greater-than-Titanic loss proportionally more vast than New York’s that likewise deadly September day yet no one reads their names aloud, no one writes them up in endless obituary paragraphs, no one pastes their faces on signs, lampposts, and bus stop walls, no one lays wreaths of flowers at Senegal’s doorstep: One thousand eight hundred and sixty three.

Meanwhile in the hushed streets of an astonished town a mother stares at her and her daughter’s room and fixes on the government-delivered inconsequent compensation: three sacks of rice; she measures her daughter’s worth in three sacks of rice; she weighs her daughter’s life in three sacks of rice; she chokes down her meals one cup of rice at a time. And no far away one cries for her loss but she, no far off one fathoms the depth of her grief but she and her dusty town, her Worlds-away half-drowned town where the living live lives of ought; endure days of cipher; the cynosure of no one and for no time; where westerly winds mockingly level their burial mounds, where voices find not but void, and whose children evermore float round. . .as ghosts in a water-filled room.


About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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