The Joola: The Geographical Dimensions of Africa's Greatest Shipwreck

Karen Barton, Department of Geography & GIS, University of Northern Colorado
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2016.60.4f


Figure 1: MV Joola in 1991. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 2002, the Joola, a government-owned Senegalese ferry, capsized off the coast of The Gambia, killing an estimated 1,863 people and leaving 64 survivors (Figure 1). The Joola is recognized as the second-worst non-wartime maritime disaster in world history, yet few Americans are aware of this event, nor of the impacts it had on Senegambian society. Despite more casualties than the Titanic, to date there has been no academic literature devoted to the Joola incident, nor a comprehensive scholarly investigation into how the agricultural and fishing communities of Southern Senegal were disproportionately affected by the event. Among those lost were 450 youth, en route to the capital of Dakar, where many young people pursued postsecondary education not available in their home communities. The lack of attention to the Joola tragedy is not surprising, given how little the Western media covers the thousands of events each year that take place across Sub-Saharan Africa, both positive and negative.

A handful of journalistic accounts have focused on the logistical errors leading up to the shipwreck, as well as the stories of those few individuals who managed to survive the wreck (Auvray 2012; Becker 2012; Wiley 2012). My project builds upon these accounts by way of an academic field investigation into the historic roots of the crisis and its specific consequences for the southern Casamance region of Senegal. The fieldwork posed broad, overarching questions, including: what were the push and pull factors that encouraged and enabled communities from the agricultural region of Casamance to travel via the Joola ferry to urbanized Dakar in the first place? What were the historic, environmental, and political conditions within which the Joola tragedy occurred? How was the Joola incident a product of the south’s disenfranchisement in the wake of war and colonial partitioning of Senegambia? And how has the tragedy been remembered and memorialized in communities across the region? This narrative aims to reach a broader global audience who, to date, may know little of the event or of those communities mostaffected by this tragedy.

Political and Resource History of Senegambia

In the wake of the Berlin Conference of 1855, the West African region known as Senegambia became another casualty of colonial cartography. England declared The Gambia River a British protectorate and the French, who maintained settlements along the Atlantic coast, were allocated the rest (De Jong and Gasser 2005). As a consequence, Senegal is one of the few modern states to have a political nation partially enclosed within its own territorial borders. These arbitrary colonial divisions split extended families in the region, challenge future transportation networks, and contribute to long-term disparities between north and south.

Figure 2: The forest-savanna ecoregion of Casamance.

The Gambia bisects Senegal along The Gambia River and penetrates 320 km easterly (and only 35 km in width) from the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, the southern arm of the country centered in Casamance has served as a rural resource base and a counterpoint to urban Dakar, the capital and the north at large. The Casamance region was once part of the Mandinka Empire of Kaabu (ca. 1537-1867), which was a province of the Mali Empire (ca. 1235-1600) before it became independent following the empire’s decline (Ngom 2016). Now classified by the World Wildlife Fund as part of the forest-savanna ecoregion, the Casamance has served as the nation’s breadbasket (Figure 2), where irrigation-fed rice, groundnuts, and mangoes are cultivated at a subsistence level (Evans 2005). In addition to agricultural resources, Senegal is also a nation of artisanal fisheries, a sector that employs more than 200,000 people operating lines, traps, and nets in traditional pirogues, and representing 22 percent of the state’s exports (Linares 1996; Evans 2005). Owing to these unique geographic conditions, the resource-rich Casamance is home to the majority of these artisanal fishermen and farmers (Cormier-Salem 1995).

Figure 3: Trucks at the Senegal-Gambia border.

For farmers and fishers wishing to get products to market in Dakar, the most direct road from the Casamance’s capital city of Ziguinchor is through The Gambia (Figure 3). Transporting products through this small nation requires crossing two international borders and the River Gambia, which makes the journey expensive and slow owing to frequent delays with the local ferry. The political unrest in small pockets of northern Casamance and The Gambia may also render the trip via road dangerous.

Bypassing The Gambia to reach Dakar by road can often take two days, yet plane flights from Ziguinchor are costly, limited, and thus financially out of reach for most small-scale producers. In 1990, the Joola ferry thus began transporting passengers and vehicles between Ziguinchor and Dakar around The Gambian border to help combat these logistical challenges. When service on the ferry first commenced, it was perceived as a safe, inexpensive, and reliable transportation lifeline for communities residing in the region, and a direct link to the modern world of Dakar. Although most of the passengers onboard the Joola worked in Ziguinchor’s service sector, it was also common for students to utilize the ferry transport system on their way to and from the Cheik Anta Diop University (Senegal’s national university in Dakar). Similarly, the ship was periodically employed to transport Senegalese troops and military supplies needed for the ongoing separatist conflict in Casamance. On one level, this new linkage between Dakar and Ziguinchor represented a symbolic national attempt to address the geographic marginalization of the southern Jola people.

The Jola (or Diola) people, for which the ship was named, are the main ethnic group in the Casamance, but comprise only a small percentage (4 percent) of the state’s total population.The Wolof are the dominant ethnic group, comprising 43 percent of Senegal (Mahling Clark 2011). Colonial attempts to subjugate the Jola had little success, since they were known as fierce resisters, and over time, one of the few groups to have kept their culture intact. The Jola were also the last community to accept Islam or Christianity, and today they still maintain animistic traditions that center around a supreme being called Emit, or Ata Emit, the one who resides in the sky. Senegalese oral history shows us that like many indigenous religions in Africa, nature and the role of sacred forests and wetlands of the Casamance have great importance in their cosmology.

Figure 4: Protecting property with the presence of the supernatural in Casamance.
Figure 5: Cows on the beach in Cap Skirring

Even everyday subsistence activities such as the rice harvest---a staple food in the region---are ritualized and perceived as spiritual events by local farmers and fishers Figure 4; Evans 2005). The Jola’s southern lowland base of the Casamance is also known as one of the most beautiful geographic areas of Senegal. Seasonal rainfall is greater than in the northern Sahelian region, and the nutrient rich soils are fertile and well suited for subsistence agriculture. The natural aesthetic endowment of beaches and wetlands such as Cap Skirring have made the region a good candidate for nature tourism (Figure 5), which was launched in the 1980s, but then hindered by the separatist war. By and large, the Casamance’s fertile soils and unique coastal location have helped facilitate the more long-term, sustainable economies of fishing and agriculture (Cormier-Salem 1994; Figure 6 and 7 ).

Figure 6: Pirogues in Casamance
Figure 7: Mango sellers in southern Senegal

The War and Southern Disenfranchisement

The south’s---and by virtue, the Jola’s---economic and geographic marginalization within the larger state apparatus contributed to the founding of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) in 1982 (Deets 2016). Then, beginning in the 1990s, this insurgency became characterized by sporadic violence, a development that exacerbated existing transportation challenges for those seeking to circumvent the conflict and continue their livelihoods. The war also directly affected subsistence economies, since conflicts with rebels altered the Jola’s summer harvesting activities. For example, the presence of landmines meant that farmers could not work in the fields in northern Casamance safely nor easily move their produce to markets.

Figure 8: Elementary school classroom in the Tilene neighborhood of Ziguinchor (photo taken through the cement wall).

The state also retarded the south’s regional development by postponing establishing a postsecondary institution in Ziguinchor until 2007. In Senegal, education is highly valued, and while UNESCO indicates that 38 percent of African adults (52 percent for Senegal) are illiterate, research by Ngom shows that current estimates do not reflect the actual literacy rate in predominantly Muslim countries like Senegal (UNESCO 2009). Undercounting results from omitting alternative forms of literacy. For example, in parts of Africa, literacy may take the form of Ajami, a localized Arabic script for use in commerce and everyday life, and learned in Quranic schools rather than state institutions (Ngom 2016). Despite Ajami’s widespread use in marketing, political campaigns, and everyday life, the local language is not calculated as part of national statistics, and therefore the importance of literacy to local communities is often underestimated (Figure 8).

One cannot overemphasize the relationship between the tragedy and the central role of education, including literacy, in Casamance . When the Joola sank off the coast of The Gambia in 2002, the ship carried more than 450 university students; these young people were en route to Dakar seeking a college education unavailable to them in the south. Even younger children traveled for education resources not available to them locally. In the traditional southern Jola village of Mlomp alone (pop: 2,628) a total of 45 schoolchildren perished on the ferry (Wiley 2012). The lack of a postsecondary educational institution in Casamance may have contributed to a brain drain that occurred in the wake of the Joola disaster.

The Joola Ferry Disaster

Built in Germany for the Republic of Senegal, the MV Joola was employed on the Dakar to Ziguinchor coastal route and operated by the armed forces beginning in 1990. The Joola was a 2087 ton roll-on roll-off ferry (length: 79.5 m; beam: 12 m; draft: 3.1 m) with a carrying capacity of approximately 44 crew members, 536 passengers, and 35 cars. The ship was built to Senegalese specifications with the intent of transporting passengers and vehicles in both rivers and Atlantic coastal areas. The ferry had to be capable of navigating the shallow waters of the Casamance and the deep-sea passage of 150 miles between ports (Figure 9).

Figure 9: The Casamance River at Bignona, the main waterway of Ziguinchor.

Her seagoing stability was dependent on internal ballast of fuel and water, but its flat bottom hull and shallow-draft design did not facilitate them (Wiley 2012). The shipbuilder Neue Germersheimer Schiffswerft would later claim that the boat was designed solely as a coastal vessel, meaning she should sail no more than six hours (roughly fifty nautical miles) from shore. Others contended that the Joola was only intended for river waterways such as the Rhine or the Casamance River, though the Senegalese public was never made aware of these spatial restrictions. In fact, the boat was operated by the Senegalese military and not subject to conventional regulations of international maritime agencies.

Between September 13, 2001, and September 10, 2002, the Joola was out of operation, as it had undergone mechanical damage repair and replacement of the portside engine. Thus the ferry had only resumed operation for two weeks when it sank off the coast of The Gambia. People from fifteen countries, including the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain, Norway, Belgium, Cameroon, Ghana, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Guinea lost their lives in the disaster, but the overwhelming majority of those who perished were from Senegal, particularly the southern portion of the country. The sunken ship now sits at a depth of 21 m just 35 km from shore, and there are as yet no plans to raise the wreck from these relatively shallow waters.

Responsibility for the ferry wreck---while not the central focus of this narrative---has been widely debated at the regional and state level. As noted earlier, the Joola’s seagoing capabilities were frequently questioned, as was her service record. Simon Boissy, who managed the Joola Company for five years, reported that the disaster was the result of poor maintenance. A native of Casamance who lost family members in the event, Boissy stated that the ship was designed to last thirty to forty years, yet by 2002, after only twelve years in operation, she was found to be in “poor condition.”

Figure 10: groundnuts (peanuts), mangoes, and numerous other products are prepared for shipment north.

Others argued with more specificity that the ship resumed service prematurely after insufficient engine repairs in the wake of its one-year hiatus. Critics suggest that her early return to sea was motivated by the Senegalese government’s wish to appease separatist rebel forces in Casamance, who were heavily dependent (like all those from the Casamance region) upon shipping agricultural products---whether mangoes or palm oil---north to Dakar (Figure 10). This act of goodwill on the part of the government was also complicated by the fact that in the months before the accident, Senegalese truck drivers had been forced to pay higher fares in order to cross Gambia River. In addition to these increased tariffs, President Jammeh’s decades-long dictatorship made safety a concern for those crossing The Gambia. It was clear that the Senegalese government needed the Joola back in operation in order to smooth over and distract from the complicated geopolitics and economic realities of the South.

When the ferry disaster occurred, the boat was carrying three times the allowable number of passengers, and so overcrowding was a major causal factor in the tragedy. Some argued that it was the tradition in Senegal, as in many West African countries, to allow impoverished people to travel on ferries for free in a “show of solidarity.” Many individuals residing in coastal villages near Ziguinchor and the Island of Carabane at the time reported the way the ship was listing as it left port; some people chose to abandon plans to board the ferry after witnessing the unusually large crowds.

There is also evidence that ferry officials garnered kickbacks in exchange for letting non-ticketed passengers onboard the Joola. A recent report by Transparency International (2015) suggests that 75 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have paid a bribe in the past year, usually in the pursuit of basic everyday services. Senegal is no exception, where, despite the state’s new anticorruption law, bribery has been common among low-level officials and petty corruption is a way of life (Transparency International 2015). In fact, former President Abdoulaye Wade---in office at the time of the disaster---was charged for massive embezzlement and misuse of public funds. While current President Macky Sall has striven to rectify this problem through the creation of the Ministry of the Promotion of Good Governance, at the time of the original crisis, “facilitation” or “grease payments” were more widespread. Casamance residents reported that it was common to board the Joola last minute by paying ferry officials off record and in cash (Auvray 2012; Wiley 2012).

Some did not see overcrowding as the central cause in the Joola disaster, citing rather the impacts of a storm that had moved rapidly onto the coast of Senegambia. Indeed, the majority of tropical storms affecting Africa occur in September, the month of the shipwreck, and there are three existing tropical cyclone recording stations in West Africa---one in Dakar---designed to monitor such events. However, since easterly winds carry storms away from land, as in the case of Senegambia, these storms tend to be weak compared to those in the western Atlantic. Former Navy Commander Ousenou Combo said in remarks quoted by AP news agency that “there was no problem of weight or overloading of a nature that would cause this situation.” Rather, he implicated bad weather---or a “fierce, brief gale that had blown into the eastern Atlantic” (Associated Press 2002). While survivors of the shipwreck agree that the captain sailed into a storm at 11:00 pm, it is difficult to debunk the overcrowding hypothesis as a root cause. The 1,000 additional passengers on the Joola were well beyond the ship’s specified capacity, and while this may not have caused the sinking, it contributed to the overall death toll.

In the days following the event, officials would blame the storm in lieu of citing mechanical flaws. President Wade declared that the ship had been overloaded and accepted the resignations of two officials tied to the disaster: Transportation Minister Youssouph Sakho and Armed Forces Minister Youba Sambo. In 2003, President Wade announced the case was closed and blamed the incident on the Joola’s Captain, Issa Diarra, who ultimately died in the shipwreck. Survivors in Casamance and elsewhere were not satisfied with handling of the disaster nor of the concessions made to victims’ families and the French temporarily launched their own formal investigation into the disaster.

Research by Rothe and his colleagues has taken a broader view, labeling the Joola a crime of globalization rather than an act of nature or poor state management (2006). The authors argue that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the primary international development institutions, had pressured Senegal to privatize and repay debts rather than use funds to improve social programs such as transportation networks or education programs in the south.

Reparations and Remembrances of the Joola Shipwreck

Not all of the bodies from the shipwreck were recovered, which has been a source of frustration for victims’ families and survivors even to this day. In the cemetery of Mbao, a suburb of Dakar, over 100 of the Joola’s unidentified victims have been laid to rest---their graves numbered rather than named---while others were buried in coastal sites and villages southward toward The Gambia and Ziguinchor. The National Association of Families of the Victims of the Joola (ANFV-Joola) was formed in response to the community’s frustration over the state’s management of the crisis. The ANFV-Joola demanded state reparations for victims’ families as well as a clear plan to recognize and memorialize this national tragedy. In Dakar, the Place du Souvenir is the central memorial space for the Joola tragedy in the Senegalese north, yet despite being on the Route de la Corniche Ouest---the main road of Dakar---), the site receives few visitors.

Figure 11: African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Sengal. Photo by Olivia Jackson

In contrast, just a few kilometers from the Place du Souvenir toward Yoff is the African Renaissance Monument, a 49-m bronze statue, built for $27 million in 2010 under President Abdoulaye Wade and constructed by Mansudae Overseas Project, a North Korean company (Figure 11). The tallest statue in Africa, it was unveiled in Dakar in front of nineteen heads of state on Senegal’s National Day and designed as a “prestige project” that would underscore Africa’s arrival into the twenty-first century. The ambitious monument---a first stop for visitors to Dakar---has been criticized for hoovering funds that could have been better used for infrastructure, education, and health care in an already struggling Senegal economy. The monument also includes a scantily clad, bare-breasted woman holding a child, which has been interpreted as being culturally insensitive to Senegal’s conservative Muslim majority. Thousands have protested the statue’s erection, and members of the ANFV-Joola coalition have questioned why some of those monies were not channeled into helping Joola victims or better memorializing the tragedy considering the overlapping time frame of Renaissance edifice and Joola disaster.

Figure 12: Ziguinchor memorial near the Casamance River
Figure 13: The forty-two numbered graves at Cimetiere Kantene des Victimes du Bateau le Joola in 2017

In the South, the only existing remembrance to the Joola is a monument in a small Ziguinchor riverine park along with the nearby Cimitiere de Kantene, where many victims have been buried (Figures 12 & 13). In 2015, the Ministry of Culture and Communication proposed the creation of a larger and grander memorial called Bateau le Joola, which would recognize individuals in Casamance disproportionately affected by the shipwreck. The edifice will be erected on the edge of the Casamance River with land made available by the city of Ziguinchor. Built on an 1800 square meter site to honor the approximate number of victims lost in the tragedy, Bateau le Joola will take the form of a boat and include spaces for reflection and remembrance (Figure 14). As of this writing, there is no targeted date for the project or a clear indication of how the project will be funded.

Figure 14: Artistic rendition of Bateau le Joola (Source: Senegalese Ministry of Culture and Communication)

Contemporary Reflections on the Aftermath

Students often ask why we do not learn more about the Joola shipwreck given her sheer scale relative to the Titanic as well as the incident’s overall significance for West African people. Researchers have pointed out that American media coverage of Africa devotes significantly more attention to wars, corruption, starvation, and disease than to human interest or development stories in the region (Osunde 1996; Ayisi and Brylla 2013; Nigel 2013; Oguh 2015; Mericle 2016). Indeed, most Joola-related news concentrates principally on September 25, 2002---the date of the tragedy---and fails to address the complex geographical causes and consequences undergirding the incident, including the colonial politics that split a nation in half. Yet most Americans and Senegalese know, and have internalized, the story of of the Titanic---the who, where, and the why. In fact, some Senegalese feared boarding the Joola having remembered well the Titanic’s fate. “Of course we recall the Titanic,” reported one young pirogue operator employed in the Saloum delta. “It is a story we grew up with, and one that made us scared of any big ships” (personal communication 2016).

It can be argued that the availability of new technologies such as social media have served to inundate us with countless stories about humanitarian crises, creating a media fatigue not present back when the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. We may not lack empathy, but perhaps have had our fill. Yet this does still not explain the overwhelmingly vast gap in African media coverage relative to stories on other parts of the world. Are we indifferent to the tragedy because it belongs to Africa, another crisis in a string of perceived crises across the subcontinent? The Joola incident was more than a footnote for Africa---it was the continent’s worst shipwreck in recorded history, yet the event has been virtually ignored in print with France being the notable exception (Gounongbe 2003; Sengor 2004; Auvray 2012; Becker and Diallo 2012; Wiley 2012; Nassardine 2013).

This narrative argues that to elevate global awareness and prevent similar disasters we must first situate the wreck within the context of a country that was geographically, politically,and economically divided. The south’s isolation from the north at large, the separatist war in Casamance, The Gambia’s position in the middle of this geographic divide---all of these circumstances facilitated the Joola ferry line’s creation. These are not causal factors, rather they help us to understand what geographers call “the why of where,” or in this case why passengers boarded that overnight ferry in the first place rather than taking the long road north. Framing it in this way---through a geographic lens---helps us to humanize the tragedy so we can then adequately memorialize the Jola fishermen, farmers, and students who were lost.

Figure 15: The Aline Sitoe Diatta at the Port of Ziguinchor in 2017, which replaced the Joola.

In the city of Ziguinchor today communities continue to remember and honor the Joola victims despite the state’s failure to properly make due on promises for reparations or recognition. A new ferry, the Aline Sitoe Diatta---named after the Jola heroine who is often called the Joan of Arc of Senegal---replaced the Joola in 2008 and runs two voyages per week between Dakar and Ziguinchor. Communities have moved on but not forgotten the human impacts of this unprecedented event (Figure 15). While the south’s geographic isolation from the north will continue given that The Gambia still bisects the country’s midsection, new land transportation routes may be freed up in the wake of Jammeh's departure from power in The Gambia.

Ironically, the south now faces new spatial challenges related to globalization and environmental factors beyond the Casamance’s control. This includes the specter---and reality---of climate change as well as the rapid rise of illegal fishing in coastal Senegalese waters (Jacobs 2017). Casamance producers are to a certain extent bounded by their geographic isolation, but climate change and illegal fishing ignore those same boundaries. With 80 percent of Senegalese involved in the agricultural sector, climate change is expected to have significant impacts upon farms in the rural south (Dinar,et al. 2008). Rice cultivation---a Senegalese staple---is being particularly hard hit, as are coastal areas where rainfall has already been reduced. Senegalese Farmer Field schools recognize global warming’s inevitability and are focusing specifically on implementing forestry, pastoral, and agricultural practices that are resilient to climate change (Food and Agricultural Organization 2015).

Like climate change, illegal fishing vessels overlook national boundaries, and artisanal fisheries in Casamance have been particularly damaged by their incursion. A recent study found that illegal fishing amounts to the equivalent of 65 percent of the catch from West African waters, equaling a loss of US$2.3 billion annually (Doumouya, et al. 2017). In Senegal, Chinese vessels, which represent the majority of illegal vessels, will go so far as to fly the Senegalese flag in order to evade capture by the Senegalese coast guard. And because fish is the primary source of protein for West Africans, food security is a concern that is front and center on Senegal’s national agenda (Doumouya,et al. 2017).

Figure 16: University of Ziguinchor classrooms. Photo by Olivia Jackson.

One question is whether or not the isolation, the tragedy, and the forces of globalization will cause Casamance residents to migrate---as is in the case in the African Sahel---or instead to dig deeper family roots in the southern wetlands and stay put. Those from Casamance have a strong sense of place and identity grounded in a local pride any visitor to the region can easily observe. Furthermore, the construction of the University of Ziguinchor in 2007 (Figure 16) has provided a motivation for Ziguinchor youth to remain and thus reduce the former effects of brain drain wherein young people traveled to Dakar for higher education.

In 2002, Casamance resident Alpha Oumar was one of those students who had left Ziguinchor to earn the bachelor’s degree at Cheik Anta Diop University. In the wake of the disaster, his father told the story of how his son boarded the Joola, but was one of the 1,863 majority who did not survive the wreck. Alpha was a second year geography student with the dream of eventually becoming a university professor, his story not unlike so many others onboard. While the fate of Alpha and all the victims of the Joola were both preventable and senseless, Murid ideology (the mystic philosophy of Sufism) provides a lens through which Senegalese view the world and make meaning out of of all lived experiences, including the most tragic. Some 95 percent of Senegalese are Muslim, and rafet njort---a central Murid tenet and a word that means “beautiful optimism in the face of difficulty”---is a worldview that informs everyday life (Ngom 2016).

This narrative is dedicated to Alpha Oumar and all Senegalese people in the hopes that these stories will be shared in the spirit of rafet njort rather than the Afropessimism that pervades contemporary discourse about the continent.


I wish to thank the West African Research Center, the Department of Education (Fulbright Hays program) and the University of Northern Colorado Office of Sponsored Research for their support. I am also indebted to Casey Miller and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.

Karen S. Barton is an associate professor of Geography & G.I.S. and co-director of the Environmental and Sustainability Program at the University of Northern Colorado. Her research and teaching focuses on the challenges facing maritime and agricultural communities in various locations around the world. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Africa’s greatest shipwreck, the Joola ferry disaster of 2002.