The Joola, the shipwreck and its aftermath told and put into perspective by literature

The Joola, the day of the sinking, September 26, 2002. Photo taken by a tourist and broadcast on television on September 29.


Text by: Tirthankar Chanda Follow

13 mins

Twenty years ago, the legendary Senegalese ferry, the


, disappeared off the coast of The Gambia .

This drama has inspired numerous essays, testimonies, poems and novels. 


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On September 26, 2022, Senegal is commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the sinking of the 


ferry on the  high seas. Twenty years later, for lack of a memorial worthy of the name and in the absence of answers to the questions raised by the accident, the memory of this terrible drama which could no doubt have been avoided, continues to haunt the African collective memory.

For the Senegalese, the


was not a boat like any other.

German-made and in service since 1995, this mythical boat, 76.5 meters long and 12.5 meters wide, linked the capital Dakar to Ziguinchor, capital of the rebel southern province, Casamance.

As the region was difficult to access by road, because of the geographical corridor of Gambia which separates it from Senegalese territory, the


constituted a kind of umbilical cord between the north and the south of Senegal.

It was regularly used by tourists, but especially by young Casamance students who were studying in the capital, by soldiers on leave and,

last but not least

, by merchant women – the famous bana-bana – leaving to sell their goods in Dakar.

On September 26, 2002, around 11 p.m., the overloaded ferry carrying more than 2,000 passengers when it was designed to carry 550, capsized during a violent storm that overturned the ship in a few minutes "

like a calabash

", leaving the passengers little chance of survival.

It was one of the worst disasters in maritime history, with according to official figures 1,863 dead and missing, of twenty-two different nationalities.

Among the victims of the


, 608 bodies were recovered and only 64 passengers survived the disaster.

The toll was much higher than that of the


, the sinking of which caused some 1,500 deaths.

A topic of choice

As with the


, the impact and scale of the


tragedy make it a subject of choice for journalists, social networks and television.

They seize it on each anniversary date or on the occasion of the outbreak of controversy around the cynical treatment, never up to the event, reserved for the victims by the Senegalese political class and the justice system.

The sinking of the "Senegalese Titanic" has also inspired essays, investigations, testimonies by survivors and relatives of victims, as well as works of imagination by often leading writers.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade with his consulting architect Pierre Goudiaby in front of the model of the Joola memorial project.

RFI/Laurent Correau

The giant of Senegalese letters Boubacar Boris Diop was moreover one of the first writers to take up the subject in the columns of the Parisian monthly

Le Monde diplomatique

(1), in December 2002, to deplore the compassionate failure of Senegalese institutions in the face of dramas and tragedies experienced by citizens.

In his moving and lucid testimony, the only French survivor of the sinking, Patrice Auvray, denounces the treatment of the sinking of the


as "

a matter of state

" by the Senegalese power, in particular by the former president Abdoulaye Wade qualified by the author of "

the most eminent responsible for the poor workmanship of the time


Born from the desire to understand the causes of the capsizing of the


, the works inspired by this tragedy stand out for the light they shed on the greatness and constraints of the human condition.

“Remember the Joola”

All genres combined, around twenty books have been published to date, inspired by tragedy.

Most of these publications fall under the category of “survey-trials”.

These deliveries include, in addition to the two official investigation reports (2) and (3), essays endeavoring to explain the progress, the reasons and the responsibilities which led to this terrible shipwreck, as does with talent and rigor a Casamance enthusiast, Bruno Parizot, in his book

Joola: the shipwreck of shame


The tone of Bruno Parizot's work is given from the title and the nightmare that it describes at length, is still perpetuated today.

Twenty years after the tragedy, families are fighting against oblivion and for justice to point out negligence and responsibility.

Recall that the Senegalese justice closed the file without further action, concluding that the captain on board, who disappeared in the sinking, was solely responsible.

As for the hexagonal justice, seized by the families of the French victims of the accident, it saw its momentum stopped dead by a definitive dismissal.

As a last resort, the families appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which is due to rule soon on the outcome of the case.

The works published in the "testimonials" category are particularly rich, with, among others, stories by psychologists such as Ari Gounogbé (5) and Françoise Legrand (6), who had to manage the shock of the survivors and the distress of the families. of victims.

Psychiatrist in Dakar, Françoise Legrand returns in her work to the impossibility of mourning for families.

His thesis is based on the importance of the funeral ritual among the Diolas where the absence of the body or the personal effects of the deceased is an obstacle to the conduct of the funeral according to the ancestral rites.

Cover of the book - "Souviens du Joola" by Patrice Auvray

Also precious is the opus by Patrice Auvray, one of the most striking texts of the essays inspired by the Joola drama.

Published ten years after the accident, the testimony of Patrice Auvray is that of a survivor, one of the 64 survivors and the only Frenchman to have survived the accident.

Dedicated to the "memory of the 2,000 abandoned victims",

Remember the Joola

(7) reads like a logbook, recounting the unfolding of the drama step by step: from the boarding of the condemned ferry of the author and his partner Corinne, alias "Coco", until the days that followed sinking, including the overturning of the ship, the disappearance of “Coco” in the murderous waters, the night spent on the upturned hull of the boat, the endless wait for the arrival of rescuers – a wait haunted by muffled voices and the cries of the passengers who hadn't managed to get out of the sinking boat – and “

the impossible return to the living


The most morally poignant pages, which are difficult to sustain, are those where the author recounts the arrival of the rescuers.

Installed in the fisherman's canoe that had come to recover him and the other survivors, the Auvray survivor was looking aft in the direction of the emerged hull he had just left, wondering if the rescuers would come to get the passengers prisoners out. inside the ship's carcass, quickly turning into a vast marine graveyard.

I still wonder, writes the author, if I am not making a mistake when I leave.

The feeling that oppresses me has not disappeared, quite the contrary, and to see the hull of the upturned Joola moving away upsets me instead of freeing me.

I want to jump into the flowing water and go back there…


It's hard not to be moved by these pages, which offer no catharsis or hope for the future of a world to which the survivors will return, a world which, through its selfishness and negligence, was responsible for the tragedy that the victims experienced. .

Joola's novel

If it was necessary to wait for the years 2019-2020 to see fiction take hold of the Joola disaster, the writers were sensitive, from the announcement of the sinking, to the symbolic weight of this drama for the Senegalese and African collective consciousness. more broadly, as evidenced by the open letter from Boubacar Boris Diop published in the French press in 2004, cited above.

In this perspective, the publication in 2004 of a collective work of short stories, under the title Mo Room?

(8) is an important date.

Born out of a writing workshop organized around the dramatic and narrative potential of victims' relatives, this brief volume of seven short stories was intended, as Frédéric Fioletti recalls in an article published on the portal, quoting the foreword to the book, "

to assume our part in the fact historically constituted by the sinking of the


and to carry out a civic action in order to fulfill a duty of memory and homage to the disappeared


The approach is reminiscent of the operation "Rwanda: writing by duty of memory", which brought together at the end of the last century African artists and intellectuals engaged in a work of memory on the genocide of the Tutsis.

The memorial approach was also that of poets such as Babacar Sall, Ndaw Ibrahima or Patrice Auvray, authors of several collections of poems paying homage to the victims of the Joola (9).

The approach of the novelists, who enter the scene late, is different: it is above all literary and narrative.

This is the case in

Les Veilleurs de Sangomar

(10) by the Senegalese Fatou Diome, published in 2019. This novel tells the story of a young Senegalese woman, who lost her husband in the sinking of the


, and who undertakes a identity and spiritual quest so as not to sink in turn.

It is a story about mourning, the status of women in African society and about writing in which the protagonist finds her strength to resist a patriarchal and hostile world that persists in reducing her to her identity as a widow. and of a woman dependent on the goodwill of men.  

Also released in 2019,


(11) by Fantah Touré is also driven by literary ambition.

The protagonists of the novel, Jonas and Ayna fell in love, then they moved away.

Jonas painfully recalls their relationship, after Ayna disappears in the shipwreck with the two children she was carrying.

At the heart of the plot, carried out with brio and subtlety, the shipwreck which is as much that of the boat as that of the complicity of hearts which did not resist the desire for power and the wear and tear of feelings.

Portrait of the writer Adrien Absolu.

He publishes "The disappeared of Joola" with JC Lattès editions Credits: Olivier Culmann

However, the real novel of Joola, we owe it to the Frenchman Adrien Absolut, journalist and project manager within the “Africas” department of the French Development Agency (AFD).

Halfway between narrative and investigation, his book

The Disappeared of Joola

(12) innovates by recounting the drama of the Senegalese ferry through the fictionalized voices of the victims and the testimonies of the survivors, while mixing in the author's own fascination. for Casamance and his empathy for the families of the victims "who tried everything" to understand what happened on the fateful day of September 26, 2002.

It was by discovering the immensity of the drama, its incomparable human toll and the weak trace that the event may have left in public opinion that I started writing this book

”, says Adrien Absolutely.

The trigger, says the author, came from his meeting with a French mother crying in her deep countryside for her son swept away by the disaster that occurred off the coast of distant Gambia.

The meeting took place in 2012 and the missing person, Dominique Peroni, became the thread of a story that had not been told.

The upstream work of readings, investigations and documentation, coupled with "

care given to the writing, the structures and the articulations

" explains the fluidity of the story that we read in the pages of Les

Disparus du Joola.


These pages do not content themselves with recounting the unfolding of the drama, they go back to the history of Casamance and that of the birth certificate of the


in a shipyard on the bank of the Rhine, before leading to the impossible mourning for the relatives of the victims.

The novel aims to be didactic, polemical, even poetic and mystical.

Evidenced by the reproduction in its entirety of the poem found in the computer of the deceased Dominique Peroni.

A poem, strangely premonitory, announcing the shipwreck to come.

The sea / salty torrent / fatal element to which I have devoted everything / you destroy me / I loved you so much when you rocked me on your calm, soothing waves / Now, when the sky rumbles / you are unleashed / My frail boat bends under your prodigious strength...

“, wrote the young man in an ode to the sea entitled “The voluptuous sea”, a few weeks before embarking on his disastrous destiny.

It is not the least quality of Adrien Absolut's story to have pointed out the potential for anticipation of literature, thus falling within the heritage of Jules Verne, Franz Kafka and a certain Morgan Robertson who had recounted the sinking of the


fourteen years in advance.  


1 -

Letter to a friend on the sinking of the "Joola"

, by Boubacar Boris Diop.

Le Monde Diplomatique

, December 2002

2 - Report of the Technical Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the sinking of the boat Joola.

Collective work chaired by Seydou Madani Sy.

Dakar, November 4, 2002.

3 - Sinking of the Senegalese ferry following the "Joola" disaster, by Jean-Raymond Thomas and Michel Tricot.

Expert report for the High Court of Evry.


4 -

Joola, the shipwreck of shame

, by Bruno Parizot.

AAP Edition, 2004.  

5 -

In the Joola storm.

Emotional debriefing after a mass disaster

, by Ari Gounongbé.

The Harmattan, 2003.

6 -

Work of mourning, therapeutic acts among the Diola following the sinking of the boat "Joola".

Thesis defended at the University of Paris VIII, 2003.

7 -

Remember the Joola

, by Patrice Auvray.

Globophile editions, 2012.


Mo Room?

, by Collective.

Senegalese Printing, Dakar, 2004.

9 –

Poems for the shipwrecked and survivors of the Joola

, by Babacar Sall (L'Harmattan, 2003),

L'Espoir immersed, poems in tribute to the victims of the Joola

, by Ibrahima Ndaw (Athena. Edif, 2014) and

L'au beyond Casamance: poems to the forgotten Joola

, by Patrice Auvray (Athena.Edif, 2014)

10 -

The watchmen of Sangomar

, by Fatou Diome.

Albin Michel, 2019.

11 -


, by Fantah Touré.

African Presence, 2019.

12 -

The disappeared from Joola

, by Adrien Absolut.

Lattes, 2020  


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