In early 2011, I was in Dakar, Senegal, when I met a dreadlocked Rastafarian by the name of Ibrahim. At first he tried hard to sell me some of his souvenirs but, like most travellers, I can say no in several languages. When he felt he'd done all he could, he pulled me up a stool by his fire, bashed out a rhythm on his calabash, and chanted “Simon, I wish you good luck, happy life, long life”. He then gave me one of his gris-gris, a fetish consisting of small leather pouches in which Quaranic scripts were packed; he told me this was for good luck on my travels.
Not long afterwards, I found myself living in Casamance, in the southern part of the country, acting as caretaker for a guesthouse. Needing supplies of various sorts, I organised a journey on appalling roads across mangrove swamps with my friend Khady. We arrived early to get good seats, and sat on the bus for hours, in sweltering heat. Waiting for the bus to fill, the only entertainment was watching a cow being loaded onto the roof of another bus. We finally pulled away at 5:00pm. Naturally, the bus stopped again after a hundred metres to load up the roof and to take on fuel.
We set off a second time, but after travelling about ten bumpy and rickety miles, there was a sudden bang as one of the tires blew. The bus swerved from one side of the road to the other as the driver tried desperately to control his vehicle. Having arrived early to get the best seats, we were in the front. Everything happened incredibly fast, so I realised we were going to crash that there was nothing that could be done. I gripped Khady with my left arm as my right hung onto the edge of the broken window. The bus rolled and slid on its roof for a few hundred metres, the windscreen bursting from the pressure, and luckily directing the broken glass outwards. I could hear screams from the back of the bus – a vehicle designed for twenty people carrying over twice as many. I clung onto Khady and the window frame as long as I could, but eventually lost my grip, falling on top of her and the driver.
At this point I must have blacked out, but when I came to the full extent of our situation hit me as I realised that we had fuel spraying all over us. Too many Hollywood films told me the bus was going to blow; luckily Hollywood doesn't do realism, as diesel doesn't explode.
I pulled myself from the wreckage and dragged what I thought was Khady's lifeless corpse out after me. Luckily, she soon came round, with no obvious injuries save a bad headache. I set to work on helping the other passengers, pulling them from the crushed remains of the bus while a pregnant woman staggered around the scene dazed and distraught. Most were injured, with fractures or serious wounds.
The first stroke of luck we had was the fact that we had crashed within a few metres of a military hospital, so medics were on the scene almost immediately. Not only this, but Khady’s uncle lived about five minutes away and came to meet us after she’d been checked out.
We went back to his compound and stayed the night, thinking that being stationary was the best thing all round. As I crouched in the dark, ladling water over myself to wash off the blood, diesel and dust, I felt the gris-gris around my neck. I was not impressed. The next day, I voiced my cynicism, pointing out to Khady that the gris-gris hadn’t worked, that they were just superstitious nonsense.
She replied in quite simple terms. "Of course they worked. You were the only person to walk out of the crash without a scratch, weren't you?"
About the Author
Following an interesting if questionable early career of working in morgues and nudist clubs in Europe, Simon spent several years doing what everyone dreams of - pig farming in Vietnam. Returning to London, Simon spent time putting together a start-up social business, before moving on once again and finally his way to a more permanent home in Senegal. Visit www.simonfenton.blogspot.com to read more about Simon's global adventures and life in western Africa.