Barton describes her Fulbright to Senegal in 2016 as the singular experience that changed her life. She attributes that deep connection to the cultural environment and the people, many of whom she maintains enduring relationships with.
While she was there to write about the Great Green Wall Initiative of the Sahara and Sahel, the local Casamance community’s request to bring attention to a local tragedy largely ignored for years inspired her to do more. The people of Senegal recently recognized her efforts when they honored Barton as a Knight of the Order and appointed her as the designated U.S. ambassador for the humanitarian disaster of the Joola shipwreck.
“It’s one of the first times a research project came out of something informed by the local community,” Barton says. “I went there to write about this initiative to build a wall of trees across the desert to combat desertification and to learn how local religious groups were navigating that effort. And I did that, but while I was there the community said I needed to write a book about the Joola shipwreck. And I said ‘OK.’”
The Joola shipwreck is the second-worst non-wartime maritime disaster in world history. When the Senegalese government-owned ferry capsized off the coast of The Gambia in 2002, it killed an estimated 1,863 people, more than the Titanic. But according to Barton, very little has been written about it, and surprisingly, few people even know about it. The people of Casamance, an area in Senegal south of Gambia, were hopeful that coverage would help elevate their story.
Barton published her book, Africa’s Joola Shipwreck: Causes and Consequences of a Humanitarian Disaster in 2020. She also produced a story map for Focus on Geography about the disaster in 2016, and gave several talks on the subject. In 2021, the people of Casamance chose to honor Barton’s contributions.
This past September she traveled back to Senegal as the community marked the 20th anniversary of the disaster. As part of the ceremony, Barton carried the Society of Women Geographer’s flag to the site of the wreck, the same flag that Margaret Mead and Amelia Earhart carried on their expeditions abroad.
“I was very touched by the accolade and didn’t see it coming,” said Barton. “It was a beautiful thing. The people of Casamance have been fighting for this for 20 years, for recognition and to build a memorial. The astonishing part of this whole issue is that they’re not victims here. The people of Casamance continue to fight and continue to be very vocal. And I think it reflects their desire for justice and reconciliation.”