Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Accident

*NOTE: I apologize if this post consists of a lot of rambling and incoherent thoughts. It's a difficult subject to tackle, and things that I am going to write about are still jumbled in my head a bit. Also, some of the details could be incorrect. This is just my experience and how I personally remember the events*

Many people who come to this site are ones who personally know me or have heard about this site from my friends and family. So most people who are here have likely already heard about the incident that took place when I was visiting Botswana this past Feb/March.  If you have no clue what I'm talking about, you'll understand shortly. Now, I want you to also understand that I had an amazing time out there and I am working on some posts to talk about the trip in general and the wonderful things I saw and experienced this time around. However, I felt like I was only fooling myself by trying to avoid talking about the incident, so I couldn't bring myself to finish any of those posts until I wrote about the incident that took place on March 2, 2011 (which I just realized is actually a month ago today as I write this).  So here goes (deep breath).

Two of the friends I was really excited to see when I returned to Botswana were Zhie and Omogolo (pronounced Oh-mow-hoe-low, but we actually call him Omg, which is pronounced Oh-m-gee). Zhie used to work for LBOM and we had formed a pretty solid friendship while I was there and have stayed in touch since I left in April 2010. I met Omg through her, when he took my interns on a mokoro ride on their cultural day.  Anyway, when I came back to Bots, I spent as much time as possible with the two of them...which was basically Wednesdays, because that's when Omg had a day off. One of the things I had been begging of him was for another mokoro ride. He said he'd love to take me out for that, so the second week I was there, we planned to go for a ride.

It had been a slightly aggravating day. Zhie and Omg picked me up at 1:00 (I helped with swimming classes at the school on Wednesday, so that was the earliest I was available). They had gotten a flat tire on the way to pick me up, so we basically spent the next 4 hours dealing with that and other complications as they arose. The silver lining of it though, was that it gave Omg and I a couple of hours to chat, just the 2 of us. It was a really cool opportunity to get to know him better and discover things that touched his heart and what he was passionate about. The interesting thing is that I remember looking at him at one point and thinking, "Omg is such a protector. That is the word I would use to describe him."

The plan was to go back to Omg's "cottage," hang in the shade and relax until the temps went down a bit. It was a hot day; too hot, Omg said, for a comfortable mokoro ride. He and Zhie had also bought some groceries and we were going to cook dinner and sit around a fire for the night; it really was going to be a lovely evening!

Omg was a professional safari guide, and there were 3 Dutch girls that he had been working with for the past week, so he invited them to join us for the night. Then Zhie got in touch with another one of her best friends, Buddha (whose nickname was Mighty Man of God. I just love that!), and invited him to join us for the night. Buddha, just like Omg, was someone who felt like he could be a friend for life from the moment you met him. Before we started making dinner, Omg suggested that we do the mokoro ride so that we wouldn't be out when it was dark. He wanted to just take us down the river to Backpacker's Lodge, grab something to drink, then head back. The mokoro couldn't fit everyone who was there that night, so the Dutch girls stayed back while the rest of us went out.

The order in which we sat that night was Zhie in front, then me, then Buddha, and Omg stood in the back, pulling the mokoro. It was an absolutely gorgeous night, and we spent a lot of the ride talking about  how the water was so still and the reflection was so perfect. It was one of those times that if we had taken a picture of it, you wouldn't be able to tell which way was up. The water was completely still...not even a ripple. We also laughed a lot and were just generally having a great time. The last thing I remember talking about was asking Omg which nationality he liked working with best as a guide, and he said he loved Spaniards. So I teased him and asked "What? What about Americans?" He laughed and said "Look at that rock on your finger. You're taken; I can't waste my time on you." I shot back, "Oh, Omg, you know you just love the pleasure of my company" and I turned around and saw his big smile as he was laughing. Moments later, everything changed.

Out of nowhere, our mokoro hit something (I thought it was a giant rock that was under water) and we went up in the air and were knocked out of the boat.  When we hit, it made a really loud scraping sound. With my Minnesotan mind frame,I thought this was similar to maybe tipping over your canoe; not a huge deal, just flip it back over, hop in and you're on your way. As I was underwater, my primary concern was that I was losing my Teevas (my favorite sandals)...I had no clue what we were dealing with. As I came up for air, I had been reaching for the mokoro, thinking we could flip it back over, but once my head was above water I heard people screaming, saw people splashing and immediately realized "this is a serious situation" but I still had no clue what we really were dealing with. I kind of want to leave some of the specifics of what happened next out, because, honestly, it's too emotionally overwhelming to put it down in print. The general gist is that Zhie, who recently taught herself how to swim, was in a panic and grabbing onto me. This meant that she was pushing me underwater time and time again. Each time I came up, I would shout for her to let go, calm down and swim. I ended up swallowing a lot of water, though, because as I was trying to catch a breath and tell her these things, I would be pushed back under. Finally she realized what she was doing and backed off. I found the 3 meter long mokoro stick and tossed it to her, hoping she could relax and just use that to help her to calm down. As soon as I tossed it to her, I was pulled under by Buddha, who had been panicking behind me. I thought he was in the same situation as Zhie, so when I came up for air I was shouting for him to let go, calm down and swim. After several times of being pushed under, I was able to get away from him...but by that time, Zhie was back. She was hoping that she could just lightly hold onto my arm and I could help her swim to shore. Unfortunately, Buddha grabbed onto her and pulled both her and me underwater. The three of us were tangled for a bit, and at one point one of them was standing on my shoulder and the other was on my head. It was at this point that I realized I could die. I thought "No way. Roger isn't getting this call from Africa. My parents aren't getting this call. My brother isn't going to hear his sister drowned in Africa." I think that's what gave me the will, energy and adrenaline to fight for my life. I still feel sick admitting this, but I had to scratch, pinch and shove my way away from them. As I came up for air, I was facing shore and this was when I saw Omg for the first time. I briefly saw his arm, so I thought he was swimming for shore and I thought "Oh, that's a good idea." By the way, the things I am putting in quotes are things I remember word for word thinking and saying. Anyway, I made a quick attempt to head to shore, but was pulled under water again. I got turned around under water, so when I came back up for air, I was facing the middle of the river. I turned around to swim to shore and came face to face with what I thought was an absolutely giant black snake (keep in mind, everything was crazy, I was in shock and couldn't process things properly). This was the first time I had realized that an animal had caused our boat to tip. The "snake" was so huge that I thought of the movie Anaconda, but then thought "wait, those are in South America, not Africa." There were strange thoughts going through my head throughout this whole ordeal.

I screamed, swam back with 2 quick strokes (basically the equivalent of jumping backwards). Now, here is where I have no clue what happened. I basically blacked out, because the next thing I remember after screaming was that I somehow made it to the other side of the animal. I honestly have no idea how it happened. What I remember is taking my last 2 strokes and reaching a pole that was sticking about a foot out of the water (I found out later that this was a point well, which people use to get water out of the river). I screamed for help, caught my breath really quickly, yelled for Zhie and Buddha to swim, said a prayer and was on my way. I was too exhausted to swim to shore, so I flipped on my back and swam that way until my head hit some lily pads. At that point, I thought I could maybe stand up and when I did, the water was a little over waist-high. There were so many things going on in my mind as I was swimming, though. I remember continuing to yell for help, while praying and thinking "there is no way this is possibly real" "this feels like a movie" "how is this happening?" and so on and so forth. Also: I remember thinking the sky looked really beautiful. Like I said before, I had really weird thoughts going on in my head.

As I was standing in the water, catching my breath, I was yelling for Buddha and Zhie to grab the reeds that were near where we had been hit. I figured they could pull themselves in until the water was shallow enough for them to walk out. All of a sudden, I heard it. The sound a hippo makes when it's shooting water out of its nose. And it was close. Very close. I turned and ran out of the water so fast that I think it was probably the quickest I have ever moved in my life. I started running up and down the shore looking for Omg, because I thought he had made it to shore before I did. I was screaming for him, for help, and for Zhie and Buddha to get their butts out of the water.  All of a sudden, 2 dogs came running and I thought "thank GOD. There is going to be a person attached to these dogs. I don't have to do this alone anymore." Thankfully, there was. A man who lived up the hill from where we were came running, and I told him what happened. He ran to get his boat so he could start searching. I continued to scream for Zhie and Buddha, and one of them finally screamed back. I couldn't tell who it was, so I called out for Zhie and she yelled back, "I'm here!" I then told her to grab the reeds and pull herself in.  All of a sudden the man's wife, Kelly, came down and put her arms around me. She asked how many of us there were and when I told her 4, she started to scan the water for Omg and Buddha (she could see Zhie, so she knew the 2 of us were fine). Eventually Zhie made it out of the water and collapsed onto shore.

At this point, I was so confused. Where the heck was Omg? Why wasn't he on shore with us? I was also freaked out. There was a hippo right by us, for crying out loud! I asked Kelly if we were safe there; she said yes and pointed out that the hippo was moving across the water and heading to the other side of the river.  I am so incredibly grateful for Kelly. She took amazing care of Zhie and me that us tea, water, apples, warm cloths, called the emergency workers, got Jana's phone number so I could call someone from LBOM, etc.

This was one of the longest nights of my life. A big search party was started, and many people from LBOM showed up to help look, as well as comfort us. This night was beyond awful. We were in shock, and I was just so confused. Seriously, where the heck was Omg?

We found out the next morning that both of the men's bodies were found in the water. Buddha had been found in the reeds where Zhie came out from, and Omg was found just beyond where I had seen him. We believe that he had been knocked out when we were hit...he either hit his head on the mokoro or the hippo. When I saw his arm, I believe that the hippo had bumped him while he was floating and that's why his arm was in the air.

There is obviously SO much more to the overall experience and what happened afterwards, but this is all I can bring myself to write about at this point. Just know that I am so thankful that I had 2 more weeks in Africa before I had to come home. It would have destroyed me if I'd had to leave a few days after the accident. I also want to say, for the record, that I couldn't possibly be more grateful to the Lackeys (Jana in particular, who was a protective Mama Grizzly for me the rest of my time in Bots), Kelly, and my friends at LBOM. I'm also so grateful for the trauma nurse who checked in on me from time to time before I left, as well as the homeotherapist, Penny, who helped my physically and emotionally survive the following 2 weeks.

My heart is completely, 100% broken for the friends and family of these men. It is such a deep loss, and I know the pain of losing a brother. I hate that anyone has to go through that. Thankfully, they were both Christians and I firmly believe they are in a better place and we'll see them again someday.

Random notes:

  • We had only been riding for about 10 minutes when the hippo came from under us and knocked us out of the mokoro
  • They found the mokoro when they were diving, looking for the men. They brought it out of the water and I had a chance to see it before I left. There was a mark in the back, where the hippo had bit it. 
  • No one was attacked by the hippo. Both men died from drowning
  • I have NO CLUE how I survived. As Kevin (my former internship director) said, I have one heck of a guardian angel. Honestly, though...I have no clue
  • When I went back to the site of the accident the following week, I talked to Mr Butler, who was the 1st person to see me that night. He told me that he also has no idea how I made it out of there (he kept repeating that I was so lucky. It was the only word he could think of to describe it). He also said that when he first saw my, I was so angry. I had to laugh when I heard it, because I didn't realize that was an emotion I had been feeling. I thought I was just confused and in disbelief. Apparently, I was also furious.
  • I am SO thankful that Zhie is safe. She and I are now connected for life.
  • Buddha didn't know how to swim (I found out later), but Omg was a very good swimmer. That added to the confusion about why I couldn't find him anywhere.
  • I didn't know it was possible to have so many things going on in a person's mind at one time. Throughout the whole ordeal, I probably had no less that 5 different thoughts and prayers going through my mind while also yelling for help and yelling for my friends.
  • Some of the details I wrote could be incorrect, like I mentioned at the beginning of this post...but this is how I remember it.
  • When I was face to face with the hippo in the water (at the time I thought it was the snake) I was no more than a foot away from it.
  • I am so grateful that I didn't understand what was happening until I was actually able to stand and run out of the water. If I realized immediately that we had been attacked by a hippo, I probably would have panicked and I can't imagine I would have made it out alive.
  • I am also so thankful to everyone who has been praying for all of us as we deal with this. I can tell that the prayers have had an impact on me and have helped me get through this.
  • The only physical effects that I had to deal with were that I have a scar on my knee from the mokoro hitting it as it was sinking, and I had lost my voice for a couple of days after the accident.
  • My little buddy Mason was SO good to me the rest of my time there. He'd come up, put his arm around me and just quietly ask how I was doing, and he was always making sure that I had anything I needed.
  • I am also so thankful to Brenda, Dietra, Ms Pat and Sarah for making sure that I was eating and getting enough rest the rest of my time there. Without them, I probably would have gotten quite sick. 
Love to all! Happier posts will show up sometime in the next week. I'm just glad I was able to get this one out of the way.


  1. Ashley, I don't even have words after reading this post. My heart just breaks for all of you. I'm also so incredibly thankful that you made it out of the chaos.

    Please know that I am only a phone or Skype call away. Let me know if you ever need to chat or process through anything.

    Love you,

  2. Wow, Ashley. You are truly a fighter, which is really no surprise. I can't imagine how terrifying it would be not only to be continually pushed back underwater with people pushing you down but also to come face to face with the hippo. I wish you wouldn't have had to go through any of that. I am still praying for you and your friends' families. I'm very thankful also that you had so many amazing people around you to help you cope and take care of yourself in the following weeks, and I pray you continue to heal from this. I'm thankful you made it!!!

  3. Ashley, I am so sorry to hear about this horrendous event. I am so thankful that Jesus saved you! I'll keep praying for you, Zhie, and the families of Omg and Buddha

  4. Reading this was like hearing you talk about it all over again. Girl, you are a fighter and so strong. I am not so sure I would have been able to recount these events on a blog. I did forward this to a few people who I know have been praying for you so that they can continue to lift you up in prayers. Love you girl. I am glad I was able to be there to support you during that time! Hugs!

  5. I love you and I'm so glad you were so wonderfully taken care of. I'm so sorry you had to go through something like this, but it is an amazing story and testament to God's protection in your life.

  6. Ashley, I am so thankful that you are okay and back home safely. I can't imagine the emotional and physical toll this had on you and those around you. I'm sorry this happened. You are an incredibly strong woman, who has a lot to offer. I'm so sorry about your friends. I am glad you put this down in writing. Be well. Love you. Roxana

  7. Ashley, Wow! I have to agree with Sarah reading this was like hearing you tell it all over again. I will never forget how I felt after I heard about the accident. All I wanted was to see you and make sure you were okay. When I first saw you on the porch I didn't know what to think. I was so happy to see you but I was so sad to know that I could have lost you and Zhie and that you had just went through something horrible. You are amazing! God has great plans for you! I know you have already touched my life and you will touch many more! Love you girl and miss you everyday! - Dietra