Meditations on slavery past and present

The colorful buildings of Goree, built at what was sea level a few years ago.

UNESCO World Heritage site Ile de Gorée bears witness to West Africa’s role in the Atlantic slave trade.  An island in the ocean just a short ferry ride from downtown Dakar, Goree also bears witness to the plight of sea-level human settlements that are slowly slipping under water (58mm rise in sea level since 1993).

We left Dakar in what seems to be the usual downtown tumult:  people pushing in line, officials making rules to fit their needs (I was making the case for why we should receive the resident rate, armed with our utility bills with my name on them, passports, and year-long visas; I finished the negotiation with only me counted as a resident, despite the fact that my husband and 14yo son live with me); and lots of smells and noise.  We arrived in Gorée just 15 minutes later but it seemed like another universe:  no cars, few people, lots of quiet punctuated mostly by the sounds of the sea.

The port of entry to Goree.

Well, there were some officials at the local tourist bureau directing us to a line to pay an entry tax, but that negotiation – with our feet, not words – was more successful. And there were also lots of good friends who wanted us to buy their art/jewelry/clothes/tour guide services . . . , but this distraction seemed minor in comparison to the overall beauty of the island.  The colors were the first thing to wow me, with old houses painted in shades of yellow, orange, and red.  We wandered the small streets or alleyways randomly, following an interesting bend in the wall, sign over a doorway, sprays of flower bougainvillea, or at one turn, the surprising discovery of a recycling and compost center!  Yes, we definitively have become fixated on Senegalese sanitation.  Our first escape from the big city, to the Siné-Saloum, confirmed our shock at how the ocean around Dakar is used as a garbage can.  It also added a new layer, when we saw the village garbage dumps perched next to the mangrove restoration projects.  It was the pigs on Fadiout, the island twin to coastal Joal (President Leopold Senghor’s birthplace) that put me over the top, as I watched them eat garbage all along the water’s edge. The tidiness of the recycling center on Gorée was so alluring that we spent some time exploring it from end to end.

The Dutch fortification, next to the port.

We also enjoyed the local art scene, watching artists paint with sand (click here to watch a short video clip) while listening to a balafon player perform (click here to watch a short video clip).  Atop the island’s fortified hill, the base of which is called the Castel and was built by the Dutch in the 1600s, sit large, rusted WWII guns and a commemorative statue.  Although I’m not sure how a British warship ended up sunk in the harbor, I think the Rough Guide’s description of French and British fighting over Gorée gives a funny hint:  “ . . . who repeatedly captured and recaptured Gorée from each other – the score for the 18th century being France 5, England 4.”  This spot is also where an older man, tending a small display of sand paintings and wooden sculptures, helped me to distinguish between baobabs and fromager trees.  On the way down the hill, music wafting out of the Saint Charles Borromée Church drew us inside, as worshippers went up to the alter for communion and we could slip in and out discreetly.   The plaza in front of the church was being readied for a post-service foodspread and while we were tempted to join in, we moved on to another shady plaza where kids played foot and men sat talking in an enclosed courtyard.  Then it was time for lunch and the search for Matthew’s new favorite meal, thiéboudienne (pronounced cheh-bou-jen), or spicy fish and rice.

The door of no return.

We finished the day with a tour and time for quiet contemplation and discussion at the Maison des Esclaves.  It’s one of the last trading houses dating from the 18th century still standing, where the merchants lived on the upper floors while storing their cargo on the ground floor.  In the case of slave trading, this meant hundreds of chained Africans living directly below the European families upstairs eating, drinking, and entertaining guests.  Our tour of the lower floor was filled with visceral reminders of slavery’s inhumanity:  the men’s cells housed at least 15 men bigger than me (those under 60 kilos were deemed unfit for sale), which, by my estimation, would require standing in the small space, shoulder to shoulder, for all but the one time per day when let out for some air and exercise.  The curator described how women were kept separately from the men and regularly (and legally) raped by the traders.  He also described how slaves were bartered for goods of equivalent value:  a gun for a healthy male, necklace or cloth for a female.  Finally, we saw the door of no return, a simple stone arch that faced westward to the sea and eventually, the plantations of the Americas.  All very poignant, and combined with the historical display of artifacts and the description of the overall slave trade in West Africa, very informative too.  Little did we know last Sunday that there is a vigorous debate in the academic community about how Goree is portrayed as a major player in the triangle trade.

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