Touring the Goree Island of Slaves in Senegal
TOURING THE GOREE ISLAND OF SLAVES IN SENEGAL
Just as the sun began to force its light on the suburbs of Dakar Senegal, I made my way to the Port of Dakar, one of the busiest in West Africa. There were several hundreds of us; some adventurers who came from within the country, and others who came as tourists from all over the world. All of us were headed toward the famous House of Slaves in Goree, which sits in the island like an over-fed crocodile.
We left the crowded port of Dakar at 10:30 am, on one of the Mondays in July, 2018. As we embarked the boat, the mood slowly started to change. People, mostly tourists, were now less talkative. I could feel reality sinking in; especially for the African American couple that approached me back at the port. They told me it was their first time visiting the island. They had always wanted to come but could never afford the trip until now.
They asked questions about our destination so I told them a little about the history of the island and how I used to visit a lot before moving to the US. I told them that when I lived in Senegal, I visited the Goree three to four times a year. I mostly accompanied family friends from outside the country, cousins or my personal friends. Over the years, I had become a regular visitor, so much so that I mastered the tour, even the tour guide recognized me.
I was familiar with the Island and all of its history, but there was a difference this time. As we started to see the old building, five minutes away from the Island, I found myself lost in the loud silence of the boat. I know this silence. This is the moment I used to make fun of visitors. The moment when everyone goes quiet, when the abundance of tears takes over the loudness. This time was different for me though; I was not observing, I was lost in my thoughts. Perhaps living in the US and learning about slavery in America and the African American journey has lent me a new identity.
The loud voice of the captain announcing our arrival snapped me out of my thoughts. A tour guide greeted us, before separating us in two groups, the first for the English and the second for the French speakers. I went with the English group. I had heard the story many times in French, Fulani and Wolof, so I wanted to hear it in English for the first time. Besides, the African American couple had invited me to join their group.
As we made our way through the narrow streets of the city, I explained to my new friends that all the houses were randomly painted in yellow, red or white because the whole island had been built in the 18th century and the colors represented the different colonial countries that occupied the island before Senegal gained its independence. The white houses were built by France which was the last occupier. The yellow houses were put up by Portuguese colonizers (the first occupier) who built the first slave house before being replaced by the Netherlands, who owned the red houses.
On the last street, leading to the famous House of Slaves, stands the Statue of Liberation. This house of slaves was the last one built on the island. The Statue of Liberation is a slave couple standing on a giant drum with a broken chain. The drum symbolizes the courage of the couple, and the force required to break such chains.
We entered the House of Slave at 12:20 pm, and the tour began. The tour guide explained the significance of each of the houses. He cited renowned people who had visited the island, which included three American presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. While visiting, Pope Jean Paul II apologized to the African continent on behalf of the Catholic Church. Nelson Mandela, who during his visit, stood in the punition room (punishment room) for five minutes, before bursting into tears. The punition room is a small room, no larger than three feet with walls about four feet tall reserved for rebellious slaves.
As we entered the other rooms, our tour guide explained how the slaves were separated mostly according to age and gender. Slaves were also separated according to weight, and adults who weighed less than 60 kilos were kept in a separate room where they were well fed, as slave traders would not buy slaves who weighed under 60 kilos. Such slaves were regarded as being unable to survive the long trip to the New World and could be wasted.
After touring all the slave houses and rooms, we were now headed to the famous Door of No Return, which is at the end of a long narrow chamber. The tour guide stood at the door and pointed to where the boats were docked, and explained that Goree was the last stop the boats made because its port is the closest one to the Americas. He directed us to take turns to stand at the door.
The famous Door of No Return is without doubt the most emotionally charged stage of the tour. Almost everyone broke down as they stood at the door; perhaps imagining themselves as slaves, chained, desparate and helpless! Or maybe just picturing the thousands of slaves that must have stepped foot on that same door.
It was an emotional moment but I had no tears on my face, largely because I had been there many times before.
The Senegalese government claims that over 6 millions slaves were taken away from this house but some historians argue that only a few thousand slaves have been held in this place. They argue that there couldn’t have been that many slaves because the place was built near the end of the slave trade in 1776. Others argue that there has never been any slaves in this House of Slaves, although it is recognized by UNESCO.