Island of tears

Trip Start Apr 02, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Senegal  ,
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

From Dakar it's a mere 15 minutes on the ferry to Goree Island. While it's a welcome escape from the stench and red dust roadworks of Dakar, Goree's history is one of heartbreaking slavery.

Goree was the last port of call for the slavers of West Africa before they took their human cargo to the Americas. Those who survived the voyage never returned to Africa.

First views of the island are of stone buildings hugging the rocky island coast. The buildings are painted bright colours and strangely, have doors high above sea level. These were the doors through which slaves walked across planks onto the ships.

We are met by one of the local guides, Ali, also known as The Lion. He's tall, wears sunglasses, conical hat and a dishdash (loose garb that hangs to his ankles) - not difficult to spot amongst the crowd on the jetty.

Equally quick to latch onto our group is a local kid, Mohammed, who gets offended when I decline his insistent offers to guide my group. From now on, whenever Mohammed sees me he makes loud and obnoxious comments about hiring 'slaves', to which Ali, hotel staff and the two young porters who'd carried our bags are utterly embarrassed.
"Don't worry. He is crazy boy, very bad!"

They try to reassure me but I can't help but be shaken by the venom of this kid, unlike anything I've experienced in Senegal or The Gambia.His slave reference is immature and unimaginative, designed to embarrass tourists and porters alike. I hope my group ignore him and remember only the welcoming people of Goree.

The painted buildings of pink, mustard and white, once demarked the nation of the slaver both home and gaol, now are local homes. Sandy paths wind around the island, between painted houses decorated with bouganvillia, up to look out points and to the rocky shore. Goree both artists haven and tourist attraction.

Behind the beautiful colonial facades of some buildings and beneath their floors would have been shackled slaves from various African tribes of West Africa. Africans sold by other Africans to the traders, a trade that exploited the tribal rivalries of the region.

West Africa was the focus of slave trade to the Americas with goods from Europe being traded along the rivers for gold, ivory and slaves. Slaves worked in the Americas plantations of sugar, cotton and tobacco for selling back to Europe - a triangle of human misery masked by economics.

We visit The Slave House, a museum that is conspicuous in its bleak, empty rooms. Architecture is more powerful than any collection of artefacts or photographs. Mr
Colley at The Slave House is a James Earl Jones character with a booming voice and presence. His academic background gives our visits to the Slave House is as informative as emotive, and it is easy to imagine the scenes he describes,

Salves were shackled together in small rooms. A slave man was expected to weigh 60kg and if needed, were forcefed. Rebels were kept in small confined spaces. A virgin girl was worth almost as much as a man, and children were separated from their parents. Families often shipped to different destinations.

Slaves shackled together in chains with a 10kh iron ball between them, shuffling out of the slave house along a plank to a waiting ship. An attempt to escape condenms all those shackled together to drown or be eaten by sharks.

In spite of this awful history, Goree Island seems a haven of peace and tranquility ... with a tenacious gang of bead sellers for good measure.
"Sister, I am broke today! It is Monday so no tourists!"

As for the irate Mohammed, his ire dissipates when he finds another group to guide, and I am immensely releived. Dembo and I leave my group in the capable hands of Ali and his friend's restaurant.

As always we dine on fish yassa, with its flavours of lemon and onions and Dembo expounds on the differences between Senegalese food and Gambian food. I of course, agree with him that Gambian food is superior with the exception of this particular fish yassa.
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