Goree Island, Senegal: The former slave outpost of Goree Island is a troubling place. From here, over one million slaves were shipped to the Americas over a period of nearly 200 years.
The slave trade itself lasted longer, nearly 350 years, during which time it’s estimated that nearly 25 million slaves were shipped from Africa. A shocking 6 million of them died on the journey. Scholars of the African slave trade estimate that roughly 6.3 million slaves were shipped from West Africa. The rest came mostly from Central and Southern Africa.
When Daily Nation (Kenya) journalist Joy Wanja visited Goree in 2009, Mr Eloi Coly, a curator at the museum, told that her that if were not for the slave trade, Africa’s population today would be equal to China’s!
For me it was mostly what I heard, rather than what I saw, that messed with my head. The famous “Door of No Return” didn’t evoke as much emotion as the tiny cells at the “Slave House”, now a museum, where hundreds were packed. A guide told us that when Nelson Mandela, who was detained for 27-years by the apartheid regime, visited Goree he went into the punishment cell. It is probably about 2.5 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 4.5 feet long. He crouched there for 5 minutes, and when he emerged, his face was drenched in tears.
In one part of the Slave House where the women were held, they would see their husbands being led off to the ship where they would be taken to the US; their children taken to Latin America; and then the women shipped to slave in the sugarcane fields of Cuba.
The European slave traders had a kind of “breast test”. The girls and young women with firm breasts were kept in a cell in the centre of the slave house. Directly above it were the quarters of the European slave traders.
In the evening, they would come to the cells, check out the breasts, the face, and rear, and make their pick. “They would have sex with the girls the whole night”, the guide said, nonchalantly. He had told this story for 17 years; he could afford to be deadpan.
When the women became pregnant, they were given freedom to walk around the yard – and many were freed after giving birth. If ever we needed evidence that there was a time when the paternal instinct was quite strong, there we have it.
Those were, unsurprisingly, sexually very repressed times. Thus the male slaves, could not benefit similarly from the amorous attentions of gay slave “masters”. Anyhow, “slave sex” imprinted itself on Senegal. You have this extreme of very tall, muscular, very dark Senegalese (the “original” resilient item) on one hand, and half-white Senegalese (Creole) medium-sized ones on the other.
And then there are the moments of shame; the details of the story of the slave industry many of us Africans find difficult to come to terms with: Once word spread that there were goodies to be got for capturing and selling slaves to the Europeans, the traders themselves no longer had to mount slave-raiding expeditions into the interior. African chiefs and other entrepreneurs brought the slaves to them.
A strong healthy male, broad chest, with all teeth intact, was worth a rifle. If he was scrawny, he was fattened until he reached at least 60 kilogrammes. A nubile female slave was sold for a well-seasoned bottle of wine. A child, well, was sold for a mirror.
There is an uncomfortable air around Goree today. The place has lost quite a bit of its solemn aura, in part because of the handicraft markets and the vendors who pester you as you walk along the narrow alleys. The crass commercialism simply cheapens the place.
Then, one of the most depressing things I heard on the island came from the guide. When we were in the slave house, he chastised some in our party for being noisy and not showing sufficient respect to the memory of the place. Then he proceeded to tell us that the slave house museum was very decrepit some years ago, and it looked the way it did because it was “renovated by the wife of former French First Lady Danielle Mitterrand”. Danielle died in November 2011.
This was pathetic, because from just one week’s collections from tourism, the Senegalese government could have rehabilitated the slave house. Instead, it took a former European First Lady to intervene and save the place! Like other Africans, when it comes to things like these, not all of the modern generation of Senegalese politicians cares too much about this slave thing despite the fact that Goree is a big source of tourist dollars for the country.
As the ferry from the mainland docks at Goree, it is followed by dozens of children swimming alongside it. At first I thought they were just happy children cooling off in the water and having fun with the ferry. Quickly, I realised that they were not.
They were, to but it rather bluntly, “aquatic beggars”. The tourists throw them coins, and they dive deftly to the bottom to retrieve the prize. To coax the tourists in throwing down more change, the children do fancy dives. These kids can win world gold in swimming, I thought.
But their most innovative stroke is how they solved the problem of not being weighed down in water by pocketfuls of coins. They collect the coins in their cheeks, occasionally blowing them out into balloon shape to increase their floating abilities!
All the swimming skills, and the cheeks-full-of-coins tricks, were all to make begging more efficient and elegant. Probably because the slave trade seems too far ago, and the Senegalese have more important bread-and-butter concerns, Goree is just another piece of the fat of the land.
Things have come full circle; it is the Europeans and Americans who arrive in Goree weighed down with guilt and the shame about what their ancestors did, who wear sad and shocked faces. The African Americans, the survivors, bring pain and leave lots of tears behind.
They are loved by the tour guides, because when they are overwhelmed by emotion, they part with a lot of their dollars, partly because earthly belongings seem too pagan to hold on to when they confront the reality of how their journey to the Americas started.
We had paid our guide a fee. As we returned to the ferry for the trip back to Dakar, he cornered each of us separately to give him a “tip” on top of his fees. The man who had lectured us about the need to treat the slave house with respect, was changed. He had become a kind of feral beast, demanding his tip aggressively and rudely.
I don’t know how somberness (and nobility) can be restored to Goree. Perhaps close down the tourist markets and turn into a haven of scholarship of the African slave trade. Anyhow, I suspect that if the slaves returned today, they would hate everything about Goree – especially the people who sponge off its tragic history. Terrible things happened in that tiny island hundreds of years ago. Terrible things are happening there today.