Saturday, July 17, 2010

The door of no return

Today I ventured to Ile de Goree, famous as a slave-port. It's a tiny island with no cars and many bougainvillea and baobab trees, lending it an oddly serene air. One has to work pretty hard to imagine eight million humans being trafficked through buildings which to all outward appearances look lovely, much like the French quarter of New Orleans.

The picture shows the inside of "La maison des esclaves" with its infamous "door of no return," through which so many hapless Africans were made to pass. Many died of plague before even reaching the door, due to being packed into horrendously small cells doubling as latrines. Many more grew sick aboard ship, at which point they were thrown to the sharks. Men and women were imprisoned separately at Goree--hence the oddly elegant symmetry of the architecture? Everyone was weighed upon entrance; those under 60 kg were put in separate chambers and force-fed until they were big enough to sell. There was a special room for young women so that the masters could have an easy time choosing which to rape. Some women were actually acquiescent to this treatment, because favor with a master might earn them freedom. They would have already lost their husbands and children, and, as has now been made famous by Alex Haley, their names.

This information all comes from my guide, "Papi," a 62-year-old Senegalese man. He claims to be the "pope" or "chief" of guides, and to have accompanied Clinton, Mandela, and Mitterand. (True to stereotype, Mitterand gave the smallest tip.) I wonder if Clinton or Mitterand found it as strange as I did to be guided through the slave house by a black man; at one point he urged a bunch of other tourists aside so that I could pose in the door-of-no-return for a picture, and I couldn't resist feeling an uncomfortable sense of privilege. He will not take African-Americans and whites in the same group, he says, because emotions run so high. Black visitors have been known to break into inconsolable sobs, fall to the ground in rapt prayer, and bang their heads against the wall until blood comes. Mandela crouched in one of the punishment cells for fifteen minutes weeping because it reminded him so acutely of Robben Island.

Like most people in Dakar, Papi speaks Wolof and French. He also speaks English, but I asked him to speak French so I could practice. My comprehension continues to outpace my speaking by a wide margin, but vocabulary and accent pose significant challenges with both.

The tour around Goree in general, and the slave house in particular, felt very rushed to me, and the whole place is swarming with tourists and souvenir-sellers. So it goes with world-famous places, I suppose, but I would have liked to take it a little slower, soaking up both the tragic aura of the slave house and the quiet beauty of the island. You can stay at a fine hotel there for less than I'm paying in Dakar, and I was tempted to do so, but the ferry connections would make it a bit awkward. The narrow, winding streets of 18th-century buildings, their saffron, ochre, and verdigris paints worn to textured patinas, would surely be enchanting in the late afternoon and early morning light. Locals commute here to enjoy the beach, an incongruously exuberant throng.

It boggles the mind that such brutality occurred, and continued for centuries. But I remind myself not to be too secure in the greater justice and humanity of modern life. Since arriving in Dakar I've walked past several dozen beggars, and children lying in the gutter too exhausted even to hold out their hands. I like to think I'm accomplishing something by greeting them, acknowledging their humanity, even if I rarely give. On the way out of a patisserie, feeling guilty for the delicacies I was about to consume, I watched a local step right over a supplicant with no hands or feet as if he were trash. I thought about marching right back to the patisserie, buying a loaf of bread, and handing it to the beggar. Maybe tomorrow.


  1. Compelling stuff, Barbaro. Is this a worthwhile question: what have you learned by being there that you didn't already know--or "know"--from books, TV, etc.? In my own modest travels, I've find it hard to articulate the difference, but I feel sure there is one.

    I wonder if you want to give a geography lesson for the ignorant among us. And why you're there.

    Good stuff. Hope you keep it coming. And buy those kids a loaf from me, please. I've only regretted the times I didn't.

  2. That's a big question, and I should prob. do a whole post about it--and another about the good and evil of giving to beggars. In brief, I've usually found a certain "spirit" to special places that TV can't convey. No less important, going in person lets you "zoom out" from the celebrated site to the modern circumstances surrounding it. (Do TV specials on slavery ever show beggars, or patisseries?)

    I'll see what I can do about the geo lesson.

  3. Glad to see you're posting. Very compelling as Banjo said. The inhumanity of the slave trade is difficult to comprehend.

  4. Reminds me of when we went to see the concentration camp at Dachau. Even on a beautiful hot sunny summer day, such a heavy aura of death still hung over the whole place it rendered me speechless. Although I'm usually a shutterbug, I could not possibly take photos there. And if I had they could not possibly have conveyed the weight of suffering still there. Just outside the camp itself I took one picture of a section of the barbed wire fence with some weeds growing through it. If photography is soul-stealing, the simultaneously holy and unholy ground inside was not a place I cared or dared to capture.