We grabbed our croissants to go this morning and rushed into the van. We were to catch the 9 am ferry to Gorée, one of Dakar’s four islands off its coast. Gorée is a quaint, quiet, small island, known for its colonial forts and houses, as well as its history as a major point on the slave trade. Indeed, the last stop for many slaves destined for the Americas was in the slave houses on Gorée. It’s hard to remember this brutal history and picture it on this idyllic, calm, colorful and beautiful island. It made walking around surreal, as if we were on a movie set on top of killing fields. We had been studying how the colonial figures into the postcolonial, and Gorée was the perfect illustration. There was a visibly tense juxtaposition between the Senegalese who inhabited the island now, and how they derive their livelihoods mostly from the tourists who visit, a good percentage from these former colonial nations. With Professor Ousre, we also talked about the signores. Signores were female Senegalese slaves who “married” the Portuguese and thus earned their freedom. When these Portuguese eventually returned to Europe, the signores gained their property and thus became the socioeconomic elite on the island. They were known to be excellent hostesses and created a vibrant community of arts and culture.
Visiting the Maison des escalves (house of slaves) was something that I will never truly be able to put into words. I grew up learning about slavery, emancipation, and the legacy of slavery and discrimination in the US, and I have also visited other “enslaving” nations where the population is noticeably influenced from this history, but it is a completely different to actually visit a slave house. Almost all of the houses on the island had slaves in the basement, but one particular house was preserved as a museum for tourists to visit. We entered a two-story adobe house, and our guide showed us the different rooms on the rez-de-chaussy, the main floor. Males, females, and children were kept in different rooms. Each slave was chained to the wall. It is unthinkable that as many as 20 adult men were confined to a room less than 15 square meters. Entering these spaces was a completely sobering and honestly, quite depressing experience. You could not believe that you were walking through the space as the hundreds of thousands of slaves who passed through and even died in the house. Towards the end of the house, there was a corridor that ended in an open window to the sea. Our guide told us that this was the last stop for the slaves – if they made it to this window, they would say goodbye forever to Africa and head to the Americas, where they dispersed into diverse locations, such as Cuba, Brasil, and North America. The slaveholders lived on the upper floor of the home, and walking up the staircase, you could literally feel the atmosphere changing. It felt much lighter on the second floor – there was a beautiful balcony that overlooked the rocks and ocean. You could not imagine the horrors happening right beneath the floor. It is incredible to me how the slaveholders could have lived right on top of hundreds of suffering people, knowing that they were destined for a lifetime of oppression and for some, certain death.
We had a free afternoon after leaving la Maison des esclaves and I had lunch with some of the other girls in the group. They wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon buying artisanal crafts on the island, however. After failing to bargain to the price that I wanted for a silk scarf in a super touristy store, I decided to just wander around by myself. I tried to retrace my steps towards the height of the island, where there was a beautiful view of the ocean and island’s red-roofed houses. Along the way, artist-vendors on the path called to me, but I politely declined them. I saw a jumble of rocks jutting out on a ledge with a view of the houses below and the ocean, and I gingerly climbed out to get a better. One of the vendors who had called out to me on the path followed me and yelled, “C’est beau non? It’s beautiful, no?” and I had to agree. He told me that there was a tunnel just on the other side of the path. I hesitated for about three seconds before going with him. We climbed up some steps to an iron-plated interior. I saw a long corridor with about 10 rooms, some shoes around. We then entered what looked like a boiler room, decorated with plants, lights and art. It looked like a common area, and also an amazing place to have parties. I was astounded by the whole place and started taking pictures of everything. My new friend, Moussa, was clearly delighted that I was delighted and introduced himself. We climbed up the ladder and I found myself at the top of the cannon that the class had only passed by a couple of hours ago with the tour guide. I couldn’t believe that people lived within the cannon. Moussa wanted to show me around more, though, so I followed him. We went down a flight of stairs into another sort of tunnel, where we met some of his friends, who were also artists. There was another corridor that extended from the initial passage, and I saw that people lived there as well. None of the rooms had doors, people hung sheets for privacy and I saw that there were many people to a room, seated on mattresses on the floor. On the way out, Moussa’s friend tried to sell me some of the sand paintings by doing a “free” demonstration. I politely watched the demonstration of how a painting was created, and I felt awkward about not buying anything, but they understood, and invited us to come back for some tea. Moussa and I walked along the cliffs and he showed me how the rock formation below spelled out ‘Allah’ or God, in Arabic. We walked down the island and arrived to a small, nondescript mosque right on the edge of the rocks. He gestured out there – “Do you want to see a cave?” I couldn’t even see a cave amongst all the rocks. “Is it far out?” I asked. He smiled and shrugged, “Nope!” This time, I hesitated probably about five seconds before going out. We walked over the rocks for what seemed like an eternity – I was balancing my backpack, water bottle, and also wearing loafers, not the most practical rock-climbing shoes. We finally arrived to a cave that seemed too-perfectly carved from the smooth rock cliffs. We entered a perfectly rectangular opening and I was immediately hit by the humidity and stench of the place. It was clearly occupied by humans and also must be constantly inundated by the ocean. There was a layer of trash and also enormous puddles on the floor. Using my cellphone as a flashlight, we saw two guys sleeping on mattresses, completely covered up in sheets. I said hello and also sorry – I felt terrible for intruding upon their space. We walked all the way to the end of the cave, where there was a sewer like opening to another part, too small to access. I had to breathe through my nose until we were out again and could see the ocean. “Uh oh,” Moussa said, pointing to my shoe. It was covered in human feces. Everything smelled so bad inside the cave that I couldn’t smell the feces at all and had unknowingly walked through it. He explained to me that the only people who lived in the cave were mentally sick. It made sense to me, as the conditions inside the cave were horrible and there was much better housing, similarly accessible, on the island. Moussa had to wash my shoes for a good 15 minutes and then we set off again. He insisted on giving me one of his paintings before I left, and no matter how much I refused, he pushed me towards his house and I finally relented. Moussa also lives in an informal setting – his house is facing the ocean and is missing not only its roof and most of its walls, but has giant gaping holes in all of its floors. There are solitary planks of wood that serve to connect different rooms to another. Moussa’s studio is a tiny little table covered with paint splashes looking out onto the ocean. Lines of his clothing decorate the wide expanses of open room. I can’t imagine how it must be when it rains, but it was one of the most gorgeous homes I’d ever seen. I had to run to catch the ferry, but I ferverntly thanked Moussa from the bottom of my heart for teaching me about the true Gorée of today and sharing his time and laughter with me.
- How many inhabitants live in informal housing today on Gorée?
- How often does the local authorities/government round them up and “clean up” the island? Moussa told me that they were sent to prison on mainland Dakar for 10 days during President Obama’s visit.
- What is the local dynamic like between the “formal” residents on the island – the Senegalese who have housing, which include signores and descendants of signores, the foreigner property owners – and “informal” residents such as Moussa?