January 19, Tuesday, turns out to be a very special Muslim holiday, Korité, the end of Ramadan. Thierno shows up for work in an elegant robe, a boubou, and as we drive around we see lots of people and children on the streets all dressed up for church. The boubou is a light weight, full- or mid-length robe of fine material, mostly one color, but often with special design in the fabric. It is often worn over baggy pants of the same material.
We are all on our way to small, rocky Gorée Island-Dane, Judy, Alison, Sherman, Eleanor, and me. We wend our way along narrow streets of a confusing port area to the boat that will take us across a five kilometers, three miles, of harbor and open sea to the island. Judy buys round trip tickets for us at a little booth, 3,000 CFAs each, about $5.40, and we thread through a dark waiting room with souvenirs to the pier. The old boat is full of tourists who sit on benches under a canopy; it is powerful and serviceable but worn. The weather: a beautiful sunny day in the dead of winter, not much over 80 degrees. I take pictures; Alison takes pictures; Eleanor takes pictures. How many would you like to see?
Gorée has seen a lot of history, changing hands from the 1400s to the 1800s as the strongest vessels hove into view. A ship of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal was the first to come in 1444, when tribal political systems ruled the interior. Despite the lack of fresh water, the island lay in the lee of the peninsula, protected from the ocean by the downward thrust of Cap Manuel, and from natives by the sea.
The Portugese brought "Christianity" and slavery. They started slave stations in 1536, but their method--sneak up on villages and grab people--taught locals to run, and early slaving had a short life in the Cap Vert area. The Portugese learned about Africa from their captives and used them to establish a more "rational" system, paying stronger Africans to capture weaker ones. French and English pirates and merchants created some problems.
The Dutch took the island in 1588 and gave it its name, which means "safe haven" in Flemish. In 1617 they bought it from a local fisherman and the chief of the Cap Vert area, and built forts. The English took Gorée in 1633, the same year France started the French Senegal company on the river to the north. The Dutch took Gorée back in 1664, the French, based out of St. Louis, took it from the Dutch in 1677, and the British destroyed it in 1693 (so in 1694 the French blew up the English fort on the Gambia). The English came back from 1757 to 1763.
The Dutch came back somehow, at least to build the slave house in 1776, and it was the last one built. The French regained control in 1802. The Atlantic slave trade was gradually abolished from 1792 (Denmark) to 1842 (Ashburton Treaty enforcing earlier bans). The French abolished slavery itself in their colonies in 1848 and gave citizenship to natives of the four major towns in Senegal. Slavery, thus, lasted on Gorée for 312 years. (Lincoln's proclamation came later, Sept. 22, 1862.) Some 15 to 20 million Africans went to the Americas through many slave ports, one of the largest and longest forced migrations in history. Several million died in capture, transit, and the new world.
Gorée preserves its late 18th century colonial architecture, when about a hundred people lived there, mostly descendants of slave women and soldiers. The small island has fortresses at each end, a small harbor, and two story buildings packed close to narrow streets. It is being restored as an historical landmark and tourist attraction.
We walk up a narrow street to the old, restored slave house, and enter through a wooden door in the wall. The slave house was visited by Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton, and it is interesting to know they were there, but the power is in the place itself, a modest structure with great poignancy. It is a symbol of oppression, diaspora, and death, the opposite of the Statue of Liberty. Countless thousands of Africans last saw home from this place, slaves on their way to a new and not better world.
The museum guide was exceptionally well informed and provided great detail, much of it given in short bursts of French with translation by Dane. The victims, seized in the interior and bound for Brazil, the Caribbean, and America, would be delivered for transshipment. They were kept on the ground floor, pairs of captives shackled at the ankles with chains to a heavy iron ball between them. Escape was impossible, even a jump into the sea would mean death by sharks. The rooms are arranged around a courtyard with two curved stairways to the second floor. The slave house has a weighing room, part of a classification system to determine price. There are separate rooms for various categories: underweight men who would be fattened up, ready-to-sell men, sexually attractive young women, women with infants, older women, children. Under the stairs to the second floor were small punishment cells, not for the claustrophobic. The house could hold about 150 to 200 captives. The sick were thrown into the sea to die; their diseases risked spoiling a whole batch. Sharks took advantage of this situation, further deterring escape.
The slave merchant living quarters were on the second floor. At
the top of the stairs was a terrace from which buyers could view the merchandise
and guards could patrol. Within a few days, the slaves would be shipped
off. Down a hallway opposite the street is a small door opening directly
onto the ocean, the "door of no return," which once led to a wooden wharf
where slave ships docked and loaded their cargo. The captives last step
on Africa was at that door. It was impossible not to feel great emotion,
realizing what that door meant and the injustice it symbolizes. Some believe
that even today Africa is underpopulated because of the millions shipped
out from Gorée and other slave ports. (Much of this information
also comes from Joseph Ndiaye, Principal Curator, The Slave House of
Yet through the strange twists of history, the Afro-American descendants of those poorest of the poor now generally enjoy wealth and income many times that of the people left behind. A few come back to visit after 200 years; Senegal needs the tourism. Equally intriguing, Senegalese now go voluntarily to the U.S., particularly New York City, for economic opportunity.
Across the street from the Slave House is the Henriette Bathily Women's Museum, which once functioned as a residence, and where many artifacts of daily life are on display. A few women slaves were kept by French slavers for their own use, and some of their mulatto daughters, known as "signares," became educated, politically influential, and even wealthy. By the late 18th century they owned 9 of 13 estates on the island. They had nice houses, fancy clothes, and slaves of their own. One French governor relocated the seat of government from St. Louis to Dakar to be closer to one of these women. We explored a bit of the old fortress and walked around the island. We went to lunch on a veranda under an awning, looking out on the harbor, and ferried back to Dakar.
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Back in Dakar we pile back into the van and drive north. Judy Smith has been working with local people to establish a shelter for homeless girls in Dakar. While family, clan, and village bind most Senegalese, in the urban areas of Dakar the old social order may break down. The rural population drifts into the city, forced off the land by too many people and too little rain.
Parcelles Assainis (par CELS ah sen EE) is on the north facing coast of the Cape, with great waves rolling down onto its wide beaches. The whole subdivision is sandy. Once the pavement of the main road runs out at the entry, the streets are all sand, about two lanes wide, with not much room for parking. Traffic, however, is infrequent and can't go very fast, and there are few parked vehicles. The two story buildings seem working class and even middle class in quality. One of them is the girls shelter, the Ker Yakaaru Jigeen Yi. We visit the house; it is cement, austere, with small bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and a small outside laundry area with a wall separating it from the yard of the next house. The stairways are narrow and steep. On the roof is a place to hang clothes to dry. Judy and the staff catch up on the details and we hear a few stories about the girls--some come in then disappear, others stay long enough to get some help. As we leave we find a swarm of enthusiastic, delightful children attracted by the oddity of so many white people and a really neat van on their street.
A short distance
away is a home which faces out north onto a large beach and the ocean.
Al and Mavis Streyffeler are Methodist missionaries and live on the second
floor, spacious and nicely decorated, warping us back to an American ambience.
The couple runs a wellness center nearby, where we find an impressive variety
of ingenious, hand-made weight lifting machines. Not much is going on because
of Korité, the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan.
Finally, we return to la Résidence for a quiet dinner on the cool porch with Molly Melching, a dynamic middle-aged American woman, and her daughter. Molly has lived in Senegal many years and speaks Wolof fluently. She is the Director of Tostan, a community development non-profit agency headquartered in Thiès ("chess"), a few kilometers east of Dakar. She helped found the agency in 1991 after several years of developing educational programs in native languages for children and women. Tostan, meaning "breakthrough" in Wolof, organizes village women's groups to help with literacy, democratic decision-making, and problem solving. It is funded largely by UNICEF and is supported by the Government of Senegal.
She told us about a great and recent social transformation relating to female genital mutilation. From a Western perspective, it is barbaric. From a traditional point of view of some rural Senegalese, such cutting of parts of a girl's genitals assure her chastity and ability to find a good husband. To those who have practiced it for centuries, it is an important rite and done out of love and a desire to see their daughters succeed. Certain women made their living performing these operations.
In the rural village of Malicounda Bambara, one of the Tostan classes learned about the dangerous consequences of the practice: hemorrhaging, infection, and problems at childbirth, to mention only a few. After discussing the issue at length among themselves and then with husbands, village elders, and religious leaders, they decided to end the practice forever. On July 31, 1997, they made a courageous public declaration to share their decision with the rest of the nation. They talked about banning the practice to other women and men, and, by January 1998, 31 other villages learned about the dangerous health consequences and human rights violations involved, and made similar declarations.
Representatives of these villages even traveled to the National Assembly on January 12, 1999, to testify before parliament, who on January 13, voted a law to ban female genital mutilation in Senegal. Such laws are impossible to enforce, and continuing education seem likely to have more effect. While Senegalese women have always had social power within their domain, most real power has been held by men. The women's groups expanded the scope for political action by women. (More on Tostan is presented below.)
Molly also talked about some of the subtleties of differences among ethnic groups, classes, and castes. She spoke of an acquaintance who was sent on a mission to deal with some problems and who was unable to succeed. Evidently, the people would not deal with him as they saw him coming from an inferior caste, despite his education and ability. However, she has noticed that the Tostan human rights education program is helping to eliminate these discriminations. (A section of from her book on Senegal is quoted below.)
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