Monday, April 19, 2010

Ile de Goree

Kelly and I took the ferry to Goree Island over the weekend to see the slave house and the 'Door of No Return' -- the final threshold for thousands of captive Africans bound for plantations in the Americas during the 18th century.
Sadly, the museum was closed to the public while we were there -- we'll need to go back. But we took a walk around the notorious island, a quiet spit of land dotted with crumbling colonial buildings and an old French fort, and then had a nice lunch overlooking the tiny harbour.

It was around then that we had the pleasant surprise of seeing a boisterous welcoming ceremony for none other than Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean. For those of you who don't know her, she is the Queen of England's representative to Canada, and perhaps best known for eating a seal heart while touring Canada's indigenous Arctic communities a year or so ago.

Anyway, it was an interesting scene. Senegalese women wearing pointy silver hats, similar in shape to a witch's hat, strolled up the end of the dock to await Jean's boat while drummers thudded and chanted. Dozens of children waved Canadian flags, and in the water a few Senegalese military vessels zipped back and forth menacingly. When Jean's boat pulled up to the dock, people started dancing and the drumming intensified.

Alas, it was a bit anti-climatic. She emerged from the boat with her entourage and slowly made her way down the dock, meeting and greeting. And then the pack moved at a slug-like pace toward the direction of the slave house, which would no doubt be opened up to give the honoured guest an exclusive tour.

Senegal has been clever with the marketing of the slave house on Goree Island. Historians believe that it played only a small role in the slave trade, with perhaps only a hundred or so slaves passing through each year -- compared to the much larger operations further south in Gambia, Ghana, and Benin. The Door of No Return, meanwhile, may have been pure symbolism as it leads out onto a patch of shallow water wholly unsuitable for ocean-going ships.

The Door of No Return

Still, it's place on the far western tip of Africa, the closest point of land to the United States, makes it an attractive touchpoint for remembering the horrors of slavery. Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, the King of Spain, have all come to this spot to consider the inhuman human trade.

We couldn't hear her, but apparently Jean -- who says her Haitian ancestors were likely carried from Africa on slave ships -- spoke to her crowd of admirers to tell them that slavery is not yet dead in Senegal. Human Rights Watch had come out with a report the day before claiming that at least 50,000 children in the country were subject to slave-like conditions -- forced to beg in the streets by masters who routinely beat them -- and that the government was doing too little to stop it.

The move by Jean was perhaps not as headline-grabbing as eating a seal heart. But just as bold.

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