Last week, I went to Dakar in Senegal as part of a delegation of Canadian authors to meet Senegalese authors, establish contact with them and share our mutual experiences. We also met readers and many high schools students during out visit.
From many places and people I saw, one visit marked me and left a painful taste in my soul.
We visited Gorée Island. It is about 4 km from Dakar shores. That morning, we went to the Dakar Harbour, paid our tickets and took a small boat to the island. Gorée Island, has a painful and violent past. It was initially taken over by the Portuguese around 1482 and became a “shipment” counter of slaves to the Americas. It is a tiny island but an island that changed the face of the world we live in forever. This island ended up being taken over by the French in 1800s until the Independence of Senegal in 1960.
The first thing you see in the island while still in the boat is a round shaped prison and then you see nice colourful buildings in the colonial style. There are coffee shops and restaurants and souvenir boutiques everywhere. Amid all this , arrives the worst thing: “la Maison des esclaves” or the “House of slaves”. We entered there with our guide and I was about to cry at every corner of this house.
There are rooms for “men”, rooms for “women” and rooms for “children”. When I say room it is a tiny room, about 2 by 2 meters, with a small opening as a window. There is even a room for “weighing”. Men were weighed before being shipped to the Americas ( Caribbean Island, South America, US). Black people, kidnapped or taken away by force stayed there about three months and whoever gets sick is thrown away in the ocean as food for sharks. The slaves have shackles that weigh 10 kg, always attached to their ankles. So whoever is tempted by jumping into the sea, would quickly die by drowning. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the cries, the screaming, the moaning of these men, women and children in this house and I simply couldn’t. I couldn’t and I will never be able to imagine a single ounce of their suffering. People were treated less than animals and that happened not once or twice but lasted for over 300 hundred years.
Women were selected according to their virginity. The shape and firmness of their breasts. Whereas men were selected according to their weighs: the strongest and the fittest. The one who were small, fragile or tiny were forced fed to gain weigh so they can be shipped as slave to the Americas. There is even a small and dark place under the stairs named: the room of the recalcitrants. A sort of “torture chamber” where the ones who are not obeying the orders are kept until…
The ones who were not selected were left to work as local slaves. The place that marked me the most in this house was ” La porte de non retour” ( The gate of non return) it is a door at the end of the house that opens on the ocean and where all you can see is the water touching the horizon, blending to form a thin far away line. This is where usually a ship will stand and wait for the slaves to be piled in the low compartment to begin their journey unrooted from their parents, siblings, children, religion, language and land of ancestors.
The slaves had their original names removed and were given just a number, tattooed or burnt on their bodies. Later, once in Americas, they were forced to adopt the name of their owners. This is how multiple and successive generations of European merchants made their fortunes. This is by how sugar plantations were maintained in the America, flourished and brought wealth to their American owners.
This house has two storeys. The one I described above is where the “business” was taken place. On the second one, the merchants used to live, undisturbed by the hell happening under their feet.
One of the Canadian author with us in the delegation, told us that there is a street on Gorée Island named after his last name. So for curiosity, he was looking for this particular street. I asked him the day before, jokingly, in case his ancestor turned to be a colonial figure, would he apologize or do his mea culpa and in all seriousness he declared: “this is not my fault, I would never apologize for anything I am not responsible for it, I can only educate myself about it”. Of course, his reply was fine but I immediately compared this reaction to the one Muslims are always asked to adopt whenever there is a violent incident committed by a Muslim. The onus is always on us to distance ourselves from violent acts, regardless of our religiosity, culture, background, ideologies…
Yes slavery has officially stopped. Yes, there has been decolonization, independence and civil rights mouvement…But, the hardest thing to get rid of is this colonized mentality, this feeling of inferiority, this attitude of alienation that stuck forever and can hardly be erased.