Ile de Gorée is a tiny island near Dakar, an idyllic place with a dark past. We reached it on a 25 minute foot ferry thronged with day trippers both European and African. Completely car-free, it makes a peaceful break from Dakar, with winding cobblestone and sandy lanes leading between antique French buildings, with peeling golden stucco set off by faded blue shutters. By evening peace descends as the day trippers are gone, the hawkers put away their wares, and the atmosphere is of another era.
We stayed at Villa Castel, an old house restored by its Belgian owner 10 years ago when he retired from university teaching throughout Africa. A peaceful retirement, as a charming and beautiful young manager (with gorgeous hair, I wish I’d asked for a picture) does all the organization, and a slow moving group of ladies cook breakfast and clean in a desultory fashion. A bit down at heels, but quite perfect for the atmosphere of the island.
There is quite a group of resident artists, and their paintings festoon the cobble path leading up a small incline to the old fort formerly used by various colonial groups to fend off the usual naval marauders. Their paintings are all of a style, with elongated repeated figures, very colourful and charming but we did not succumb to temptation. Some work in recycled materials, making large collages from machine parts, plastic containers, found objects of all sorts, unique and interesting but not the least portable!
The Museum of Slaves highlights the dark past of Western Africa with its historic role as the place from which people were loaded into slave ships for transport to the Americas. It is quite well known, apparently the Obamas and Nelson Mandela are among the more famous visitors.
The building is apparently typical, sort of dual purpose, with an inner courtyard which leads at ground level to the cells wherein the poor wretched people were packed awaiting transport, or up two elegant curving staircases to the second floor, with the fashionable living quarters of, in this case, the mistress of the establishment. She was Metis as they called those descended from a mixing of the races (mulattos and creoles in the Americas, burghers in Sri Lanka). This group was wealthy and successful as they were the middle men for all sorts of transactions between the French colonial power and the tribal people from the interior who brought goods, produce, and apparently humans to sell.
Walking through the cells, dank and forbidding still, though made more open for public viewing, one shivers at the thought of how many people were packed in with their fates sealed, in separate cell areas for men, women and children. The “Door of No Return” through which the slaves were loaded onto ships, may or may not be historically accurate, but it certainly evokes horror. Though more slaves were transported from countries to the south, it is estimated that of Senegal’s 1 million population when the trade began until its end in the late 1800’s up to 500,000 people were taken. The net result was that only old people and small children were left to fend for themselves with no one strong to do the work and civil society was completely disrupted.
The small museum on the upper level houses a number of chilling stories and ghastly objects of confinement and punishment, as well as a general history of the trade. Fortunately we read French much better than we speak (sigh) so could read the signage. One very horrifying one is an illustration of the most efficient way to pack the slaves into the holds of the ships, lying on their sides, head to feet, all shackled of course. Can’t imagine how any of them survived the voyage.
Aside from that gruesome visit, mostly we enjoyed observing the local ambience, the villagers pushing out their fish boats, pre-school children playing in the grounds of their school, hawkers plying their wares, and the comings and goings at the ferry wharf.
One particularly interesting group of school children on a day trip, clearly from a Muslim school, amused us for 1/2 an hour as we nursed a beer. We so often see kids on field trips in the countries we visit and my blood always runs a bit cold at the memories but these ones were quite orderly. The boys and girls were in separate groups, the girls in head coverings and sweat suits, the boys in whatever they pleased as usual. They assembled on the beach and sat down in two groups for lunch, guarded by 4 teachers. The boys had clearly not prepared for this and brought out random bits of edibles, but the girls unstrapped their neat backpacks and took our many course packed lunches which they shared with each other. After lunch they all got up and had prayers kneeling on the sand, after which the boys tore off their clothes down to their shorts and plunged into the sea. The girls watched quietly for a while, but to my surprise, a few braver ones began to venture in, fully clothed of course, and soon many of them joined in. Imagine the soggy mess on the return voyage, but at least they managed to partake of the fun, and judging by the screeches and laughter it was great fun. The boys of course put on their dry clothes and had a much more comfortable return journey on the boat.
After two nights we re-boarded the boat and set off by car down the coast to a village called Nianing for a bit of beach time before we head north. I had plucked the name of a guest house from the Bradt guide, mainly because it said it had “Pieds en la mer” and it certainly is. I had a bit of a lengthy correspondence with the Belgian (3 for 3 now) owner, mostly in French at his request, mostly about how to secure our reservation with an establishment that deals only in cash, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. It is absolutely perfect, 8 little bungalows, very comfortable beds with good mosquito nets (essential) terraces absolutely swathed in bougainvillea, all set around a lovely pool with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the edge of the patio. We are here just before the true high season starts next week so only 1/2 full and very tranquil. We are a bit isolated by our lack of French language skill, sadly my new English-French dictionary was left in Dakar, but the charming young men who serve us our meals, try very hard, and I try hard, and apparently my accent is so dreadful as to make me basically incomprehensible but we are managing.
The beach is long and sweeping. We are beside a fairly large fishing village with the long, narrow high prowed pirogues pulled up along the shore and riding at anchor in front of the village. They paint the boats white and then decorate them in brightly painted intricate patterns, quite similar to those in Indonesia and in south India. Every day the men haul in the nets, sort out the fish and shellfish, laboriously pull the boats up on to the sand, and then a legion of women get busy cleaning the fish, shelling the many kinds of shellfish, some unknown to us, and collecting it all into sandy piles on the beach.
Groups of women gather buckets of the sand composed of tiny shells, and balancing the heavy weight on their heads, walk up the beach to deposit it in piles to be collected by donkey carts later. We walk for a couple of hours every morning and evening and the scene is ever changing.
SSadly, one feature of this beach, except in front of guest houses where the beaches are cleaned daily, is that the high tide brings up coiled parcels of the most varied bits of clothing, rope, plastic, shoes, all wound together, and deposits them in neat piles along the tide line. The first day I thought someone was collecting the trash into piles to pick up later, but then I realized there were thousands of these piles reaching as far as the eye could see. Judging by our piece of beach which is cleaned every morning by a man with a donkey cart, the supply of these “packages” must be endless. Also heaps of used and discarded fish nets, so lethal to the sea birds and other animals. Very sad.
We thought we might be bored after 4 days at a beach, but of course we haven’t been. We are now heading north to St Louis, a historic French city, the country’s original main centre before Dakar took over. We are there for a while, birding and looking at art I think, and then off on our epic journey to the eastern and then southern borders. So far so good!