Island of Fidelity

I was speaking with a man who has the same name as the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, about why it is that Isle de Gorée is such a special place; like none I have seen before.  He, a resident here of over 20 years, said that it is because of the name of the place.  The word [gore], he told me, means ‘fidelity’ in Wolof.  He said if you live on a place with such a name, you can’t help but act in a certain manner.A footnote: another source, “Gorée:  The Island and the Historical Museum” by IFAN of Cheikh Anta Diop, lists the name of the island as being from Goe-ree ‘good harbour’ in Dutch, since they bought the island, “for a few iron nails in 1627”.  The word ‘gore’, is also listed in a Wolof dictionary as meaning ‘freed from slavery”. If it is the latter, that would be certainly interesting. IMG_8856Most commonly known for its position along the trans-Atlantic slave route, Isle de Gorée houses a now museum which was once ‘home’ to over 13 million slaves from all over West Africa.  “The Yoruba from Nigeria were the most sought after slaves that were sold from this location,” the guide explained to us yesterday during our visit.  When I asked as to why, he responded that, “they were the largest and strongest”. He explained without flinching the simple truths of the place:  that men and girls (virgins) cost four times as much as women (those who had had children). That men were force-fed beans until they weighed the minimum 60 kilograms necessary to be sold abroad or else they were sold locally on the island to the slave traders who lived and worked here. He showed us the 10 kilogram shackles that the captives were forced to wear while being held on the island, and the way in which they were stacked “like sardines” in tiny rooms with little light nor air for all but one hour of the day.  Children, too, were held on the island in similar or even worse conditions – literally stacked upon each other and suffering all the more for the separation from their parents they were often attached with small reminders of their families – pieces of leather or metal.  At the time of departure, the slaves were forced to walk a plank to embark upon their “never-to-return” journey.  If they tried to jump from the plank, they were sometimes mercifully shot by a(n) (African) watchman so that they would not sink to the bottom of the sea by the weight of their chains nor be torn to pieces by sharks at first sight. Our guide explained to us how women were raped by their captives but as a conciliatory offering, a mixed child was born free and had the right to be a French citizen. The mother, however, at the time a young girl, was then considered less useful and grouped with the other “women”. Immediately after exiting the museum, a European woman asked me some questions about how I felt about my visit for a survey she was conducting for her research.  She asked if it had a special impact on me as an American married to a Senegalese. I told her I think a place like that has a special impact on every person no matter what their background.  Maybe I could have thought of something more profound to say as she probably expected but I was quite overwhelmed. IMG_8844Many leaders have visited the island – Pope Jean Paul, President Obama, Nelson Mandela came and for the experience held himself for ten minutes within one of the smallest chambers.  As he emerged, the guide told us, his face was red and stained with tears as it triggered a traumatic memory of his time in prison. Pope Jean Paul stood at the opening to the ocean and offered his apologies “to the sky” (to God) but not that while he prayed for forgiveness, he did not ask for forgetting. Little did we know that the day previously we had sat at the very rocks that are adjacent to the “door of never return” and enjoyed listening to a long lost friend of Momo’s, the lyrics of which were remembered and recited to him upon the reunion of 12 years, much to his delight.Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 08.27.37In addition to its name and history, this place is also one of the sole islands off the coast of Senegal that lie in the Atlantic Ocean. It is a small island, 900 meters from North to South and 300 meters from East to West. As someone advised us before going, it is a different experience to spend the night on the island as after the tourists leave, you can see it as the small village that it is, as someone else described it accurately, “a hippie Senegalese artist colony”. At one side of the island is a large cliff face upon which many artists live and work; by day selling creatively drawn sand paintings, colourful tapestries of various scenes from the island, and most impressively, collections of recycled materials including cell phones, chargers, cigarette butts, bottle caps, and other materials. One artist who spent years in Japan calls himself a Baay Fall Samurai and uses a straw and thin stick to seemingly magically create intricate  designs reminiscent of the painted desert in used liquor bottles.  He was so saddened by the problems caused by alcoholism on Gorée with four deaths in the last year alone that he decided to put his art into the bottles to show people the happiness that could be substituted within the glass. Another of my favourite collections, dubbed “crezy museum”, is owned by a man, like most men here, with dreadlocks, but his unusual feature is a tattoo across his light-skinned forehead.  The tattoo looks home-done and represents in Arabic.  Much as I was curious, I am sure everyone asks him what it means so I refrained. I do plan to return on our last day though to purchase some of his wares, including a bonsai Baobab and a carved Narwhal.  (I did ask a local who told me that it is the first kalimah – that which transliterates to, “There is no God but Allah.” 

 

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