Well, another lovely day here. Had a bit of boring meeting stuff to get through to begin with â€“ the morning was all internal stuff and organizational restructure discussionsâ€¦
The meeting closed at lunch today and that left the afternoon free. Three of us took up the offer of a trip to Ile de Goree, a short ferry hop out of Dakar port. It is a tiny but inhabited island â€“ there is a very small town there built in the old French colonial style. It is very tired now and the buildings are all faded and crumbling, but it has such a charm and the colours of the walls are so warm and rich and vibrant, those fantastic Mediterranean colours of vermillion, ochre, burnt umberâ€¦and the whole place is so incongruent as in the town square there is this huge baobab tree, great symbol of Africa, and everywhere there are men, women and children going about their typical African business in that wonderfully sleepy way they have (the afternoon was very sultry and people were lazing around in the shade, other than the entrepreneurial ones chasing tourists like us!) It is really quite a magical place and one I would like to return to, to spend a day or so.
It is a beautiful place but it has a terrible history.
Ile de Goree was one of the places in W. Africa where slaves were shipped for America and other parts of the world. We visited the slave house, basically a gaol where they were held before being loaded onto ships and sent away, never to see Africa again. 60 million departed these shores through that place, and what an eerie, chilling place. I stood alone in the small stone places that once would have been packed with frightened people waiting to board the ships. Probably they were relieved to be leaving that dungeon and moving briefly through the fresh air to the ship, but then they would be packed in like sardines for the month-long voyage.
It is incredible how they were transported. There were drawings that showed how they were stacked with one shackled in an upright position holding another that was head down, and the same all the way through the ship to maximize the load. Many died en route, not surprisingly. But it was the chilling presence of the slave house that will stay with me. I asked one of the women I was with if she felt it and she said she had. It is as though the thick stone walls have somehow absorbed all the misery that they have witnessed, or that the souls or spirits of those that passed through that place still reside there. It is such a grim, cruel place but one that leaves such a powerful and poignant impression. The last time I felt something like that was in a war cemetery in northern France. Just row upon row of graves marked by simple white crosses, and I was overwhelmed by the scale of human tragedy brought home to me by the sight of all that.
I just cried.
Anyhow, a very sobering and salutary part of the visit but we left that behind and just strolled quietly around the island, looking in little shops that were everywhereâ€¦really just local people displaying paintings and hand-made goods outside or even sometimes in their houses. And a quick tour of the old church, a Catholic church that brought back so many memories for me. It is such an odd experience to enter a church for me. It is at once a familiar and comforting place â€“ the smells of old wood, the leather of the kneelers, incense, dust and candles â€“ but also triggered are feelings of repression, the suffocating guilt of the small, naughty child cowed by the earthly authority of the church and its priests. It was actually a lovely, atmospheric old church with a big old chandelier in the middle and lots of interesting statues of the saints, some of which reflected the area and the sea-faring nature of the population.
The confessional struck a particular note of horror, however, and I was glad to leave after only a few minutes.
We shopped for some local art work and then returned on the ferry to Dakar, again a very African experienceâ€¦tiny ferry that bustled with locals and traders and women in bright dresses with babies on their backs. In the evening a group of us took a taxi across town to an Ethiopian restaurant, eating in the open air this time on a rooftop restaurant that was like a scene from the Arabian Nights, all sheets of cloth hanging from poles and tented out to form sail-like ceilings for each tableâ€¦a slight, soft rain began to fall as the meal arrived (a huge, round bread covered in vegetables and meats that was eaten with fingers) but no-one minded and it was a nice contrast to the heat of the night.
Everyone swapped travel stories and I heard about some bizarre and notorious charactersâ€“ another nice evening. We came back in the same taxi that had been waiting for us. These vehicles are hilarious! They are falling apart and resemble the cars of the old silent movie days, you know when they explode or meet with some mishap and then appear out of the smoke with lots of bits missing, squashed, smoldering, wobbling along slowly and unfeasibly â€“ well that is a Dakar cab!