Sunday, November 7, 2010

Island Celebration

This weekend was the Goree Diaspora Festival.  For more information on this festival, please visit
The website is written mostly in French, so I'm not sure of the exact purpose of the festival, other than one of the islanders telling me it serves as a nice kick off to the annual tourist season for the Ile de Goree. 

There are two ways to reach Goree Island from Dakar.  The first is to rent a traditional fishing boat that is the size of a four man shell utilized by college crew teams on the Charles River. I predict this vessel has an 85% chance of capsizing.  The second method is to go to the new ferry terminal and take a large seaworthy vessel named "BEER."  I couldn't make that up if I tried.  "BEER" costs 5,000 CFA (about $10) for the round trip and is about a 15 minute ride.  Beer is not included on "BEER", but I'm thinking you could BYO.

The great thing about developing nations is the complete lack of detail for safety features that would have started numerous lawsuits in the United States.  When we docked, two of the ship's crew helped us jump off onto a long, concrete breakwall/dock.  And I mean jump because the gap was well over two feet.  Then, if the waves ever crested the breakwall, it would have sent a few dozen people (including senior citizens) directly into the bay.  By the way, senior citizens were hoisted by both arms and swung onto the dock if unable to jump.

We were traveling with a dignatary - the former minister of education - who is well liked throughout Senegal.  Goree Island's Iman (Muslim leader), as well as several other important looking people, greeted us on the dock.  This was especially nice because the minister himself is Christian and the purpose of his visit was to pay homage to the Catholic church on the island during the festival.

Of course, our welcome paled in comparison to the welcome given when the next boat arrived carrying none other than Pedro Pires.  Who? You'll just have to click onto this next website to find out.  Please make sure your volume is turned up because I would not want you to miss this stirring version of their national anthem

Pedro had at least a dozen military officers surrounding him, the entire police force of Goree Island (all four of them), plus an assortment of men with suits and even more important looking people.  I estimate Pedro is no more than 4 feet, 3 inches tall but you can't really tell that from his photo.

Goree Island is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Dakar, if not all of West Africa, for a very odd reason: The House of Slaves.  The House of Slaves is one of the oldest buildings on the island and today serves as a monument to the Dark History of the Dark Continent. 

You can walk through cement holding cells with separate quarters for men, women and children.  There are even tighter quarters for the rabble rousers and dissidents.  According to the guides, millions of slaves were chained together two-by-two with heavy shackles and boarded onto awaiting ships through the very famous "Door of No Return."  The door itself is actually an opening at the end of a long cement corridor.  Ironically, the opening looks incredibly inviting as the sea green waves brilliantly offset the darkness of this exit.  Unfortunately, the end result was not so incredibly inviting and many slaves chose instead to jump - still shackled - into the shark inhabited waters and to a certain death.

Now comes the biggest horror of all:  Not much of this is actually true.  I had the good fortune to be introduced to a history professor who retired to Goree Island.  I learned the House of Slaves was built in 1776 (how's that for irony?!), nearly 200 years after the slave trade was established.  Slaves were most likely loaded onto ships at a nearby beach because the area adjacent to the Door of No Return is too rocky for any boat to set anchor.  Next, the number of slaves that actually left from Goree Island probably measured in the thousands, not millions, given the small capacity of the island itself (about 1,100 year round residents today).  Still, the building is an especially poignant tribute.

Now back to the fun stuff.  Goree Island is an incredibly laid back place that combines the best of Jamaica and Peaks Island.  Maine residents will understand the Peaks reference because it's just a short ferry ride from Portland, but a world away.  Many of the local men wear dreadlocks, and many islanders choose to work as artists or merchants selling local arts and crafts.  One estimate says 500,000 people visit the island each year, so this is especially welcome news for the residents who would otherwise have no source of income.

I met many islanders including a guide who steered me into his mother's restaurant (good) and then stiffed me for a beer (not so good, but I would have bought him one anyway).  The funny part was that I saw him about an hour later and his eyes lit up as he said, "I was looking for you!" 
But my favorite was a Rastafarian looking dude (his name is pronounded Day-lee, but I have no clue how to spell it) who instructed me on how to play the kora, an ultra-cool instrument that any guitarist would be immediately drawn to.  The kora is essentially a multi-stringed lute with a body made from a hallowed out, giant gourd and strings of nylon fishing line.  Day-lee then asked me to purchase the instrument for $100, but I was good enough to inform him that only a fool would travel to Goree with $100. 

Who wants to bet on whether or not I'll come home with a kora?

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