Just a short boat trip from Dakar is a small island festooned with tropical flowers and pretty, pastel-hued buildings. It’s a burst of colour and light in comparison with dusty, hazy downtown Dakar, and its architecture is the epitome of what guidebooks like to refer to as ‘colonial charm’. But Ile de Gorée viscerally demonstrates that there is nothing charming about colonialism: beyond those sweet candy colours lies the island’s dark past as one of the foremost slave trading posts in West Africa.
Today, Ile de Gorée is an extraordinarily peaceful place. It was one of my first trips out of the city, thanks to Ibou – my new-found friend in Dakar – and the change of pace, along with the lack of industrialisation, provides some relief from the overwhelming teuss-teuss (chaos and noise, in Wolof) of Plateau. We happened to visit on the same day that a huge religious ceremony was taking place, so in the queue for the ferry, we were surrounded by hundreds of worshippers dressed in dazzling white. As we set sail, people were taking photos of each other to mark the clearly special occasion (Ibou told me it happens once a year) and a particularly jubilant group struck up a sing-song. Soon, the whole boat had joined in, and the singing didn’t falter as we disembarked and the stream of white flowed into the island.
But then things grew very dark and very quiet. Ibou led me to the slave house, which has been preserved as a stark reminder of the slave trade which took place here between the 15th and 19th centuries. More than 400 years of slavery. In the bowels of this forbidding house, there is a series of stone cells, and above the door of each, you can still read the signs: men, women, young women, children. Separated, then packed and shackled in these tiny, windowless rooms. Human goods, ready for shipping.
Many slaves didn’t even make it onto the ships bound for the Americas – so dire were the conditions that they died before the journey even began. Food was kept to the mere minimum a human being would need to survive, and the slaves were whipped and beaten, presumably with the aim of breaking their spirits as much as their bodies. The sea laps around the cells, giving a hint of the endless, torturous days at sea to come for those who did make the Middle Passage.
It is a hard place to go, to face that monstrous history, but it felt important to do so. Ibou and I stood at one of the doorways of the house, looking out at the sea for a while. His black skin next to my white skin. African and European, standing side by side. The contrasts are heightened in a place like that and they matter. Eventually, we just clasped each other’s hands. Black, white, black, white. At that point I’d only known Ibou for a couple of days, but I think it’s in that moment, heavy with unspoken words, that our friendship began. As we walked away, Ibou said: “It’s in the past. It happened, but it’s in the past. Life goes on. We have to go forward.” The kindest, most forgiving thing he could have said.
The upper part of the house is now an exhibition area, with a circuit of information boards. But what brings this to life is the in-house speaker, an impressive, stately man with a deep, poetic voice. In French, he recounts Gorée’s history in a way that is at once objective but which stirs deep emotion.
It’s a bit of a shock to go back out into the bright sunshine, with birds tweeting and flowers blooming. But Gorée is not a victim of its past, and nowadays, the island is something of an artists’ haven. Paintings hang from baobab trees, and women sit stringing beaded necklaces ready to sell. But the most intriguing, surprising artists’ den has to be the one inside the island’s massive canon. In the circular chamber buried in the cliff face, a truly bohemian group with Rasta dreads, patchwork clothes and a practised anti-establishmentarian patter live and work, creating pieces of art, which adorn the otherwise severe iron walls of the canon’s innards. It’s a bizarre but brilliant place.
In the main square, the ceremony was in full swing, and excitement rippling through the crowd when the main marabout arrived, more or less the only person not dressed in head-to-toe white. Flanked by security guards, he led a small, privileged group on a merry tour of the island. Ibou and I took in the scene from ringside seats – rickety stools at a beach shack serving up yassa poisson – grilled fish, rice, and yassa, a Senegalese speciality of slow-cooked onions in a citrus sauce. Once our appetites were sated and the procession had passed, we took up a position under a parasol on the beach, watching the colourful pirogues go out to sea, children splashing and laughing in the shallows. Like Ibou said, life on Ile de Gorée continues. It will forever remain a haunting place, but it is alive, and it is beautiful.