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Goree Island, Senegal: Tales of Slavery and the Renaissance

Uche Anichukwu makes the most of an official visit to Dakar, Senegal, by exploring some of the most infamous vestiges of the trans-atlantic slave trade…
 
The annual conference of the ECOWAS Parliament was introduced to build the capacity of parliamentarians, promote integration and a better knowledge of the peoples they represent. With the maiden conference hosted in Accra, the entire parliament literally relocated to Dakar, Senegal for a memorable 2013 edition.
 
A couple of colleagues as well as myself ( a team accompanying the Speaker of the ECOWAS Parliament, Sen. Ike Ekweremadu) decided to explore Dakar on arrival, as the conference was still a day away. Our guide suggested a city tour of Dakar and a visit to the Goree Island, about three and a half kilometres off Dakar’s coast; and off we went.
 
Goree Island
 
The waves race with measured dignity, ending with tempered slaps over the stony shores. A disused canon sits like a belligerent general atop the Castle, a fortified elevation, like a jealous father of beautiful daughters warding off encroachers from his territory with a den gun. As the ferry berths, little children dive and meander into the deep as though in search of messages of hope from ancestors.
 
Welcome to the Goree Island, recorded on the World Heritage List in 1978, and described by UNESCO as “the symbol of the slave trade with its cortege of suffering, tears and death.” Welcome to the largest slave-trading centre from which an estimated 20 million Africans, the best of our strengths were ferried away from the 15th to 19th century in exchange for filthy lucre, bottles of whisky, mirrors, and of course, instruments of warfare and manhunt such as guns to sustain supply.
 
The Slave Mansion
 
The grimy “Maison des Esclaves” (The Slave Mansion) and the elegance of the buildings (by standards of those days) housing the slave merchants tell all the stories of man’s depravity towards fellow man. A narrow, slanting slice through the thick stonewall lets in just enough air to keep the chained inmates from suffocating to death and inflate losses for the transatlantic tycoons.
 
Each cell used to house the children, women, girls, and men separately. There is the special cell for the stubborn inmates like Kunta Kinte (Toby Waller), the Mandika tribesman of The Gambia sold into USA. Kunta is the central character in the true-life novel and TV series, Roots. This particular cell is barely enough for you to bend or lie down in.
 
Former South African president, Nelson Mandela, we were told, wept uncontrollably inside this cell when he visited the Island. Many great Black personalities, including Muhammed Ali, US President Barack Obama and more  have all visited here to relive the horrors of slavery.
 
In those days, the slave merchants numbered people with hot iron, while young female slaves were “playthings” of the merchants.
 
Those who were “fortunate” to get pregnant in the process were usually released at Goree or Saint-Louis. Thus, girls counted such rape as a lifeline.
 
Door of No Return
 
Perhaps, the most emotion-evoking of all is the “Door of no Return”.  It is a small door through which the human consignments were loaded into the berthed vessel for onward journey of no return to the Americas. It is their last foot on African soil. Many, we learnt, died in their escape bid or through pure suicide, shot by the guards or feasted on by sharks and crocodiles that used to lurk around to munch dead slaves or those cast overboard. It is rare to stand at this door and not pay a tribute of tears to millions of Africans that passed through it.
 
The African Renaissance Monument
 
However, your racing tears begin to dry up as you sight “Le Monument de Renaisance Africaine” (The African Renaissance Monument), a 49 metre bronze statue sitting on top of the 100 metre high twin hills of Collines des Mamelles, on the outskirts of Dakar. Designed based on the ideas of former President Abdoulaye Wade, the foundation stone of this tallest statute in Africa was laid by former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, in 2006. It was completed and unveiled in the presence of 19 African Heads of State in 2010.
 
It is a statute of a strong African man bearing up his wife and son on his muscular arms. Inside it are various air-conditioned studios, art galleries, and mini museums depicting Africanism.
 
An elevator takes you to its summit to see the beauty of sprawling Dakar and the Atlantic kissing the coasts. Because the Atlantic runs almost around Dakar, you could mistake the statute from afar for a Prometheus rising from the ocean. As the harsh sun wanes and night creeps in, the well-lit monument begins to looks like an apparition.
 
Nigerian Tunes Rule
 
Entertainment is never in short supply in Dakar on weekends. I sweated as I danced to the tunes of Duncan Mighty’s “Port-Harcourt Boy” and other Nigerian artistes blasting from mega speakers in this beehive of tourism.  Just as the name implies, it is hard to leave here without a baptism of renaissance that the monument evokes.
 
Entrenched Democracy
 
Meanwhile, Senegal and Cape Vade are the only two West African nations yet to experience military rule.
 
The fact that the Presidential Palace sits just by a normal busy street says a lot about its enduring democracy. We even took pictures with the Palace Guards. “So, ordinary people and strangers could get this close to their ‘Aso Villa’ and even take pictures without breaching security?” we wondered aloud.
 
As an undergraduate, myself and my course mate and friend, Alex Onovo who was assisting me with my Advanced TV and Radio Production project, “Sights and Sounds of Onitsha”, were bundled into the guard room of the Onitsha Cantonment of the Nigerian Army on Saturday, June 6, 1998. We were accused of conspiring with NADECO to bring down Onitsha Bridge.
 
Our school identity card and the letter stating our mission made no sense to the soldiers. “Yamura, you see this up (the sky), you no go see am again,” one of them boasted. He said they would take us to Abuja on Monday. But heavens had other plans.
 
General Sani Abacha died on Sunday and the “Oga at the top” of the Cantonment ordered our release. However, we did not know about the death until we were freed. Thus, the isolation of our State Houses and the “Gra-gra” of some overzealous personnel are all vestiges of military misrule.
 
Meanwhile, I later joined my principal, the Speaker of ECOWAS Parliament, Senator Ike Ekweremadu to a meeting with President Macky Sall the next day. As I sat opposite President Sall, my mind went to the countless lives and property lost to religious riots and pogroms  in Nigeria. But here is a country of an estimated 95% Muslim population governed by a Christian president.
 
A Senegalese friend later told me that religious differences meant nothing in their country. Hmmmm.
 
Putting all together, I doubt that the Speaker of ECOWAS Parliament could have made a better choice of the host country for this year’s conference themed “Political Stability, Human Security, and Development in West Africa”.
 
A Few Downsides
 
I would not like to talk about a cab driver who greedily demanded an extra CFA10,000 if he must move like a car and not snail to enable my colleagues catch a flight. Or a young man that insisted that Maryrose, a Protocol Officer must give him some cash compensation for making use of his biro. Or one immigration officer who was particularly too pugnacious be allowed to welcome visitors into this great land. After all, in every 12, be sure to find a Judas. It takes little away from Senegal as a haven to explore beyond the fantastically designed and flamboyant fabrics our people know it for.
 
No Better Way to Know Senegal
 
As I flew back home, my thoughts were fixated on the Goree Island.
 
Would our leaders commit to freeing Africans from second slavery imposed on them by the tragedies of bad governance, greed, corruption, senseless wars, and ethno-religious crises?
 
As I reflected on the fresh ocean breeze filtering into my room at the Terrou Bi Hotel; the pleasure boat ride on the Atlantic with Senator Ekweremadu; the 25-minute flight over beautiful waters and beaches into Banjul accompanying him to a meeting with President Yahya Yameh of Gambia; and the sumptuous dishes served by the hospitable Ambassador of Nigeria to Senegal, Her Excellency, Mrs. Katyen Jackden, I nodded like a lizard in agreement with the fact that there could not have been a better way to know Senegal

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