While traveling between Johannesburg and New York my flight was scheduled to make a refueling stop in Dakar Senegal. I figured this was the perfect opportunity to get off the plane for a day or so and check out a new destination. The line for immigration was a mess. It wasn’t even a line. Just a crowded room. Finally through I settled into the Novotel Dakar and headed out into the streets of Dakar.
The second I left the Novotel grounds I became a very popular person. I had a friend in seconds and soon we were walking together and talking. I told him I wanted to go to Goree Island and he walked me to the port. He was incredibly friendly and seemed to want very little from me. He told me how safe Senegal is and how different it is from other West African countries. I was taken to the port and shown where to buy a ticket and told how much I should pay (5000 west African francs – about $10) and then made sure I made the boat before it left at 11am.
Soon I was on the boat to Goree Island. As far as places to visit as a tourist in Dakar, Goree Island was kinda it. The crossing was beautiful. I sat on the top deck of the ferry with some French tourists (this is a former French colony so all the tourists are French and everyone speaks French). Senegalese men on the boat made music with these little instruments they were trying to sell. 20 minutes later we were docking at Goree.
As nice as the tiny island of Goree is, it’s famous for one thing – slavery. Settled by the Portuguese and then the French and Dutch, Goree was a slave trade center. The things to see on the island were all slave related and seemed relatively straight forward. Shortly after arriving and coming shore I met Mamadu whom I eventually hired as a tour guide. Together we set off through the pedestrian only streets of Goree to the “Slave House”.
The Slave House is exactly what it sounds like. It’s where the slaves were basically kept on Goree and is one of many many slave houses that existed during the time. It’s now basically a museum. I paid another 500 francs to enter the house and Mamadu began showing me around. The place was pretty incredible. The whole experience made slavery very real. I mean obviously we learn about slavery and the slave trade as kids but this brought it all to life in a way that I had really never imagined. Mamadu and I stood in tiny rooms that used to be home to 15-20 slaves. One room for women. One for men. One for just children. He told me about the slave prices and how virgin woman got more money. How men had to weigh at least 60kg and if they didn’t they would be fed until they did. How when slaves died there or got really sick they would just be thrown out of the building and fed to the sharks below. He showed me the solitary confinement cells meant for uncooperative slaves and explained in detail the conditions of this.
He showed me the hallway that ended with the “door of no return” that led to the sea where slaves would be loaded onto ships for the 10-12 WEEK trip to the new world. The reality of the whole thing really was overwhelming but beyond that, I came to realize how much slavery was a business. I imagined that white men with guns would go raid villages in Africa and capture slaves forcing them into slavery. Mamadu told me this did happen. But more likely then that the white men (Dutch or French mostly) would negotiate with the tribal chiefs and basically “buy” slaves from them. These chiefs would sell their own people into slavery in exchange for guns and alcohol! And that’s how men became slaves. Pretty shocking stuff. Here on Goree slave trading was a business and slaves were kept just like livestock.
I invited Mamadu to join me for lunch. We sat at a sort of outdoor cafe and enjoyed our meal talking about all sorts of things. He told me about his wife of 7 years and his two kids who live nearly 400 miles away. He only sees them a few times a year since he lives and works on the island. We talked about the economy and the government of both of our countries. I really enjoyed chatting with Mamadu and my visit to Goree.
Back at the hotel in Dakar I realized I was actually robbed. Nothing substantial. Earbuds, phone charger and a USB drive. More annoying then anything else. I tried to think how friendly everyone was and chalk it up to some opportunistic thief taking advantage as I got off the ferry – which could have happened anywhere. I calmed down, left my luggage, and decided to head out into Dakar again.
Outside I ended up talking to a random guy who showed me the way to Independence Square which was just a short walk away. I ended up taking a seat right in the center of the square on the fountain and just sitting for awhile. I was a constant target. 5 minutes wouldn’t pass without someone trying to sell me something. It was terrible. After I had had enough of sitting in the square being a target, I walked back to the hotel as quick as I could. I couldn’t believe how much of today I had spent talking to random people from Senegal.
In the evening I ended up going out the back gate of the hotel and talking to these guys on the side of the road for a LONG time. They were very friendly Muslims from a small village called “Dal Diem”. Around 8pm I had found my way to dinner at “Lagon 1″. This place must be famous. Right on the Senegalese Corniche with the waves crashing all around (and under!) it. Plaques outside showed the names of celebrities, politicians and royalty whom had all dined there. I got a seat outside by the sea. I had some pasta and a coke and kept to myself. Afterwards back to the hotel saying goodnight to my Muslim friends on the way back through the gate.
Even though it was a short trip, I really enjoyed Dakar. I would say it was a difficult place to navigate alone as a white guy but still a lot of fun. The people were so overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly I found that sometimes I just wished I could be invisible like back in New York. If you have the opportunity for a stop off in Dakar though, I would take it.
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