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Goree Island, Senegal: A Highly Touted History

I’m not accustomed to being yelled at. Not by someone trying to sell me a service.

Nor am I used to being called rich, stupid and foreign all in the same breath.

It was bound to happen one day, my being foreign and all…

It was on Gorée Island, just after I stepped off the ferry which crosses from Dakar in about fifteen minutes. I’d paid my $1 tourist tax and was heading towards the fortifications to see where slaves had been held until selection and purchase and shipment to the New World, like dry goods in a market. A forbidding structure, and one that I’d read quite a bit about.

“Hey, you!” hollers a loud voice. “You need a guide?”

I don’t think so. I inch away. I’ve read the guidebooks, I know what to see, and I’m a bit broke.

He becomes agitated.

“Listen to meeeee! You know nothing! You think you know everything, you stupid rich foreigners! You never think about anybody but yourself.”

Excuse me? First, he’s being unspeakably rude. Second, I can’t stand being aggressed by touts, whether at an airport or bus station or right here, in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And third, what on earth is he talking about?

Anger and curiosity fight for a moment and I hang back, curiosity the victor. I know I’m not going to like this conversation. It may embarrass me, or make me feel guilty. Now I wish I hadn’t come.

His name is Honoré, and he’s in his thirties, a tall, proud Senegalese whose English isn’t half-bad and French is perfect. He supports his wife and four children by working as a guide.

“Most people get their information on the Internet (guilty) or from the guidebooks (also guilty) so business is not good.”

Fine, but don’t yell at me or try to bully me. You wouldn’t speak like that to a six-foot man, right?

I’m still angry at his approach style. Whatever made him think this might yield business?

I grit my teeth, still wishing I could throw something at him, something soft, an orange perhaps, enough to calm down but not enough to actually damage him.

“You know we go to school to learn to become guides. We are professionals. We can teach you things you don’t know, and then you come here and rob us of our livelihood.”

I’ve listened, Honoré, I understand. I feel for you and your hungry family who, by the way, might have been plunged into McNuggets by now if you’d approached me differently because I’m, a little, sensitive. About being yelled at, especially by large men.

And then I remember where I am and wonder whether somewhere, somehow, he isn’t getting back at me, for his lack of work, yes, but also for history.

For centuries Gorée Island was a shipping port for slaves, and although how many slaves left through Gorée Island is an ongoing debate, the symbolism is powerful. The island holds special meaning for African-Americans whose ancestors may have been held in its cramped, dirty quarters, but its significance is universal. It commemorates one of history’s worst chapters, that dark awful hole that is slavery.

You’d never know it from the charming warren of twisty streets that makes up the town, flowers cascading over wooden balconies and creeping along shutters. If you were to forget its grim past for a few minutes you might enjoy the bright colors and sidewalk artists and laughing children and ocean view. If only.

If it weren’t for the painful memories within its walls.

Goree Island, Senegal

The House of Slaves was built in 1776 by the Dutch, the last of a number of similar houses built on the island. The first dates back to 1536 and was built by Portuguese, the first Europeans to arrive on the island  in 1444. All photos by S. Carrillo

Slave holding room, Goree Island

Holding room for slaves.

Ile de Goree streets

Preserved buildings and bright colored shutters belie the island’s somber history.

Ile de Goree

The tidy welcoming streets of Gorée Island.

So yes, Honoré, I understand you and had you approached me differently I might have listened to what you had to say. But I couldn’t get past your anger, sorry. You may be right about me but next time, you know what? Tell me nicely.

How would you have reacted?

 

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Gaelyn January 5, 2013, 1:46 am

    I would have ignored him. Yet I wonder how he reacted.

  • Penelope January 5, 2013, 1:28 pm

    A great article. When someone – anyone – tries to bully me, I go into psycho killer mode. I hate this more than anything else. I probably would have flipped and shouted “Don’t you shout at me!” before storming off, furious. Being a doormat in the face of this kind of thing just reinforces the message that displays of anger work!

  • Oya Kutlu January 9, 2013, 10:21 am

    Senegal was the first african country I’ve travelled to, in order to see Goree Island. I’ve felt the same you had several times during my other visits to Africa. Being put in the same pot with past’s violent actors of colonialism and blamed for things you never approve just because of your skin color is just disappointing if not only frustrating.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 9, 2013, 11:53 am

      I agree but in this case I think it was more the wealth issue – the fact that because I was European of course I had more money, and how unfair of me not to be willing to share it. Of course the inequality issue is all-encompassing, not just about wealth but history and race. I completely understand the reaction and feelings that come with it – my only point is that there are other ways to make yourself understood than aggression, which I dislike in any shape or form.

  • Lane January 9, 2013, 4:42 pm

    This is a mixed bag for certain. Whenever I visit places such as cotton plantations of the South or belonging to the Underground Railroad, I get a twinge of guilt. Why, I don’t completely understand. I was never a slave owner (neither were any direct ancestors as we came to the US too late) and the black families also visiting were never slaves. Yet, without white families, where would they be financially, emotionally and spiritually now?

    For the record, my better half would’ve went ballistic and I would need to calm her down later.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 9, 2013, 4:53 pm

      Issues of why people are the way they are have as many answers as there are questions, but guilt by association is a reaction I half-understand – but only half. I bear no responsibility for what my ancestors did but at the same time I can’t altogether disavow that I am a product of those ancestors. It’s certainly complex and I can’t find any answer that satisfies me. Guilt, in fact, is often the easy way out…

  • Leigh January 10, 2013, 8:49 pm

    It’s hard not to react when someone is aggressive like that. I agree with Oya; I hate being labeled because of my skin colour. I probably would have walked away and chalked it up to a regrettable experience – and then tried to figure out a way to make at least a small difference on the island. Perhaps by buying trinkets from someone, eating a meal but doing something to put a little bit of money into their hands.
    I try not to ignore people but there are times…

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 10, 2013, 9:14 pm

      I like the idea of trying to give something back in a different way…

  • emma January 12, 2013, 11:23 pm

    I recently spent 6 months in East Africa and had a similar experience once or twice. Most self-appointed guides will follow you chatting, showing how friendly and knowledgeable they are, ask about your life back home, tell you about theirs – and that’s their lure, that’s what works for them. I watched plenty of tourists react positively to that approach, as it allowed them to interact with a local and for a few thousand shillings (a couple bucks) they got steered to friends’ shops and helped across death defying roads and directed to ATMs and useful things like that. Most would be persistent but would eventually back off with some firm “no thank you!”s. However some would go for “plan B” which was to guilt the tourists into buying something or using their services. I had one man follow me sneering angrily that white people didn’t care that his family was dying of AIDS because I couldn’t be bothered to buy his dying son’s art. He followed and heckled me that way for an excruciating 10 minutes or so that felt like an eternity. It was NOT the norm, but it happens. It might be a sales pitch, drawing on your guilt by directly addressing the economics – and in my case I did feel guilt, but I was there as a volunteer so I was doing my best to help those who needed it in the positive ways I could, and couldn’t justify rewarding that kind of bullying. I can tell you that I did see that type of anger work on several tourists in the market, so it’s a successful sales pitch at times. But in your case, touring a former slave prison… I can’t imagine how the local population could NOT feel a soul deep reaction watching white people snap pictures… I just don’t know the answers.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak January 13, 2013, 12:38 am

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment… I work in international development and I like to think at times that I am culturally sensitive but I truly don’t know how to react in some situations, and this was one of them. Part of the quandary may be about the individual vs the collective, or the anger vs the guilt. I intensely dislike the inequalities that create these situations but like you, the best I can do is try to help when I can. In the end what I do love about travel is that it pushes me and forces to question myself in ways I might never have otherwise. It’s easy to brush something off but it’s harder to sit and try to work it through and question your own thoughts and motives.

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