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.
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?