Lucky for us, we had the benefit of visiting Senegal’s capital, Dakar, in the company of others who were familiar with the city.
Our first visit was with Dame, a Senegalese who shares his time between California and Dakar, and his girlfriend from France. He gave us a guided tour as we made our way to the port, before catching a ferry to Île de Gorée.
Our first stop was the forty-nine-meter high bronze statue which dominates the skyline. The African Renaissance Monument sits atop one of the ‘Mamelles’ or two hills.
Here’s our interpretation of the dedication plaque found at its base:
“Visitors from Africa or from abroad, if your steps one day lead you
to the foot of this monument, remember all the sacrifices
that tore Africa from centuries of darkness
to propel her into the light of liberty!”
~Abdoulaye Wade’s, April 2010
Île de Gorée
With this quote in mind, we headed to Île de Gorée, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is only 3 km away from Dakar’s mainland, yet an indomitable distance for the many slaves who passed through during the island’s haunted past. We visited the last surviving Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. For 312 years, from 1536 to 1848, it served as a warehouse where humans were sold as a commodity.
After being gathered on the African mainland by violent means, men and women were chained behind doors, at times for months on end while waiting for ships to take them on the perilous journey to slave markets of the New World.
As white skinned people, we felt ill at ease listening to the curator describe the fate of these enslaved people, entire families torn from their homes, held captive in deplorable conditions and then loaded onto ships like cattle headed for a life of servitude. It was an emotional experience.
Portuguese, Dutch, English and French traders have all played an ugly role in the history of the island. Remnants of the occupations are reflected in the architecture. Dame sitting atop massive guns put in place by the French. Notice the small cut out at the end of the barrel sabotaged by them to made the weapon unusable in the future, after their departure from Senegal.Today, approximately 1,300 people live on the island surviving on the tourist trade.Gorée is a reminder of the tragic story of all that lost their lives, those who survived, and all those who gave to the world.
Two weeks later, with friends from NGor Island, Margot, Silvia, and Souleymane, we returned to Dakar for a day of shopping and eating.
A glimpse of the city streets, as we made our way through a nearby neighbourhood.Following Silvia, we ventured into the marché Sandaga, the garment district of Dakar. For 25 years or more, she has been visiting the city for work and pleasure and knew exactly where to go.
Here in multi-storied buildings, textile merchants and sewing shops make tailor-made clothing to meet your exact requirements. There are hundreds of enticing bolts to choose from; waxed prints, batik cloths, and lightweight Khartoum, in rainbows of colours. You can bring in an old favourite shirt on its last legs, pick a new fabric, and they will sew you a new one using the cut outs from the old one. Your own distinct garment in a day or two.
As in most cultures, women drive the clothing industry, and we noticed that the clientele was primarily women looking for a new outfit. Behind the scenes, the sweatshops and fabric retailers were almost uniformly men.
Ginette found it challenging to leave empty handed among the stacks of waxed African prints for sale.Gordon, looking for a unique look found a prêt-à-porter shirt to take home.Our exploring continued, looking for treasures like these African masks outside the Kermel Market. At the end of a chaotic day, the anticipation of returning to the quiet of our NGor Island retreat was welcomed.