Senegal's Door of No Return. The serenity of sunny Goree Island belies its haunting history
Through this door For a voyage without return They would go, their eyes fixed On the infinity of their suffering. -- Joseph Ndiaye Maison des EsclavesSkip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At the end of a dark stone corridor in Goree Island's House of Slaves lurks a rectangular hole filled with the blazing light of sun reflected from the Atlantic. It is known as the ``Door of No Return.'' Through this portal, millions of blacks were wrenched from their homeland to build the civilizations of strangers in faraway worlds. Nearly 20 percent died before they could be delivered to markets in the Americas.
Situated at the westernmost tip of Africa, Goree was the closest and most vital slave trade depot to America. It is said to be the last piece of home viewed by half of some 10 million Africans shipped across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries. The island lies cradled in the lee of Cap Vert Peninsula, three kilometers (about two miles) from Senegal's coastside capital, Dakar, which vies with Ivory Coast's Abidjan for the nickname ``Paris of West Africa.''
In 1977, Alex Haley made the region notorious in the United States through a television production of his book ``Roots,'' which chronicles the history of a black American family beginning with its West African ancestors. Before ``Roots,'' most tourists who ventured to Dakar came from France. They pursued the former French colony for seaside sun and an opportunity to glimpse African exotica from a base of city comfort such as the elegant Teranga Hotel. Although French visitors still outnumber all others here, Americans now flock to the area. Some 30,000 went last year -- nearly one-sixth of the total tourist count.
New arrivals spend their days basking on lovely city-side beaches and gadding among the brilliant flowers and fabrics of Dakar's bustling Kermel and Sandaga markets. They dine on savory French cuisine in restaurants that overlook a sunlit or moonlit sea. Despite such city delights, if you talk with people after a stay in Dakar, they are apt to mention Goree Island first. The island's simple beauty, in contrast with its miserable history, makes it a haunting place not easily forgotten.
I ventured to Goree from Dakar on the Biasie Diagne, a rotund white ferry named for the first African member of the French National Assembly. To find a seat, passengers must climb over bundles of fresh-cut flowers, boxes of vegetables, and crates of fish -- supplies for Goree's only restaurant, the Chevalier de Boufflers. (There is no locally grown food on the island, whose 1,000 inhabitants survive through tourist trade, crafts, and fishing.)
As we nose away from the loading docks, cranes, cargo ships, and oil silos of Dakar's harbor, I can see Goree before us, its faded rose-hued buildings sunstruck atop black volcanic rock in a gray-blue sea. As we dock, teen-age boys, self-appointed guides, approach passengers in a friendly, unpushy manner. One boy points me toward the House of Slaves. All around me, there is the silence of no cars. Courtyards bloom with bougainvillea, and lines of colorful laundry sway in the breeze. Until I reach my destination, the serenity of this 88-acre world fully belies its history.
With other visitors, I step through the arched entryway of the Slave House into a dirt courtyard burning with noontime sunlight. Here we meet Joseph Ndiaye, a serious but enthusiastic man who has been custodian of the building since it was established as a museum 17 years ago. Mr. Ndiaye was born on Goree in the days when it was a home for a series of local families or a shop for selling drinks. But even then, Ndiaye was digging into the history and telling people about it. ``My vocation was to be something in this place,'' he says. ``To bring out its meaning, to help people be sensitive to what happened here.''
Mr. Ndiaye leads us across the courtyard, down a small set of steps, and into the dark, narrow corridor that weaves between sinister dungeons. We pass a poster noting the dates slavery was abolished in various corners of the world: ``Chile 1780 . . . United States 1863 . . . Mauritania 1981.'' We peer into the confines of a 7-by-8-foot room that was a cell for 20 men. Corroded metal fittings that once held chains cling to the walls. We move on to a longer but narrower chamber where children were kept, then past a hall leading to the Door of No Return. Next, a tiny, shoulder-high cubicle for ``recalcitrants.'' And a room for virgins. Visitors are timid about stepping into the dank cells, as if fearing the heavy doors will close behind them.
We recross the courtyard to the large Weight Room, where Dutch, French, British, and American slave traders examined and weighed their human cargo. It is another world up those stairs. Spacious chambers. Smooth wooden floors. Huge windows that call in sunlight and sea breeze. Doors that are 11 feet high and open onto balconies overlooking Dakar. There is an art exhibit here now -- the work of a Guatemalan man who lives on Goree. The paintings are a haunting mix of grace and pathos -- blurry black figures floating among sprays of pink and blue pastel.
Coming down from the merchants' airy quarters, I walk toward the Door of No Return. Standing at the gateway, I imagine a woebegone stream of black men, women, and children passing through the door into a floating prison on a pale sea. Here on this island, named Goree by Dutch slavers in the 17th century, I sense history in a way I've never felt in Amsterdam, Paris, or London. I'm struck by the fact that up through this very day there is a tragic flaw in what we call progress: Too often it happens for one group of people at the cost of another.
Go to Goree. It is bound to stir the genuine fellowship within each of us.
Miss McBride's transportation to Senegal was courtesy of Air Afrique, which flies nonstop from New York to Dakar twice a week.