For Senegal island's residents, famed slavery heritage site incurs a cost

Visitors have flocked to Gorée Island, with its memorial to the transatlantic slave trade, since UNESCO designated it a place of 'outstanding universal value.' But locals say the benefits haven't trickled down, echoing a common claim at World Heritage Sites.

Stephen Jaffe/IMF/Reuters/File
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde greeted Senegal's finance minister, Amadou Ba, at the 'door of no return' during a tour of Gorée Island in early 2015.

Each day, Deguène Gaye watches the ferry chug in from the mainland, disgorging a herd of sunburned tourists onto Gorée Island’s white-sand beaches.

From there, she knows, they’ll probably trace a familiar itinerary, following their guides somberly past a memorial to the transatlantic slave trade and then to the famous House of Slaves, a candy-pink building that claims to be the departure point for millions of Africans sent to the Americas.

After that, the groups will likely snap a few photos of the colorful colonial houses that line the cobblestone roads, and haggle for cheap tie-dye towels and wood sculptures from a seemingly never-ending procession of earnest proprietors.

“Madame, madame, please come inside. Looking is for free.”

“For you, mon frère, I make good price.”

And then, as quickly as they came, most of the visitors will be gone.  

“The tourists don’t leave their money here,” says Ms. Gaye, watching the waves froth over the rocky shore beside her house. “Tourism isn’t working for us.”

Gaye’s home sits just a few hundred yards from Gorée’s tourist trail. But she inhabits a different world. She lives in two rooms at the end of a crumbling colonial office building, whose windows are without glass and gaping. There is no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Two of her sons have recently left for the capital, Dakar, a 30-minute boat ride away, after failing to find work in their hometown.

Since Gorée was declared a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO – the United Nations’ cultural agency – in 1978, its tourism industry has mushroomed. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the island each year. Among them: Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who wrote in the House of Slaves guestbook in 1991, “I have seen! I have been moved and shocked.”

But like at many of UNESCO’s 1,073 heritage sites, particularly those in the developing world, locals in Gorée have struggled to reap the benefits of the island’s fame. Each day, their community is overrun with tourists – and their garbage. But most of the jobs serving them – from guides to waiters to shopkeepers – have gone to mainlanders, locals say. Rules set by UNESCO and local heritage authorities guarding the structural integrity of heritage buildings, meanwhile, have made it prohibitively expensive to repair or upgrade the decaying colonial buildings where most of the island’s 1,700 residents still live.

“We have a saying here – the money leaves Gorée on the 4 o’clock ferry,” says Mansour Sow, who advises Gorée’s mayor on heritage development. The red tape around renovating heritage buildings has “left us with so many restrictions.”

'The spirit of this place has transformed'

Since 1972, the “world heritage” designation has been bestowed on sites around the world deemed to be of “outstanding universal value” to humanity. Its purpose, according to the UN, is to protect and promote humanity’s most important cultural and natural monuments, from Machu Picchu in Peru to India’s Taj Mahal and Colorado’s Mesa Verde. It has been hailed for pulling back some of the world’s most iconic cultural sites from ruin and neglect, and promoting tourism.

But in many places, particularly in the developing world, the label has come with unintended consequences.

In Laung Prabang, a postcard-worthy royal city in Laos, and Stone Town, the Zanzibari city of winding cobblestone alleyways and carved doors, the spike in tourism drove up the price of real estate and forced out many longtime residents to make way for hotels and souvenir stores. Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City, saw thousands of long-time residents evicted or displaced by brisk gentrification after its 1997 listing.

Like in Gorée, the tourism business in these sites is frequently dominated by outsiders, from the businesspeople bankrolling restaurants and hotels to tour guides from other parts of the country. Often, little money makes it back into local communities. Locals, meanwhile, often complain the flood of tourists seeking an authentic cultural experience has, ironically, made the sites less authentic.

“This is one of the most beautiful islands in this country, but the spirit of this place has transformed,” says Modu Mballo, a lifelong Gorée resident who now squats in a rusted World War I bunker that he has transformed into an apartment and artists’ studio. “I’ve lost my privacy, I’ve lost my quietness, and for what?”

How much history?

Historians have raised another quibble with Gorée’s heritage listing, which claims that the island was “the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast.” Plaques hanging just inside the gates of the House of Slaves commemorate the “million of Africans” who passed through its infamous “door of no return” onto slaving ships.

That was the accepted story in the 1970s, when Gorée became a World Heritage Site as part of a drive by poet-president Léopold Senghor to promote Senegal’s rich history and cultural traditions on a global stage, according to Eloi Coly, the curator of the House of Slaves.

By the 1990s, however, research had unearthed a new history. "There are literally no historians who believe the Slave House is what they’re claiming it to be, or that believe Gorée was statistically significant in terms of the slave trade," Ralph Austen, a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, told the Associated Press in 2013, after President Obama visited the site. The House of Slaves, most historians now believe, was simply a private residence. It may have housed slaves, but its door of no return was likely a trash chute used to jettison garbage into the ocean outside.

“It’s true that nowadays people know more about the history of slavery [than in the 1970s], but if even one slave passed through Gorée it’s still something we should talk about and remember every day,” argues Kabo Alioune, an assistant curator at the House of Slaves.

Heritage officials on Gorée have begun to quietly rebrand the island, speaking less of its particular role in the slave trade and more of the site as a “place of memory” for humanity to reflect on a dark chapter in its history, says Mr. Coly.

“We don’t teach the past so we can stand in the past – we do it so we can collectively build a better future,” he says.

But while they promote memory, tourism authorities must also focus on how to make Gorée’s popularity work better for those who live there, says Mr. Sow, the mayor’s adviser.

The island is rich in history, after all, he says. “But we need to bring more richness to its people.”

Thomas Faye contributed reporting. Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Senegal was supported by the International Reporting Project. 

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