Our Trip to the Motherland

As we mentioned earlier, our summer travels included a ten-day trip to Senegal and Mauritania. The intent of the trip was to visit my brother and his family in Mauritania but he insisted that we couldn’t take such a long journey and not see “Black Africa”. So, instead of flying into Nouakchott, we flew to Dakar by way of Casablanca. Our late departure from New York resulted in a late connection, which resulted in a very late arrival into Dakar- the last arrival of the night, to be exact. The trip was surprisingly easy and my Mom and I took the opportunity to do a little bit of Maghribi (Moroccan) shopping at the airport. We also met a lovely sister named Khadijah who gave us a few entry tips and taught us how to say “Thank You” in Wolof (“Jere Jief”). While the other travelers zipped through customs, tossing rounded French “oohs” and glotteral utterances, we fumbled pitifully over our immigration cards. Even worse, we didn’t have a local address or local phone number to write on our card. Though French-less, we were fortunate to have an understanding guard who eventually wrote his own address on our cards, just so that we can proceed through.

We took Khadijah’s advice and resisted the persistent porters who offered to wheel our bags to the exit. Upon exiting, we inhaled our first sweet breath of Senegal and looked for my brother who had been waiting all night for our arrival. Wrapped like a Tuareg in white to shield him from the mosquitoes, we only spotted his glistening white smile between the throws of fabric. When my Mom noticed him, she too was grinning ear to ear. We all embraced and Lil’ Z finally met her uncle. We swiftly exchanged money in a shady stall, prayed the Fajr (dawn) prayer and headed to our guest house.

Our guest house hosted the owner’s family, a guard, and several Baye Fall mourides. Just as I heard, the mourids really do don patched clothing, wear long Rasta-like locs and headwraps, and spend lots of time listening to Sufi poetry and music.

Where we stayed had a constant stream of traffic and our hosts made diligent efforts to accommodate our vegan diet. So much so, our first breakfast was a delicious salad with vinaigrette. The salad wasn’t the most varied we had tasted but dang it was good! We must’ve been ravenous! We also had stewed red beans, a spicy rice dish, and lots of steamed veggies during our stay. One consistent theme in our meals was spice! I’m so glad we weren’t feeding Lil’ Z solid foods just yet because it would have been rough.

Our first priority in Dakar was to get our visas for Mauritania and secondly, to visit Goiree Island. Goiree is a former slave port that boasts a shorter proximity to the Americas than its sister ports in Ghana and Gambia. From Downtown Dakar, a 20-minute ferry ride will take you to its shores.

Two-story ferries run throughout the day, transporting Goiree residents, as well as tourists back and forth to the little island. You might find travel guides offering to give you a full tour, starting from the ferry dock in Dakar but we declined until getting to the island.

The first glimpses of Goiree are stunning! Beautiful clear water beaches, huge rocks surrounded the port, colorful buildings, beachside restaurants, happy, smiling, swimming people….wait, hold on! This was a former slave port?!? You don’t feel the weight of Goiree until you penetrate the shore, pay your tourist tax, and make your way down the winding, pebble-paved paths.

The former slave castle opens in the afternoon, so until then, we walked around Goiree, looking at statues and flowers and visiting the History Museum. There really isn’t much to tell about the museum. It was unimpressive and confusing. A tour guide and some English would’ve been helpful to explain some very questionable images and displays. The best part of the museum was the view from the roof of Goiree and Dakar.

Touring the slave castle is where a tour guide does comes in handy. Our tour guide didn’t cost us more than a few dollars per person and he enthusiastically gave us the history of Goiree. We were going to pass him by until he “proved himself” by telling my Mom that the rocks that she was collecting from the island were actually European rocks used to weigh down the slave ships and that the “African rocks” were the smooth, black volcanic rocks. Our tour guide went on to tell us about the segregation process for incoming Africans-turned-slaves. If the men weighed more than 60 kilograms, they continued onward for transport while the others remained behind to be fed beans until they reached a suitable weight. Each holding cell crammed dozens of individuals for 23 hours per day, leaving only one hour for recreation and relieving one’s self. Young virgin girls were identified by the shape of their breasts and had the privilege of having a floor latrine in their cell. Why such a privilege? Because their slave master had full and complete access to any of the girls at anytime, with promises that if they bore a child, they would be freed.

There were several holding cells for those considered “recalcitrant”.  One such cell was a small cramped place where several men were packed in, backwards. In such a space, you could neither sit nor stand. When Nelson Mandela visited Goiree, he asked to be left alone to stand in that very cell and couldn’t fathom spending 15 minutes in that space, though he had spent more than 20 years enduring the cruelty of Robben Island in South Africa.

On the main level of the slave castle, we finally saw the infamous “Door of No Return” where Africans were shackled in pairs by the necks, wrists, and ankles, attached to a 10 kilo ball, and ushered onto the slave ships. Two guards stood at each side of the door to ensure that the Africans wouldn’t plunge to their death in the shark-infested moat surrounding huge rocks at the foundation of the building. It’s chilling to think that our ancestors very likely passed through this very same door or a similar one en route to a life of slavery in the Caribbean or the Americas- that’s if they survived the horrendous journey at all!  Many Africans died in the dark journey, packed onto ships, head to foot, in layers like sardines. What a tragic holocaust we’ve endured!

The slave castle was our last stop on Goiree before taking the ferry trip back to Dakar. The experience was moving and disgusting- such a beautiful island, with beautiful people, marred by such injustice and barbaric crimes.

The top floor of the slave castle was the home of the slave masters. A fine dining room, with fine furniture, and house maids, for sure- an example of “high society” life, enjoyed only feet above extreme torture and humiliation. I guess when you believe you’re superior to others, you don’t consider the fact that you’ve torn the families, lives, and honor from a civilized people! I know of others who made a similar journey to former slave ports and they were moved to tears and wailing. For whatever reason, we were disappointed but not distraught. Slavery was and is a very dark period in African history but it’s certainly not our beginning, nor is it our end. A timely reminder of this was a sermon we listened to recently about the nobility of early African Muslims and the permanent impact they made on the history of Islam. Click on this link if you’re interested.

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4 thoughts on “Our Trip to the Motherland

  1. This post captures the feeling and spirit of Senegal so beautifully and accurately. I’ve been there so many times and your description took me right back to the airport customs counter, the money exchange stall, encoUnters with Baye Fall brothers, the boat ride to Goree and standing at the door of no return. And that picture of the lively decorated transport van – the car rapide- tells its own story. I can’t wait for Fati to go back home! Jere jief!

    • 🙂 Goiree was a real highlight for me. To be honest, I was put off by Dakar but I’m willing to give her another chance. Getting out of the capital and seeing the countryside en route to Mauritania was breathtaking! I’ll have to tell you the rest another time. 😉

  2. We are preparing to travel to Senegal in a year insha’Allah I look forward to sending you tons of questions and noting your suggestions and tips

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