Bright colors and dark past of Gorée Island

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Obama on Goree Island

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the Door of No Return on Gorée Island (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barak Obama’s recent trip to Senegal, and especially his stop at Gorée Island, made me think back to my own visit there. Gorée is a tiny island in the Dakar harbor with painful history lurking beneath its charm of a colorful Mediterranean-like seaside village. From the 15th to the 19th century it was one of the slave-trading outposts on Africa’s west coast. The island was ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French and participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade for over three centuries until the mid-1840s, although academics differ on how many slaves actually passed through there.

Regardless of such debates, though, today the island remains a haunting place and a powerful symbol of humanity’s transgressions and, ultimately, redemption. President Obama visited with his wife and daughters last June. Moved Michelle Obama – whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves – penned an emotional essay based on her experience in Gorée. She wrote:

People who came through this island could never have imagined how history would unfold. And they certainly could never have imagined that someone like me – a descendant of slaves – would come here with her own family, and look out through that door of no return. And maybe, in the end, that is an argument for hope even in the face of the most unspeakable horrors, because time and again – both in America and around the world – we have seen that cruelty and oppression are no match for people of conscience who commit themselves to the cause of freedom.

Door of No Return

Door of No Return – the view that inspired Michelle Obama

Door of No Return is the water-facing exit of the 18th century French-built House of Slaves, or Maison des esclaves, where slaves passed on their way to ships that took them on the murderous Middle Passage across the ocean. Looking out at the blue expanse through this door is a powerful experience, but thankfully the ships on the horizon no longer carry human cargo. After Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, the House of Slaves became a museum and a memorial to slave trade victims, and remains the focal point of any visit to the island.

House of Slaves

Entrance to the House of Slaves

House of Slaves

Holding cells for male slaves

But there is more to Gorée than the remembrance of slavery – actual or symbolic. In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most captivating, surreally beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The din of downtown Dakar is just a short boat ride away, yet Gorée Island is the paragon of quiet and serenity. There are no cars here and just about a thousand inhabitants with only half the average density of Dakar’s population. Fading facades of French colonial buildings glitter in tropical sun with all the vivid colors of the rainbow. Many of them have been turned into art galleries and boutique hotels. Locals rest in the shade of ancient trees. Children play along the beach. Enchantedly, time stands still…

Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island Goree Island
Can you believe these colors? It’s pure magic! I wish I were an impressionist painter to really capture these images but as always the camera had to suffice. And as always I was also on the lookout for the music that captures the feel of island. I am already a big fan of one Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour. Here is the soundtrack I found by a Senegalese singer-songwriter Nuru Kane, appropriately titled Gorée:

Bright colors and dark past…Goree Island

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Helen of the Caribbean | Sandstone and amber

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