Those two words held so much power when I was greeted at the historic site of the transatlantic slave trade which took place on Gorée Island. The largest slave trade area off the west coast of Africa is a 25 minute ferry ride from Dakar, Senegal. I was all smiles leaving the Port of Dakar towards Gorée. I left with a mix of emotions on my way back from a life changing experience.
The ferry ride was up tempo from the vendors who use the ferry ride to introduce themselves. This interaction is a pre-sale for you to purchase their goods once you arrive. I remembered Kenza, because I liked her name. Kenza made sure she called out “Kelsie” so I could shop with her. I respect the hustle, but I didn’t feel obligated to buy anything because she knew my name.
Self exploring on Gorée Island is an option, but it is best to hire a guide. There are plenty of official tour guides who wait along the path next to the heart welcome sign. I was told that the sign was put there as a symbol of forgiveness of what easily can be viewed as unforgivable.
We were fortunate to have the island’s well respected,“The Colonel” as our tour guide. He has lived on Gorée Island since he was a small child. Colonel has an elementary education, but don’t let that fool you. He taught himself how to speak six languages by engaging with travelers from all over the world. The musician Akon even requests Colonel when he visits Gorée Island.
The House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves)
Check out the video I recorded of The Colonel giving us a tour of the House of Slaves. He can tell the story much better than I can:
It is best to plan for half a day on Gorée Island to explore the many historical sites. There is a prestigious all-girls boarding school where the highest academic achieving young women focus on math and science.
We toured the St. Charles Eglise Church. The irony is how the church was built while people were being treated so poorly. European missionaries used Christianity as a way to condemn traditional African religions such as Voodoo.
Inside the St. Charles Eglise Church is a framed letter from Pope John Paul II. The contents are his apologies for the life and freedom that was stolen from the people of Africa.
The St. Charles Eglise Church is still an active place of worship along with a mosque on the western slope of the island. The call to prayer was being announced over the speakers as we walked down the pebble steps to the sand art demonstration.
We were encouraged to take photos and film the process of making African sand art. Senegalese high schools promote art through special programs that teach this specific process.
There are 24 types of sands that come in different colors based on where they originate. Some of the sands come from the beaches of Saly, termite mounds, the Sahara Desert, mangroves, Sudan, Chad, Cap Skirring, and Lac Rose (The Pink Lake). The outer ring of black sand is from volcanoes. The pigment was used in the construction of the African Renaissance Monument. The glue used in the process is a mixture of the baobab sap and Arabic gum.
There are several talented artists who make a living by creating handmade jewelry and paintings. I was sorting through my photos for this blog post and noticed one artist had a sign that said, “no photo acheté c’est mieux.” The English translation is, “No photo, buy is better.” I agree and respect his wishes.
My biggest takeaway after visiting Gorée Island is the yearning for knowledge about my true ancestry. Smoot is a borrowed name that my paternal lineage can only trace back to 1842 in Tazewell County, Virginia. My maternal side (Thomas) traces to Alabama similar to other African Americans who claim the South as their origin. Our history and herstory did not begin as enslaved, escaped, or freed Americans.
The real question is, “In what country in Africa did we originate?” African Americans are missing a huge part of our cultural identities. My dna testing kit from African Ancestry should be arriving any day now. I cannot wait to see what my results will be!