The tourists stare into the walls, tears flowing freely. Through the slits in the walls, we look out to the little glimpses of the ocean that would one day take them away. Even though it was daytime, everything looked dark and grey. I questioned my original keenness to even come here, and for a second really thought this was a bad idea.
I had just arrived at the slave house on Goree Island in Senegal, a 15 minute ferry ride from mainland Dakar. The word Goree originates from the Dutch Goede Reede, meaning Good Harbour – indeed, if you were a slave trader.
We had a local guide to show us round this small, car-less island and we walked around. I was reminded much of Lamu, the beautiful town that holds my soul. Of all the spaces we walked into, the slave trade house was the one that stuck with me, simply for its painful and horrible history.
We saw chambers for men, older women, girls and children. The men and women would be separated from the children, who would be huddled together like sardines, and even if they cried, nobody would come to help them – the parents felt helpless I am sure.
Girls were put in chambers where the white slave owners would come and rape them if they pleased – and that explains many islanders being mulato.
Men who misbehaved were put in punishment chambers, really painful. The story goes that when the late Nelson Mandela visited, he went into the punishment chambers to see and came out crying, remembering his time on Robben Island. Men who did not meet the requirements to be officially bought as slaves (specifically in terms of their weight and health) were thrown off the island, to sharks eagerly awaiting their meals.
Needless to say, this was a dark visit, but one that was needed – for me to understand truly what this meant for our history – a story that must not be forgotten, that needs to continue to be told…..