Mohammed Jameel Yusha’u
It was a dream come true. We are now in Goree Island. As we disembarked from the ferry, supported by the staff of the port to make sure no one slips into the sea, our tour guide, Abdoulaye continued to lead us. It was a bright afternoon. The sky was looking blue and clear. The sea relaxed as various ferries disembarked passengers. There were several food joints at the beginning of the Island. People from various continents, interestingly a lot of them from Europe and North America, part of the two major destinations of the captured ‘slaves’, enjoying the beautiful sunshine.
Abdoulaye led us straight into the streets of the Island. It comprises of houses built with strong bricks and others with a mixture of mud and stones. The houses bear the mark of history as the traditional painting is still maintained. The roads look like those of slums found in urban areas in different countries, untarred, sandy with little rocks infused as you walk through them. But they are well maintained, ensuring that they did not lose their traditional features.
Abdoulaye took us to arguably the most notorious house in the Island, also called the slave house. The slave house is at the heart of transporting fellow Africans either captured forcefully or ‘purchased’ from slave traders. It is referred to as the ‘house of no return’ because of the exit door inside the house which directly leads to the sea. It is believed that a person who enters the slave house will never return again; from there, the individual will be shipped to either Europe or the Americas.
There is no accurate figure about the number of people who passed through the slave house, with some claiming as little as twelve thousand and others over a million. But it remains one of the most important symbols of what the captured ‘slaves’ went through.
We spent some minutes out of the one hour available to us just looking at the house. We were unlucky that a tour inside the house starts at 2:30 pm, and with a flight to catch I couldn’t wait.
According to Abdoulaye, if a person falls sick inside the house, or tried to be stubborn because he doesn’t want to be transported along with other ‘slaves’, he is thrown into the sea. According to Abdoulaye, the eloquent tour guide, and many of those we met in the Island, because of the number of people being thrown into the sea by the slave traders, sharks were attracted into the area. Therefore its either the captured individual agrees to be transported, even though he would face hard labour, but remain alive, or the sharks will turn him into their meal. The exceptions were the few slaves who have been selected to provide services to the slave ‘masters’ or the girls they have impregnated, whom they might decide to free.
So who built the Goree Island? It is important to answer this question as we go round to see the vast land that played such an important role in human history. There are different historical accounts about the origin of the Island and where it derived its name from. One of the historians considered an authority on the Island is Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who was the principal curator of the slave house in Goree Island. Mr Ndiaye who was born in 1922 and died in 2009 stated in a succinct but rich historical account of Goree Island that the Island was originally called BER, and the inhabitants of the land lived small meters away, they venture into the area from time to time in order to catch fish for their livelihood. Although according to him some Portuguese navigators claimed to discover the Island, their claim was that it was a desert Island “with few wild goats and the remnants of some Neolithic occupation”. Mr Ndiaye added that “our oral traditional history tells us that these human settlements were done by the merging of several ethnic groups converted to Islam since the XIth century”. By the XVth century according to Ndiaye, the Portuguese Prince Harry sends his vessels across the coast of Africa trying to discover new routes to the Indies, so it was along this line that in 1444 under the command of Denis Diaz that the Portuguese came across the BER Island. Later the Island was taken over by the Netherlands, and gave it its name, GOREE, which originates from Dutch “Goede Reede” which translates as ‘safe haven in Flemish’.
As we passed the slave house and continued with the tour of the Island, various people with different businesses surrounded us, each of them trying to convince us to buy a little tsaraba from them, and my attention was drawn to some of the necklaces they were promoting especially the one that looks like what in Hausa is called tsakiya, it resembles the one our grandmothers love to wear, it is common tsaraba from pilgrims who went on Hajj some years back.