My Not-So Vacation in West Africa

My Not-So Vacation in West Africa


Sunday, March 17: Gorée Island

This morning with a group of sixteen New York University students, two faculty, two administrators, and our official videographer, I boarded a bus bound for the Ile de Gorée ferry, which would take us to Gorée Island, about a mile off the coast of Senegal. Our plan was to spend a day on the island, a UNESCO world heritage site infamous for its use as a slave trading port during the 18th century.

Harbor in Gorée Island.

At the harbor we waited in a non-descript, two-story beige building bustling with people, which made me feel like I was about to get on the ferry to Governors Island back at South Street Seaport. As we waited for the boat, I glanced at the walls, which were haphazardly decorated with vintage photographs of Senegalese villagers and French colonial settlers that looked like they had been pulled from an anthropology textbook. Peering around, I also noticed this mosaic tile mural displayed prominently on the side of the building:

Abstracted mosaic tile mural.

At that time, I thought this door probably represented the exit of slaves from their home country. I wondered why this was chosen as a mural and why this scene, indicative of colonial violence, would be represented in such bright colors. Perhaps this mural demonstrated the resilience of the Dakarois and could be seen as symbolic challenge the violence and legacy of French colonialism. About a minute later, the doors separating the would-be passengers from the dock opened and a flood of people began rushing toward it. In that instant I forgot about the mosaic and neglected to ask our Senegalese tour guides for more information as I joined the mass of people moving toward the ship.

Last semester I took a course called “African Environment and Development” with Professor Rosalind Fredericks, who was the main faculty member leading us on this trip. We read a piece by David Anderson and Richard Grove in Conservation in Africa: Peoples, Policies and Practices, which describes two distorted, pan-Africanist conceptions of Africa that have arisen from Western thinkers. A prevailing idea, as propagated by western media, highlights the perceived “crisis in Africa” (1). as well as with “doom an despondency” (1).

A Western cartographer's depiction of Africa, ca 1600.
A Western cartographer’s depiction of Africa. Map of 1600, Willem Janszoon Blaeu. Courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.

While the second idea, which arose during European colonialism, depicts the continent as “a natural habitat teeming with spectacular wildlife” (1). In other words, Africa was “a wilderness in which European man sought to rediscover a lost harmony with nature and the natural environment” (4). In Professor Frederick’s class and in the Dean’s Honor Society I learned a lot about the different development trajectories in Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, yet during my Spring Break in West Africa I made a horrifying discovery about my supposedly enlightened self: I, too, have assumptions inflected by pan-Africanism. Chiefly, while traveling, I tried “sustaining an image of Africa which forms a part of European Mythology” (4) as I expected my experience in West Africa to mirror the Serengeti-filled images I’d seen in commercials for East and South Africa.

Officially one of the four communes of Senegal, only a little over a thousand people live on Gorée Island today, and it is mostly known as a tourist destination. In my opinion, the architecture at Gorée was probably the most beautiful of all the buildings that we saw. In particular, the bright red and yellow buildings covered in vibrant magenta flowers were striking and the cobblestone paths were incredibly charming.  However, I left the island feeling overwhelmingly disgusted at the traumatic exchanges and abuses of power that had transpired on the island.

During our visit to the island we took a tour of a Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a two-story building that included the stone dungeons where hundreds of slaves were kept. These cells varied in size, with the smallest one being about five feet by seven feet, and were used to segregate the slaves by age and gender. Often upwards of 20 slaves were housed in that particular room while most of the cells had no windows. When our guide took us to the center-most dungeon, I was met with a six-foot tall doorway with a striking resemblance to the mosaic mural I had seen at the harbor. Our guide described the doorway as the official point of departure from Dakar where slaves were muscled at gunpoint by African guards onto ships, which were often destined for America. The tour guide’s explanation affirmed my initial hypothesis of the brown, yellow, and blue harbor mural as depicting the exit of slaves from Dakar.

Tourists standing in a cave-like doorway.
Photograph by Melissa Daniel

Several members in our group stepped through the doorway to explore what lay beyond. I however, hung back. The bright white light of the sun that filtered through the doorway contrasted eerily with the darkness of the cell. The somber ghostliness of the white light was diametrically opposed to the exuberant yellow sun in the harbor mosaic and the doorway seemed to radiate with the unhappiness of the people who had crossed through it so many years ago. Our guide subsequently ushered us up a set of stairs to a second floor. At first I was confused: Why was this a multi-level building? The tour guide explained that the second floor were the master’s quarters. Upon entry, I noticed that the floor was made of wooden planks separated by gaps, such that you could see into the dungeon. Our tour guide then pointed us towards a balcony facing the ocean that was positioned directly on top of the doorway we had just seen.

How could these masters stand to live here? I asked myself. Couldn’t they hear the torture below them? More specifically, how could they ignore the depravity of their actions as they stood enjoying the oceanfront view of the balcony? How could people do this to other people?

From the hull of the ship on the ferry ride back to the coast, I stared listlessly to the horizon, troubled by the cruelty and violence that transpired on Gorée. I was unsure of what I would feel as I crossed through the gateway doors back to Dakar.


Wednesday, March 20: Mebusses Garbage Dump

Upon our arrival at the Mebusses garbage dump, the Dean’s Honor Society met with Pape Mar Diallo and El Hadj Malick Diallo. Both were older-looking gentlemen that acted as representatives on behalf of the informal garbage recyclers. With pride, we were shown the community medicine clinic, which was equipped with a small pharmacy and doctor’s office. This medicine clinic was established with funding by USAID and is used to treat on-the-job injuries.  It was colorfully decorated with drawings of Senegalese women and children, and lined with green benches that served as a waiting room. Shortly after El Hadj Malick Diallo led us to a building with a dirt floor that served as a town hall to give us a lecture regarding the political struggle between the recyclers and the Senegalese government. To summarize the issue, the Senegalese government has attempted to relocate the dump because it is obstructing the path of new highway. The Dakarois who make up the informal recycling network and who also live on the dump have vocally opposed this relocation. Although the new recycling plant could regularize the working days of some and improve worker safety, our guides explained that the government’s relocation of the dump and subsequent plans for the construction of a formal recycling center would eliminate the economic livelihood for a majority of the informal recyclers.

After the lecture we were to visit specific recycling locations around the dump, so we piled back onto our bus and began driving down a dusty dirt road that split two large fields of garbage. As we drove, I began to feel increasing discomfort on multiple levels; I hadn’t expected to see so many people walking around, much less staring at us as we drove past. Our white bus filled with twenty-something Americans must have been a spectacle as we plowed through the garbage. Along the dirt road, we passed a young man wearing a bright red beanie and green cargo pants. He stared defiantly at us, prominently displayed his middle finger. I could guess why: our driving through the dump was problematic—we were passing through rather quickly, without extensive consideration for what we were seeing all while debating whether or not we should take pictures. We ultimately concluding it would be degrading to the Senegalese to take photos of the dump. (If you would like a comparable visualization of what I saw at Mebusses, click here for the BBC’s depiction of a rubbish site in Lagos, Nigeria).

After driving for approximately ten minutes, we stopped in the middle of a wide trash field. Murmurs went around the bus.

“What were we doing here?”

“Are we supposed to get off?”

“Where are we going?”

A part of me wanted to stay on the bus and keep driving. The bus and its glass windows provided a physical barrier, which could buffer me from the smells, stares, and the shouting voices. The wind picked up, blowing dust and dirt into my mouth and nose as I begrudgingly followed the group through the waste. As we walked to an arbitrary point in the field, one of the trash pickers, a tall and thin man with a beard and sunglasses began pointing and shouting at us in French. This of course elicited the attention and chatter of the other Dakarois, who collectively shifted their gaze in our direction. Amid the wide landscape of garbage, I felt exposed, and yet oddly comforted that I could not understand what the bearded man was saying. We piled back onto the bus approximately 10 minutes later, which felt much longer. I feel terrible to admit this, because then I would really be a callous tourist, but at this point all I wanted to do was be sitting on a white-sand beach by the blue ocean. Unfortunately for me, we would be stopping at the village located at the dump site.

I didn’t get off the bus at the village, yet remaining on the bus was probably a worse experience than disembarking. I thought that by remaining inside the vehicle I could avoid the stares I had felt in the trash field. Instead, several Senegalese youth approached the bus and began tapping on the glass where I was sitting. As I slumped in my seat, staring at the space between my shoes, I began to feel extremely selfish and rude. Why did I wander into a place where I was not necessarily wanted only to reject the experience and to reject the life experience of those living day-to-day in the dump? My feelings of guilt increased after my friend described how this visit had been the most illuminating of the trip and how the village elder had given the Dean’s Honor Society his blessing to be at the dump.


Thursday, March 21: Saint-Louis

Although throughout the Dean’s Honors Scholars meetings in the months leading up to this trip we read about the urbanization within the four quarters of Senegal, my idyllic conception of West Africa still mirrored the image of Africa portrayed in the Lion King: an open savannah filled with trees and roaming wildlife. To further jar my conception of the country, Professor Fredericks told us we would not be seeing many animals in Dakar, with the exception of goats and horses. I admit that I was disappointed; I wanted to see elephants and giraffes, yet these many theoretical contradictions to my long-prevailing perception of Africa as an animal paradise did not truly sink in until the seventh day of the trip on our drive to St. Louis. Some have described St. Louis, located in northern Senegal, as reminiscent of New Orleans, especially because of the French colonial architecture. The city, with its fortuitous port location, served as the capital of the French colony from the late 17th century to the 20th century.

That morning around 10a.m., after loading our luggage to the top of the vehicle, we boarded our trusty white bus for a four-hour ride to Saint-Louis. I started to get nostalgic about our adventures during the week. The bus ride would take up the greater part of the day, such that we would only have two and a half days before our flight to the U.S. on Sunday. As we drove, the ride through the famed “African bush”reminded me of what David Anderson and Richard Grove described in Conservation in Africa: Peoples, Policies and Practices as“ the view of Africa during European colonialism as a country without people” (4). It is easy to see how people might think of Africa as only occupied by animals and wildlife, especially when it is portrayed as such in Western media. As we left urban Dakar, we entered a stretch of land at first glance seemed to resemble the pride lands from the Lion King.

Dakar plains compared to a still of Pride Rock from "The Lion King"
At left, a photograph I took outside of Dakar; at right, a still from the Lion King.

Maybe I would be able to see a wild elephant after all!

This conception was dispelled the further we drove. Amidst the sturdy baobab trees and the chalky dirt, emerged zero animals, with the exception of goats and cows. Instead huts of various shapes and sizes interrupted the landscape of trees and dirt. Some were circular structures topped off with conical roofs made of straw and twigs. Others, also made of mud, straw, and twigs, I decided, resembled giant wooly mammoths. As I stared listlessly out the window, sun hitting my face, I imagined how the villagers lived day to day in the huts.

To further complicate my preconceptions, we pulled into a gas station so the group could take a bathroom break. This gas station was filled with other cars, children, as well as street-merchants who came up to our bus to sell bagged nuts. After everyone had boarded the bus and we began driving again, we proceeded to share snacks, which had been purchased from the gas station’s convenience store. As I sat snacking on“spicy” sour cream and ketchup flavored Pringles, I looked outside to see a large group of Senegalese, at least a hundred or so, walking along the highway dressed in bright colors. We were definitely not in the Pride Lands!

A few hours later, after playing a variety of car-friendly games, we finally reached Faidherbe Bridge, a symbol for Saint-Louis. After crossing the bridge we entered a busy town square, which was bustling with cars and motorcycles and filled with street-art dealers. Adjacent to the town square was where we would be staying for the night, and decidedly the most charming hotel of the trip, Hotel de la Poste. That night we ate dinner at a restaurant about 100 yards from the hotel. Its walls were painted a cream white  and punctuated by dark wooden shutter doors; its décor was dominated by palm tree motifs. I felt like I had stepped into a time portal back to the French colonial period.

Throughout the remaining two and a half days on the trip, I reflected on all the examples of African urbanization and infrastructure such as the toll roads, gas stations, and restaurants I had seen. The various conceptions and processes of urbanization fascinated me, since implicit in them were the various social relations that determined the location’s architecture and geographies. Those last two days, filled with copious amounts of driving, concluded quickly. Soon it was Sunday, March 24th and my first night back New York. As I entered my dorm in Union Square,I could feel like I had changed, but wasn’t sure how. Maybe I was still reflecting on what I had learned not just about Dakar, but about myself.

Work Cited

Anderson, David and Richard Grove. Conservation in Africa: Peoples, Policies and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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