A Weekend on Gorée Island: On Kinship in Unexpected Places
A couple of weeks ago, I spent 3 days on Goree Island, an international tourist destination known for its role in the Transatlantic slave trade. Up until recently, my experience on Goree had mostly been limited to the day I spent on the island as part of the curriculum for my study abroad program. That happened to be a particularly negative experience (more on this later), so I've dreaded spending time there ever since. For most people, this wouldn't be much of a problem, as the majority of tourists make one visit to Goree and don't return. But because my research requires me to spend a considerable amount of time on the island, this proved to be quite the dilemma for me. So when a friend invited me to spend her birthday weekend with her on Goree, I was admittedly very hesitant. The idea of spending so much time in a place that, for me, represented so much sadness and disappointment was not particularly... appealing. But I went nonetheless, not wanting to let my friend down. Looking back, I'm really glad that I decided to go, because I indeed ended up having a good time with friends, but even more importantly, I was exposed to a side of Goree that was warm, transformative, and inspiring– a side that my previous visits had obscured.
We arrived to the island late Friday evening. After disembarking the ferry, we were met by the host of our accommodation, Bouna, who led us to the compound we were staying at (which ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend). The compound was on top of the highest hill on the island, so getting there was a bit of hike, but the view from the top made it so worth it. It was surrounded by lush greenery and laced with beautiful stone walkways, and there were colorful portraits of prominent Black activists adorning the walls.
The compound is owned by a man named Makha (Bouna's father), a wise, 62-year-old who would often join my friends and I during breakfast to chat about various topics like colonialism, tourism, and life on Goree Island. Makha has lived on the island for most of his life, and he and his family were actually the first people to settle on the high hill in Goree. Since moving there, Makha has planted over 1,000 plants (yes, ~literally~ over a thousand plants) and uses many of them for various foods and medicines. Makha carries what he calls the "traditional belief" that people must live in harmony with nature, as opposed to living in fear of it or having dominion over it. Because of this belief, Makha and his family practice sustainability in all facets of their lives. All of the waste from the compound is recycled (and I do mean everything), from your standard plastic bottles to even the toilet water. Any biodegradable trash (including used water from the showers and toilets) is used to fertilize the plants, while all of the plastic waste is taken to a woman on the island who transforms it into colorful stools, flowerpots, and other useful furnishings.
Makha also had some really insightful ideas on the overall relationship between humans and nature, and further, how that relationship is informed by colonialism. He explained that the predisposition many people have towards separating themselves from the natural world is a remnant of Western colonialism, and that before the French colonized Senegal, Wolof people lived harmoniously with the Earth. Because of these convictions, Makha never harms any bugs or lizards he sees in or around his house, because he believes that by harming them, he harms the plants around him. I, on the other hand, nearly ran outside with my pants around my ankles after seeing a ~huge~ spider in the bathroom (not my proudest moment lol). Comparing my visceral reaction to spiders, lizards, and other harmless bugs to Makha's nurturing reaction got me thinking more critically about my own attitude towards the Earth and how colonialism has informed that attitude. I'm not saying I won't still stomp a spider on sight (I'm working on it lol), but I am thinking a bit more critically about what seemingly harmless acts like these mean about my relationship to the earth and where the ideas and motivations behind these acts come from.
After spending a couple of nights on Goree and talking more with Makha and his family, I realized how limited my previous outlook on Goree had truly been. Having only spent time on the island during peak visiting hours, I had really only seen Goree when it was crawling with tourists. But when the ferries stop running and all of the sightseers return home, Goree, and all of those who call it home, remain. Tranquility takes over– the whirr of breaking waves replaces the chatter of tourist groups and the careless giggles of children in the street replaces the calls of merchants urging folks into their shops. It was during these quiet hours that I discovered a peace on Goree that I never would have imagined had I not stepped outside of the typical tourist experience that I was introduced to the first time I ever visited.
The first time I visited Goree was actually a very emotionally disconcerting experience. While I was encountering the real-life torture chambers and shackles that were used to subjugate my ancestors, I was surrounded by mostly white, European tourists who were more concerned with the architecture of the House of Slaves than the dehumanization that took place there. Even since returning for my research, most of the time I have spent on Goree up until this point has been participating in and/or observing the usual way that tourists navigate the space (as my research is interested in tourism on the island), and each time I have a similar encounter. I see many tourists walking through the House of Slaves, taking smiling selfies in holding cells and laughing thoughtlessly at jokes about slavery (this is not an exaggeration). They are able to heedlessly navigate the space, ignorant of their own privilege and feeling no connection to the horrors that happened there; they remove themselves from the history without a second thought. I, as a descendant of enslaved people, am unable to remove myself in that way. The House of Slaves represents an enormously traumatic moment in my ancestral timeline, so being in that space triggers a deep emotional response for me. Navigating those emotions is difficult in its own right, but doing so while also trying to conduct research has been quite the ordeal.
Needless to say, I don't typically ~enjoy~ spending time on Goree Island. To the contrary, it is a place that has consistently provoked feelings of alienation, sadness, and disappointment. I repeatedly found reasons to avoid going to the island because I had so many unresolved anxieties about it. This was seriously delaying the progress of my work, and feeling like a failure in my own research was taking its toll on my mental health. But my most recent visit was the very first time that I had been on the island and had not stepped foot in the House of Slaves. Instead of spending most of my time at the House of Slaves observing tourists and their guides, I spent most of my time with Makha and his family, with whom I felt kinship and safety, and that was honestly really transformative for me and my feelings about the island. I'm coming to realize that, despite being a foreigner, I generally feel more comfortable in spaces with other Senegalese people than I do in spaces with other (mostly white) American tourists. I'm still making sense of why that is exactly, and I still have a lot to unpack on this mentally. Maybe when I have some more clarity, I'll write another post on it, but right now, I'm feeling grateful to have had such a warm experience in a place that has historically provoked very negative emotions for me.
While this weekend helped me move past a lot of my anxiety about spending time on Goree Island, I do think that the House of Slaves in particular will always evoke some kind of emotional reaction for me, and I think that that's okay. It's normal that a place representative of so much pain and suffering makes me feel some type of way. I'm still working on being gentle with myself and being okay with having to take time to process my emotions. I have to remind myself that doing so does not make me a failure nor does it make me an unsuccessful researcher. I think that, if anything, recognizing how and why I respond emotionally to different places and situations will help make my work even stronger. So I'm walking away from this experience feeling connected to Goree in a new way, and even more importantly, I'm feeling a renewed sense of pride in my research and my ability to do it well.
Fun fact: Cats on Goree are really living their best lives. Restaurant owners and families often give them their leftovers, and there are no cars to hit them in the streets. So most of the stray cats on the island are fat, happy, and mostly unafraid of humans!