An Accidental History Lesson for Black History Month: From the House of Slaves in Senegal to Black liberation in the US

In recognition of the length of this story, if you don’t feel like reading everything and just want some destination/travel specific information, please use this index to reach the relevant chapter. 

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SOMETIMES coincidences are so frequent and blatantly directional that they stop seeming like coincidences and instead install in me the idea that the universe is trying to tell me something. In 2014, through my travels, reading and cinema experiences, I accidentally encountered traces of a story quite pertinent to Black History Month, a story I feel compelled to recount, a set of events which further motivated me to write about social issues.

Brace yourselves, it’s a long story.

From the onset of 2014 to the beginning of 2015, I experienced a chain of events, all seemingly related to, or following the path of the people who were brutally put in chains in West Africa, transported in tight, unsanitary conditions on ships for months at a time, often transiting in Bristol, before arriving in in North or South America, with many ending up in the southern states of the US and the Caribbean. These people were destined to become slaves, often suffering hard labour and mistreatment at the hand of their masters in sugar plantations in the so-called ‘New World’.

Such disregard for the human rights of these people continued from the 15th century right up until the 19th century, though in the 18th century abolitionists’ opposition to the Transatlantic slave trade was intensifying. It was a slow process given the number of countries involved, but the last recorded slave ship to land on American soil illegally smuggled a number of Africans into the town of Mobile, Alabama in 1859, though slavery in the U.S was abolished five years later in 1865, following the end of the American Civil War. The last country to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1831, though the country still made allowances right up until 188, and illegal operations continued to ship large numbers of enslaved people to Cuba and Brazil until the 1860s.

Though liberated, black populations living in Europe and indeed the US still continued to (and indeed, still do) face prejudices based on the colour of their skin. Figures such as Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist, humanitarian and American Baptist minister spoke for the African-American populations who faced discrimination and segregation, culminating in the deliverance of his famous speech “I have a dream”.

Beginnings

Soundtrack:
Philip Glass and Foday Musa-The Gambia
Amadou & Mariam ft Manu Chao-Senegal fast food
Baaba Maal-Faa-laay-Fanaan
Paul Simon-Under African Skies

Often I don’t plan trips or events too far in advance, or I do, but I change plans and things tend to just pan out naturally. I didn’t plan any of these strange synchronicities, they just fell into place. Christmas 2013, my mother hinted that I would be taken to a surprise Francophone destination after Christmas, where I would be able to practice the French I had improved during my Erasmus semester in Grenoble, France.

It turned out she had made a slight mistake, and booked a cheap package deal to Banjul, capital of the Gambia, unaware that the small countryhad previously been colonised by the English, unlike the surrounding country of Senegal which had been colonised by the French during the Scramble for Africa.

From Banjul to Dakar, overland

We spent a couple of days on the beaches in the Gambia and in the dusty markets of Banjul, before planning our trip to Senegal. Though this is part of my larger story about an accidental history lesson while travelling across three continents, relevant to Black History month. I recognise however that this guide might be useful to anyone who needs to get to Dakar from Banjul, or as a travel hack to anyone who wants to avoid the expensive flight to Dakar and instead travel up from Banjul, flights to which are much cheaper given that it was once part of the British Empire.

Heading to Senegal was initially easy, though the Visa cost 50 euros from Banjul, even if only for a short stay. Casamance in the South is easily reached, though I wouldn’t have wanted to spend longer than a day there, as south Senegal is known for its rebels and riots. Going to the North however was a little more tricky, as it involved the dreaded ferry from Banjul to Barra. Going to Dakar and North Senegal this way is however undoubtedly the cheapest route, though not the most comfortable.

The ferry crossing cost a measly 25 dalasi each (40p), including baggage allowance. The lack of instrastructure was the thing which exhausted me in West Africa. Though told we could catch a ferry at 8am, we ended up waiting at the port, under the burning sun, for no less than 5 hours. We were surrounded by women carrying boxes, fruit, grains on their head. People were carrying chickens upside down, I saw one unsympathetically thrown into a trash can for having a limp. I realise I am coming at this from a western vegan sensibility, but sometimes it is difficult to avoid being ethnocentric when ethics are involved. Really these kind of practices exist even in Europe, where they go on behind closed doors. When the ferry was ready to depart there was a race to get onboard; we were up against donkeys, lorries, camels, cars and heavily-loaded people. So, a 300 capacity boat was definitely overloaded. It took about an hour to cross the Gambia river.

Heading to Senegal was initially easy, though the Visa cost 50 euros even if only for a short stay. Casamance in the South is easily reached, though I wouldn’t have wanted to spend longer than a day there, as south Senegal is known for its rebels and riots. Going to the North however was a little more tricky, as it involved the dreaded ferry from Banjul to Barra. Going to Dakar and North Senegal this way is however undoubtedly the cheapest route, though not the most comfortable. The ferry crossing cost a measly 25 dalasi each (40p), including baggage allowance. Having just missed the 8am ferry we ended up waiting at the port, under a burning sun, for no less than 5 hours. We were surrounded by women carrying boxes, fruit, grains on their head. People were carrying chickens upside down, I saw one unsympathetically thrown into a trash can for having a limp. I realise I am coming at this from a western vegan sensibility, but sometimes it is difficult to avoid being ethnocentric when ethics are involved. Really these kind of practices exist even in Europe, where they go on behind closed doors. When the ferry was ready to depart there was a race to get onboard; we were up against donkeys, lorries, camels, cars and heavily-loaded people. So, a 300 capacity boat was definitely overloaded. It took about an hour to cross the Gambia river.

The long journey to Dakar from Barra was quite an adventure. We befriended two women whilst waiting for the ferry, a Gambian lady, and a slightly less friendly Senegalese lady. The latter asked us to join her up to Dakar and offered us a place to stay for a couple of night… Another guy who was heading up to Mauritania offered us a lift to Dakar in his jeep, though my mum trusted the lady over the man. Sometimes, it is difficult to trust people in this world… I spoke with the Senegalese lady in French, but she conversed with the taxi driver in Wolof. Another great big woman got into the taxi without asking, and suddenly we were asked to pay 400 dalasi, when we were told that this journey should cost only 250 dalasi. After a few questions we agreed to pay half, 200, only to find out that the two women had cheated us when we spoke to the police in the immigration office. They got away with a cheap ride, 50 dalasi between the two of them. At this point we turned down the trip to Dakar with the lady after letting her know that we knew. The immigration office was like a cow shed, the immigration officers were friendly, the exterior was quite poverty stricken and the ground rather arid.

To get to the garage, we needed to get on the back of a motorbike. There was obviously more supply than demand, when the locals found out we needed a lift they were treating me like the rope in a tug-of-war match where everyone was fighting for their themselves. After shouting “je n’en ai plus besoin” I grabbed the opportunity to jump on the back off the guy was hassling me the least’s motorbike, and we sped along the bumpy rode to reach the garage. There were numerous taxis and minibuses, most of which seemed like vehicles we would only find in a dump or car crash here in Europe. People immediately saw us and ran at us offering great deals and “new” cars. 6000 Sefa seemed like a lot for a taxi, so we initially opted for the cheapest option, the mini bus, costing 4000 sefa per person. We waited from 15.30 until about 17:00 before asking when the mini bus would go, we had rather hoped to arrive in Dakar between 21:00-22:00. During this long wait we looked out of the windows, with the occasional desperate seller coming to our window. When some quite emaciated children approached me, I had nothing to give them… No dalasi, no Sefa, so I reached through my bag. After giving them the empty plastic bottles I had, I handed out some pens, which were a huge hit. More kids gathered around the bus, so I searched through my bag for anything which I could do without. In my pencil case I found a few parasol cocktail sticks, leftover from last summer. I handed them out, thinking they would be thrown away. Instead for the next 3 hours I saw the few who had these running around playing with them, spinning them, gazing at them in awe and showing them to their friends. It was pretty sad to think that some people have so little that they get so much out of such an insignificant little thing. It also reminded me how materialistic we are in the West, unable to enjoy the simple things in life. My mum handed them a blueberry muffin she had had in her bag, and a moment later we saw 5 children standing around it, all taking little bites. The mini bus driver laughed whilst chatting with friends, and casually said that he was waiting until 18:00, for the next ferry passengers. Great, so we knew how unreliable the ferry service was. We waited another hour and saw the ferry passengers arrive, and the mini bus still wasn’t full, so we argued a little to get our money back and swapped into the 6000 Sefa taxi. After the trip I did a conversion, those 6000 sefa were only about £7.50, so it was going to be a very cheap trip. As we were in such as rush at this point to leave we didn’t bother looking at where we were sitting. The driver had squeezed three of us into the back of a taxi, in a seat suitable for only two people.

Thus, for three hours we were squashed and uncomfortable, and I was sat on a buckle. Aside from the discomfort, it was at least an interesting journey at the start. Looking out of the window we saw little villages, dirt tracks and a really rural side of Senegal. I was also chatting in French with the guy next to me, who was taking up the majority of the conversation. To begin with it was an interesting conversation, but later on the conversation got a little weird… “tu es pour ou contre le racisme?” “tu as jamais été avec un noir?” “tu as l’air très cool” “j’espère que je t’ai dit que tu es belle”. My mum asked him which branch of medicine he wanted to specialise in. The answer? Gynecology. Later, when other passengers left the taxi my mum got into the front for more leg room, and this guy (who it turns out is married) tried to hold my hand. I told him I had a boyfriend, he said “juste comme amie”. He paid for the taxi to our hostel despite my outright refusal, but it did make for an awkward 6 journey, to add the discomfort of being trapped in a sardine tin, bouncing over pot holes on a poorly maintained dust track.

This wasn’t the only time this happened, though as I couldn’t escape, it was definitely the most memorable. Like in India, I did get many marriage proposals, though these were a little more insistent. The proposals still came, even when I started announcing I was married. The hotelier in Kotu kept asking me to change my surname to his. I got a reputation in that little town, “the Princess”, which was a little bit weird/sweet at the same time. In any case, this can be a little scary for a young female traveler. As I understand, western girls do have a somewhat international reputation for being “sluts” (horrible word). During this long journey I ate 6 oreos and a banana. When I eventually arrived in Dakar at 01:30 I drank the only drink available, a sprite.

Dakar and Gorée Island

Dakar was clearly more developed than any of the other places I had been in Senegal or The Gambia. Whilst there was still poverty, regular power cuts, and a little disorder, there were also big supermarkets chains like Carrefour and Casino, air conditioned restaurants, high street shops and time-tabled public transport. The ferry to Gorée island was very clean and on-time, and the waiting room and ticket office were also clean and efficient. During a nostalgic walk around Casino I spotted all the products I purchased on a regular basis in Grenoble, including Granola cookies and the sign of bad quality, the generic tous les jours range. Though the market was a labyrinth equivocal to those found in old Delhi, there were trees lining the roads and the occasional upmarket bar or boulangerie/patisserie. There were some impressive colonial buildings in the centre, and the cathedral, president’ s house and la place de la résistance make Dakar really seem like an important capital. Le monument de la Renaissance gives Dakar that unique skyline which makes it stand out from other African cities as being a centre of culture. Dakar is also a pretty international city, with many immigrants, notably there is a pretty sizable Lebanese presence. I went to a Lebanese restaurant and had one of the best falafel wraps ever.

Gorée Island


Gorée island was a beautiful, colourful place. Colonial architecture made by the French and British was prevalent, and the cobblestone streets were adorned with flowers. The water was also clear, and the beach white and sandy. We ate in a beach café, I had the salade avocat, a very basic avocado sandwich, whilst my mum went for a local fish dish. If I had been hungrier I would have tried the ton ton végétarien, a stir fry made with sautéed potatoes, plantains, green vegetables and manioc. After lunch we headed to the main attraction of the island: la maison des esclaves. A UNESCO world heritage site, this old slave prison has been transformed into an informative museum, with some disturbing exhibits. The plaques are still up, designating which rooms are for young girls, which are for women and men etc. Many Afro-Americans visited this museum and shed tears, reminded of the suffering of their ancestors.

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“White or Black, they all cry salt tears” Claude Aveline

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Stepping into La Maison des esclaves on Gorée island, I was saddened. Little did I know was the start of a whole chain of coincidences.

Two weeks later, in Germany

A couple of weeks later, dark things were afoot. Emotional turmoil from other sources, cycling to a cinema in Germany I found myself passing through the scene of an accident. A man had just been hit by a car and fallen off his bicycle, the wheels were still spinning, blood was pouring from his helmet-less head and accumulating in a puddle on the tarmac. His shopping bags were splayed unevenly across the road, tins of beans and punctured yoghurt cartons hinted at tragedy. I continued to the cinema, uncertain of this stranger’s fate and with an uneasy awareness of man’s fragility, mortality.

The film I was going to see was 12 Years a Slave, in English with German subtitles in an independent cinema in Karlsruhe.

Each strike of the whip on the protagonist’s flesh, each brutal scene of abuse, amplified by the existing tension caused by witnessing what I would later learn was the death of a young man. The story follows the real memoir of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born a free man in Washington D.C, kidnapped and forced into slavery, working on plantations in Louisiana from 1841 for 12 years. Much of the film was shot in New Orleans. I left the theatre feeling on edge. Not only was I think about the fragility of man, but the cruelty of mankind.

A Summer read

It would be a lie to say that nothing else of great significance in 2014 happened, that was unrelated to the story of the Transatlantic slave trade and black history in Europe and the Americas. I had my personal stories, I travelled far and wide, from the familiar Germany and the Netherlands to Vietnam and Japan. Yet it was a constant thread, a chain of thought.

From February to June 2014 I was living in Milan. It was not my place, and by early summer I had become a book worm. Among the books I read was The Help, a novel by Kathryn Stockett that was recommended to me by a friend. I had little idea about the plot, but picked it up and began to read.

The novel tells the story of African American maids working in white households Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. Told from the first person perspectives of three woman, a an aspiring journalist, Eugenia Skeeter, and two black maids Aibileen Clark and Minnie Jackson, The Help demonstrates and indeed criticises the segregation and discrimination of black people in the deep south, while enabling Skeeter to find a cause important enough to write about.

Across the Atlantic, New Orleans and Atlanta

After a slightly stressful end to the year, I ended up flying to the US to meet my brother who now lives in Atlanta with his wife and son. Little was planned. We had an odd Christmas in Alabama, Selma (coincidentally the city from which Martin Luther King led a Voting Rights march in 1965). For one thing, it was warm. Secondly, it was Korean, unsurprising given that my sister-in-law’s family are originally from South Korea.

A day later my brother, mother, sister-in law and I took a road trip down to New Orleans. We were supposed to leave after three days, but at the last minute I spontaneously decided to stay in the city and found a Couchsurfing host, an artist called Josh Hailey, coincidentally from Jackson Mississippi.

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New Orleans is one of my favourite places on earth, though you can read more about my love for Nola here. I was prewarned by many Americans about the racism in Louisiana and the deep south in general. Though I did witness this first hand, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large demographic of progressive people who did not seem to discriminate against people based on their colour, sexuality or gender. The city’s culture is based on a fusion of Afro-Carribean and colonial influences: from the hot sauces you can put on your food to the Jazz that you hear in the French Quarter, these all serve as reminders of the West’s dark past, though fortunately have and are becoming something positive, something beautiful.

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I passed the new year here, skipping the parties and instead engaging in deep and reflective discussions with a fellow Couchsurfer from Spain.

Atlanta

I left New Orleans on New Years day, taking an inexpensive 8 hour Megabus back up to Atlanta to meet my brother. After a year filled with personal trauma and turmoil, something indefinable was finally beginning to click into place, though I wasn’t sure what.

In the meanwhile, I had inadvertently followed, in fragments, the story of the suffering and enslavement of the African people. The story was to accidentally be concluded in Atlanta, where I came across Martin Luther’s family house and the Martin Luther King Jr national historic site. Passing from block to block, a dream-like voice projected from somewhere. It wasn’t Sunday, but I thought it might be the amplified voice of a great orator in a gospel church.

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No, it was a recording of  Martin Luther King Jr’s legendary speech, “I have a dream”, played from a megaphone at the historic site:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today”

I cried, and realised that 2015 was a time for new beginnings.

 

 

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