Gorée

Alright I (still) live in Dakar, have run this blog on and off for almost five years and I have never written about Gorée. Correct? Correct. And after my visit yesterday (which reconfirmed my premonitions) I can tell you that the main reason for not going there is…that in spite of all its evident picturesqueness…

Gorée 1

…I can’t stand the place.

It begins even before you get onto the boat (“la chaloupe,” as it is charmingly called) that takes you there. Quite apart from paying a fairly extortionate rate to get aboard you also have to begin dealing with people who offer their services as Guides. All fine and good but wait until I get onto the island, OK? It’s a bit like the incessant taxi horns: if I need you I’ll let you know. I don’t need this in-your-face service offering. On the boat, you will also be accosted by very nice ladies who are being very nice to you because they want to sell you something. All invariably have a boutique that you absolutely must visit or a restaurant where you must come and eat.

From a shopyard. Hawks in the sky.

From a boutique yard. Spot the hawks…

The arrival is pretty. Port. Small beach. And a quay that has not been repaired in over 50 years to make a wild guess. By contrast, the new departure building that houses all maritime services out of Dakar is a massive step forward from the shack where we used to be herded into prior to departure.

Stepping off the quay you are herded…towards the Tourism Office where you are made to pay about one dollar for the privilege of visiting the island. Fair enough, but I personally would like to be informed of this before I step on the boat. A sign at the ticket office, say. Fumbling for the cash you are approached by people who offer their services as Official Guide, once you have stepped away from the payment office. Walking down the first street past the office the line changes to “It’s interesting with a Guide.”

No doubt. But it rather grates that the assumption first of all is that I am French. And second that I know nothing about the island and its Portuguese – Dutch – British – French – Senegalese history. And third that I have loads of cash. All these are dead wrong but in Gorée, you are pushed back in the role of dumb, money-laden French tourist. Of which there are loads, assuredly. However, one might assume that Gorée has made an effort to distinguish between those and others. Otherwise, the suspicion lingers that this country does not take its premier tourist destination terribly seriously.

Sometimes I do get a pic right!

Sometimes I do get a pic right!

There are museums. They range from underwhelming (Maritime) to excellent (History) and a special place must of course be reserved for the House of Slaves, that stands as a monument for this crime against humanity, of which Saint Louis, not Gorée, was the principal Senegalese focal point. I personally do not think it necessary to inflate the figure of slaves that passed through Gorée to a height that exceeds the entire transatlantic trade to bring home the sheer despairing humiliation of it all. Let the dungeons and the cells and the Door of No Return speak for themselves. They do so, eloquently.

Dakar-Plateau, as seen from Gorée

Dakar-Plateau, as seen from Gorée

The trip to the Castle at the top of the island is a gauntlet run through an open air consumer gallery with overpriced restaurants and equally overpriced and not terribly interesting art, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Instead of enjoying the scene, you hurry through. One moment’s hesitation and it’s: ‘Looking for something? Come here.’ Being surrounded by folks who follow, hawk-like, your every move does not make me want to come back.

Gorée is a world class tourist destination based on its importance for human history. It could also be a welcome haven away from the nervous bustle of the city opposite. Instead, it exudes the atmosphere that everything revolves around money. My money. And weirdly enough, I can’t shake that unpleasant feeling.

A dignified Gorée is built up around the historical axis that links the Castle, via the House of Slaves and the excellent Gorée Institute to the Fort that is home to the History Museum. The rest are add-ons, non-essential consumer items. It’s nice to be able to eat, nice to be able to have a drink, nice to even spend a night here but not vital in a place that is one plunge away from a major West African metropolis. As for the shops and the guides: nobody needs this overkill. Prioritise the local Goréens – after all they need to make a living -, ensure that everyone understands that ‘No, sorry, not interested,’ means just that…and leave me alone until I get there. Whenever that may be. Until then:

That's it, folks - goodbye!

That’s it, folks – goodbye!

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