Posts Tagged ‘Gorée’

Gorée

May 7, 2014

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!

Random Exhibitions

December 19, 2010

Around the corner from my flat is CICES, a giant exhibition area. Every city’s got one – think of the RAI complex if you’re from Amsterdam.

CICES plays host to a series of conferences on cities, architecture and, as I found out by accident, cinema. All part of the massively disorganised shambles known as the Global Festival for the Black Arts, FESMAN being the French acronym. The Black Arts deserve a lot better than this presidential glorification party but I’ll stop boring you to tears with that…

So: last Monday, I went looking for the conference on cities, which finally took place – on Wednesday. I walked around the exhibition area…building site more like…when I was called. “Kai lekk!”, which means come and eat.

So instead of listening to some drone from academia discuss asymmetrical parallels (no, none of us knows what that means) or conceptual processes, deconstructivism (all in the conference program)…I was having thieboudien with Momar Thiam and his younger colleague, Mr Kassé. Thieboudien: – look that up, it’s among the top ten best dishes on the planet.

They were setting up an exhibition about the history of Senegalese cinema. Also intended to be a strong argument for a national museum of the national cinema. They don’t have to look far; Mr Thiam, himself a film director, keeps all the historical billboards, artefacts, press clippings and everything else…in his own home.

The caretaker of national cinema - and his private collection

Come last Saturday, five days after my first visit – and Mr Thiam’s exhibition is ready. The adjacent one on architecture still reverberates to the sounds of hammers pounding nails. There are very few visitors. Which he finds, quite naturally, disappointing. But he soldiers through with the interviews (first me, for Radio Netherlands, then a colleague for TV5) and still hopes that after years of non-committa promises, he will finally get his museum. I hope so too. But instead of a new home for Mr Thiam’s wonderful collection, we’re more likely to get this:

another monument that will dwarf another landmark...

This is from the architecture exhibition, featuring some work on traditional abodes in Benin, dwellings in Mauritania, a completely random set of new buildings and cityscapes in Ouagadougou, Accra, Dakar  and Bamako – and designs. Lots and lots of designs.

Like the one above.

This is not a copy of the “sail” building in Dubai. Nor is it the locally planned equivalent of a section of the Sydney Opera House. No. It’s…a Monument, a Memorial. We don’t nearly have enough of these in Dakar. It will sit off the historical island of Gorée, which over centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, French and English rule acted as a transit port for spices, hides, gold, gum arabic and most notoriously, slaves. Gorée’s role, though, has been much exaggerated; the main centre of the slave trade in Senegal was the old capital, St. Louis.

If this ever gets built, it will dwarf everything on this tiny island – just 900 metres long and a few hundred metres wide. It’s estimated to cost something of the order of €35m – that’s more than that other Monument. No-one will like it but the president wants it and what the president wants, happens.

Back to the lives of lesser mortals. On my way out of the CICES complex I ran into two young men from Pikine, miles and miles away. ‘We’re not connected to FESMAN…’ Well, that makes you part of the vast majority of Senegalese…

‘This is our marketing: walking around with our arts.’ Would I come and visit them? Definitely, as they gave away glimpses of their lives in the few minutes we spoke: failed overseas migration, life in one of Dakar’s poorest areas, struggling to make money through arts and not being shy about wandering into a party to which they were obviously not invited.

Moral of the story? Ignore official programs. Always accept an invitation to eat. Talk to everyone who does not carry an official badge.