On April 17 we were docked in Dakar, the capital and largest city in Senegal.
The Portuguese began shipping slaves from this area in the 15th century and in the 16th century it was an important stop for Portuguese ships headed to and from India. The Portuguese established the first European settlement in the mid 16th century just off the coast on the Ile de Goree, which became one of the most important slave depots. The Dutch and English occupied this area for some time as well before France finally took control in 1677. Senegal has been independent since 1960. Dakar is the westernmost city in the Old World. In fact, since it sits west of the Prime Meridian, it is actually part of the Western Hemisphere. Its urban population is almost 2.5 million.
We spent the morning on an excursion to the Ile de Goree, an island less than 2 miles from Dakar. We walked to the ferry for the 20 minute ride. We exited to the island on a pier in a small harbor in the middle of the island.
Some 1500 people live on the island today but most of the buildings are hundreds of years old. Many are painted in very bold hues that made striking images in their contrasting shapes and colors as we walked past them. Colorful flowers decorated many of the streets as well.
We walked to the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves). Goree Island was an important center for the slave trade for about two centuries so this was the last glimpse of Africa for many who were torn from their families and brought unwillingly to the Americas. During its heyday there were perhaps a dozen slave detention houses on Goree that served as depots for transferring them to waiting ships. This one, built around 1780, is the only one that has been preserved and restored as a memorial. The museum was opened in 1962 and restored during the 1970’s. It has since hosted many visitors, including most famously Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama. The small building was filled with visitors when we were there and the director of the museum gave a talk in the front courtyard about the slave trade and the project to preserve and restore this building.
Inside the first floor were the remnants of cells and at the very back is an open doorway called the “Door of No Return.” Through this door slaves were taken down a ramp to boats that ferried them to anchored slave ships never to see their homeland again. It is a matter of some dispute how many slaves left from Goree but this place is not important so much because it was one of the largest or most important slave depots but because it is the only one left that can be visited. A visit here can be quite moving.
We walked to a square with a large Baobab tree and the guide explained what makes these trees unique. Most of the several types of Baobabs grow only on Madagascar, with one or two growing in Africa and Australia. They can grow almost 100 feet tall but are distinctive for their wide trunks, which can reach more than 35 feet in diameter. In those trunks they store water, often tens of thousands of gallons, to sustain them through droughts. They are extremely long-lived, with some having been determined to be more than 2,000 years old. In the last decade or so many of the oldest Baobabs have suddenly died and, while the cause has not yet been determined definitively, climate change is the most widely suspected culprit. The fruit, sometimes called “monkey bread,” is very dry and nutritious. It is ground into powder that is added to many types of dishes. The trees are deciduous and had no leaves while we were visiting.
We walked on and up the hill (there is only one prominent hill on the island). We saw the church and an artist’s village, then walked up a path lined with Baobabs.
Near the top we stopped into the Dougoub Galerie where an artist was making sand paintings. Different colors of sand are imported from many places in Africa. After spreading glue on the backing he applies each color to a part of it by sifting it out of his hand. He then lifted it up and the excess sand dropped off, leaving a surprisingly sharp sand picture you wouldn’t have known was there during the process.
We walked around the top of the hill, seeing what there was to see.
From the top were some particularly good views, both of Goree and of Dakar about a mile and a half across the water.
We walked back down the hill by a different route then across to the fort, passing animals, flowers and more brightly colored buildings.
The interestingly round Fort d’Estrees sits at the far end of the island on the edge of the harbor. It was built by the French in the 1850’s to protect the Dakar harbor but saw no action until 1940. In September of 1940 the British and Free French attempted to take Dakar from the Vichy government. A naval task force arrived but the area was not taken. During the Battle of Dakar the Tacoma, an allied merchant ship, was sunk just off shore of Goree Island. It is still there, marked with a buoy so the ferry can avoid it, and it is somewhat popular with divers.
The rooms ringing the courtyard of the fort contain a museum with a wide range of subjects. We particularly liked the Muslim mosaics in one of them.
The tour was now ended and we walked back along the waterfront to the harbor area where we would catch the ferry back to Dakar.
Back at the dock we stopped into a café for a beer. Across the square was a craft stand selling the colorful baskets made in this region, which we had also seen in The Gambia, very different from what we saw in South Africa. In the square and on the dock as we boarded the ferry were a number of local folks in striking clothing.
We got back to the ship early in the afternoon and decided to take the shuttle bus to Independence Square, the center of Dakar. On grand voyages HAL often provides a free shuttle into town when the ship is docked further than walking distance. This is often a good choice when you don’t have anything scheduled since it gives you an opportunity to explore the town in leisurely fashion for free. But not here! We learned later that a number of passengers had been harassed by locals in town and by vendors if they didn’t buy anything. One crew member’s phone was actually stolen on the dock (we heard later that the other crew members had pooled their money to buy him a new one). It seems that this stop is the one that most merited the warnings we received from Barbara and Captain Mercer.
But we didn’t know any of this when we boarded the shuttle to Independence Square. Then just before we left one of HAL’s security staff stepped into the bus to warn us, in no uncertain terms, not to walk back to the ship but to wait for the bus. We had never encountered anything like that before. As we headed downtown a Senegalese guide began narrating the trip. When we got to Independence Square he said the folks near the bus stop looked dangerous to him and asked everybody to stay on the bus and he would take us on a drive past the highlights of town. No one got off so off we went. The guide was very good and we drove on past the presidential palace, the National Assembly, the IFAN Art Museum, some resort hotels popular with French vacationers (some surrounded by razor wire), then back to the port via the coastal road. It was a bit of a whirlwind and we really can’t remember everything we saw, but here are some pictures we managed to take on the way through the bus windows.
As we had seen in Banjul, there was a craft market laid out all along the dock in front of the ship. This one was much bigger though. We walked around and even bought something. A lot of these things look interesting but after a while most of it fades into “more of the same” and you had to bargain just to find out how much something might cost. Not really what we like. From the ship you could see in the distance the silhouette of the African Renaissance Monument, the tallest sculpture in Africa, completed in 2010 to mark 50 years of Senegalese independence. It is impressive in size but many consider it an ugly example of Stalinist art. Not having seen it up close we have no opinion.
We sailed away as the sun was setting. We passed the Ile de Goree glowing in the late afternoon light & looking back our final view of Dakar was golden, a fitting farewell to the fascinating continent of Africa.