Sunday, December 2, 2007

NABJ Senegal Day 2

DAY 2 Goree Island, Senegal
December 2, 2007
Khadijah White, NOW on PBS
Photos by Bob Butler, KCBS Radio; Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press; Travers Johnson, The Maroon Tiger, Morehouse College

We were heading to a slave island, the last point that entire families would see their mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. They would head to different points of the world, dispersed throughout the Carribean and the Americas. On occasion, their own descendants would find traces of each other in those rare “you look just like my cousin” moments, transcending accents, languages, and nations. It was a complex history, made even more difficult by the sunny, brilliant beauty of Goree Island that seemed to contradict the pain and suffering that occurred so long ago. “I’m a little anxious,” my dear NABJ president, Barbara Ciara admitted. She wasn’t the only one.

When we reached the house that stored slaves before the tumultuous travel ahead, we struggled to take it in. The rooms were small—seemingly too small to house the men, women and children who had stayed there, attached to the wall by shackles that gripped them by the necks. Girls, boys, men and women had been separated by thick cold concrete, sickened by the excrement on the floor that ran loose on their unclothed bodies. People who were ill and did not recover were literally thrown to the sharks – no clemency for even the sick. Rebels were placed in a chamber too small to stand and too dark to see anything or anyone else. It was a horror we couldn’t imagine on an island of such beauty, the glittering water shining a brilliant blue through the “Door of No Return” (left), where all the slaves took their last steps on African soil to board ships bound for the Middle Passage. We posed and snapped pictures, too busy to feel the emotions that would flood us later.

Yet, what was most striking to me wasn’t the slave house or the memories it contained. It was the children that were spread all across the island, greeting us from our first moment there to our last steps off. As the ferry approached the island, boys swam with smooth, sure strokes, holding their hands open for passengers to throw down coins that they quickly found and stored in their mouth, still chattering with ease. Another small boy sat quietly, reading in an archway as our group traveled by. There was a little girl who rushed behind her mother, cheerfully advertising the jewelry that hung from her hands. There were also the tiny boys, none more than age 5, who stood up, puffed out their chests to pose for the camera. And there were the children who followed us to the boat, gleefully walking away with Ojinika’s water bottle when she finally realized that they would happily take that instead of her reporter’s notebook.

The children remind of us the healing potential for Senegal— and I guess, for us all. Their joy and vigor lessens the death and sadness of the island’s legacy – it reminds me that the sun keeps shining, that life keeps going, that people survive. So I take a bittersweet recollection of Goree Island with me as we continue in our journey – one I also give to you.

Travers Johnson, The Maroon Tiger, Morehouse College

I went to Goree Island today and didn’t cry. I didn’t drop to my knees in despair upon entering the slave house. I didn’t curl up in the corner of the closet-sized chamber where (if I had lived 200 years ago) I probably would have been shackled for upwards of 3 months with 19 other adult males. I didn’t breakdown when I reached the “Door of No Return” — the storied ocean-facing exit of the slave house, where the Africans were thrown onto the slave ships, never to see their homes again. And I didn’t leave the Island resenting every white tourist that I saw.

I went to Goree Island today, didn’t cry, and don’t really know why.

Maybe it was because I was distracted. Distracted by the young Senegalese man, about my age, who was dressed like he had just popped out of the latest hip-hop video on MTV—clad in an oversized black tee, sagging black jeans, gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, a fitted cap carefully tilted to the right side of his head, and a watch with so much fake bling that I had to shield my eyes.

I was distracted by the posters of Tupac Shakur on the side of a slave house that read “Thug Life.” I was distracted by the flowing purple hair weave on the head of a Senegalese girl, and the knockoff Gucci toboggan that a young boy wore. I was distracted by the fact that the song “Public Affair,” by the blonde-haired, bird-brained American pop singer Jessica Simpson, was playing on the radio that belonged to a Senegalese artist.

I was distracted by the mob of vendors that ambushed our delegation at every turn; I was distracted by the young Senegalese boy who sat in a classroom playing a computer game; but mostly, I was distracted by my realization that every pre-conceived notion that I had, every judgment that I had made prior to arriving, and everything that I had expected to see, to feel, and to experience while on Goree Island was, for the most part, wrong.

During our delegation’s press briefing at the United Nations on Friday, NABJ President Barbara Ciara challenged all of the fellows to answer the following question: “What is the myth and what is the reality of Senegal?” With each passing day in this beautiful country I am beginning to answer this question. Yes, from my privileged middle class American viewpoint, there are a lot of problems in Senegal. But over the past two days I have seen that there are a lot of things to celebrate as well. I have also been very intrigued by the intersection of American and Senegalese culture here. I mean, I didn’t expect to see half-dressed people doing tribal dances around a bonfire, but I didn’t expect to hear Jessica Simpson blaring on someone’s radio either.

All in all, I expect to be surprised by what I learn throughout the rest of this trip; to have all of my stereotypes of Africa disproved. But then again, I expected to cry at Goree Island.