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A visit to Goree and the slave museum

A visit to Gorée and the Musée d’Esclaves (Slave Museum)

By Jen and Katie

Gorée is so completely different from Dakar. It feels like a detached bubble, yet is only a 20-minute boat ride from a bustling city full of sheep baahing, cockerels crowing, call to prayer chants, traffic noise and horns.

There was silence at 4.30am on Gorée.  Or at least there was a call to prayer but it was too far over the other side of the island to hear. It was cooler being surrounded by sea. Flowers were everywhere. Colourful houses are a reminder of colonial architecture, and most buildings are in a noticeably better condition than just across the water.  Two worlds so very close together.

There’s a big art exhibition on this fortnight in Senegal (The Bienniale); it’s set-up in Gorée reminded me of the ruin bars in Budapest – there’s no gallery: pictures are hanging in old open building, at the side of the street, installations are dotted around on the ground. It’s difficult to tell where the art stops and where reality starts.


Part of the Bienniale Art Expo 2018.

Floriane de Lassée has created a series called “Women in Africa” which is part of the Expo.

There are three things which I’ll always remember about my visit to this island. The first, probably like most people is the Musée d’Esclaves (Slave museum). The second is the place we stayed. And the third was a little book I read from the bookshelf of the guest house about the slave trade.

Musée d’esclaves (Slave Museum)

In the museum there’s a doorway leading to the sea – the point of no return for the people who were taken away as slaves. It’s been visited and stood in by many heads of state including Barack Obama and the whole building is a UNESCO protected site.


A memorial to the slave trade, gifted by Guadeloupe where many slaves were sent.It is estimated that 10 to 13 million men, women and children reached the Americas, the Antilles or Europe without their freedom. That figure doesn’t include those who died, committed suicide, or were ill and thrown overboard to avoid the spread of disease. On one English ship between 1680 and 1688 “cargo losses” were 25%. It improved over time because the cargo was valuable to the ship owners. The total number of slaves involved is thought to be as high as 20 million over the 300 year period of slave trading.  Queen Elizabeth I helped fund one of the most infamous English slave ships belonging to the ruthless John Hawkins.

Elizabeth I funded the infamous slave ship belonging to John Hawkins which made 5 trips. John Hawkins was know for his brutality in capturing and taking people as slaves by force (rather than buying them from middle men).

It was usually a triangular route for the slave ship. It left its European home (Liverpool was the busiest port) laden with goods to trade. On arrival in Africa, it left with slaves, bought with the cargo. On reaching its destination in the Americas it sold its slaves for the sugar, coffee, cotton and indigo which the existing slaves had harvested.

Our guide gave us the facts as we walked round the museum in a matter of fact way, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he was talking about livestock, not people. Arrivals were first weighed, and men not reaching 60kg were sent to a fattening-up room, where they were given extra rations. Women were held in another room, children in yet another (the rooms are tiny) and a final room, or more accurately, barred cupboard because it’s less than a metre high at the back, was for troublemakers. Because those slaves couldn’t stand, and depending on the offence would sometimes be kept there for a couple of months, they alternated between the cupboard and a second room with standing-height to ensure they remained physically fit.

Our Guest House

Our guest house, run by ASAO (Association pour le Sénégal et l’Afrique de l’Ouest): a social enterprise which supports women and children. It’s an amazing place.

In this place, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a little paradise, not a slavetrade island. You couldn’t get much quirkier and more colourful. An internal courtyard is bursting with flowering trees and plants. The mosaic staircases lead to 5 rooms, all with their own vivid colour schemes. Ours was bright yellow with a ladder going up to a mezzanine. Next door was green polka dots. We met the lady who painted them, she’s a bright star too. Her next plan is to add a Maison des Femmes to the place, for local women to learn sewing and crafts and become self-sustaining businesses.

My bed was here, Katie’s was on the mezzanine.

Joined on to the guest house at the side is a craft shop and to the rear, workshops, classrooms, a library and a mini cinema. The rear, the Maison des Enfants, was set up for local children, to give them a place to do activities and crafts, or catch up on their schooling. The gift shop is full of items made by local women, and a group of  160 Mali women whose speciality is making bracelets and ornaments from recycled plastic.

Recycled plastic bracelets made by women in Mali. When you see the plastic lying everywhere, this is a great idea.

A goat catching a plastic bag floating past. There’s a huge plastic waste problem in Senegal.

The Maison des Enfants was set up as a charity – a living memorial to a young girl called Khadija who died in 2015 only reaching the age of 15. Her dad, who was round the back on the craft terrace, told me she had a dream to live on through a foundation for local children. It’s a wonderful place.

The Maison des Enfants.

The Book

In a little bookcase in our room was a book entitled “Information sur l’Esclavage”, by Guy Tillmans.


It gives a history of the slave trade and information about the life of slaves. My abiding memory is a picture showing the plan of an English slave ship. It showed a layout which met the building standards in the Regulation Act of 1788. If you imagine trying to pack as many sardines into a time as possible: head to toe, sideways, in the gaps between feet, that what it looked like.  Here we were back again to seeing a group of people being regulated like they weren’t human.

I’m handing over to Katie now for her thoughts on the island, so that I can stop and take it all in slowly.


I thought the island was great but also sad. I didn’t know anything about the slave trade before, now I do.

When we first arrived on the island we saw about 50 kids screaming and laughing playing in the water. It was a lovely thing to see…

We next had a wander about to find our guest house. We dropped off our suitcases there and had a wee look at our room, it was beautiful (I know I’ve said that about everything so far but, it was so nice with all different kinds of patterns and colours).

There was a little mezzanine in our room so I slept up there and mum slept on the bottom. Then we had a wander round the island, we saw some people selling jewellery and paintings, women doing their washing and unfortunately LOADS of stray cats. I probably saw about 70!

You just want to pick up the cats and feed them and adopt them.

We stopped in a restaurant at the top of a hill and had a look at the view and had some peanuts which Senegal is famous for, and a drink.

At the end of the day we went back to the guest house and had a relaxing time under the mosquito nets, then we just fell asleep. In the morning we found out (well I say “we” but I think my mum already knew) that you can have breakfast there. So we ordered breakfast and had a seat down on the patio. The breakfast was fresh mango, bread + butter and jam and tea.

Yummy breakfast

I don’t usually like mango but it was the nicest piece of fruit I’ve had in ages!

The guest house sell bracelets and other things that are made from recycled plastic which they get from a woman’s association in Mali. I ended up buying some (20) really pretty recycled bracelets for 5000 francs which is about 7.50€.

We went to the slave museum that mum wrote about, we also went to a history museum. It’s crazy to think that people would do that to other people. It’s very sad. The most shocking bit for me was the cell the “dangerous” slaves were put in. It was so small and claustrophobic, I can’t imagine what it would be like there for a month.  And families being divided up and never seeing each other again.

The next day for lunch time mum and I separated and ate in different spots. I know it sounds a bit “mean” but I think we actually both really enjoyed it because it was only for a little while. We also visited the 2 completely different sides of the island.

I visited a bit more of the things up the hill and mum visited stuff near the seaside. I ended up eating up at the top and I actually had a pizza (I know what you’re gonna say… Katie, why did you have a pizza! You should make the most of the Senegalese food). To be honest I’ve been having all the Senegalese traditional meals since I got here so I kinda fancied something completely different.

Our plan was to meet at the port but we actually ran into each other before that… Then we picked up our cases from the guest house. There were so many people waiting to catch the boat, most people waiting didn’t get on. But luckily we got there early so it was fine. I think the 4.30pm boat is when all the visiting school kids go back.

If you ever get to Senegal you should really try to visit here.

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