Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21st - Gorée Island, Part II, Maison Des Esclaves

We enter the Masion Des Esclaves, a rust colored building with a large double staircase in the central room leading to a second floor.  The vendors who've followed us around the island don't follow us inside, and I am grateful for the solitude.  In my line of vision is a placard with the word Hommes above a doorway.  It isn't until I've walked around the periphery of the main floor and seen the placards above the other rooms: Femmes, Jeunes Filles, and Enfants, that I realize these are not restrooms, but holding cells that people were taken to, separated by age and sex.  This information drips down over me slow and cold, like someone cracked an enormous raw egg on my head. 

Our guide takes us to each room, describing the living conditions in each space.  Each room has it's own horrific story: "This is where the men were kept," our guide says as we stand crowded together in the small dark space I'd initially mistook for a bathroom, "they were lined up against the walls so tightly that at night they could only sleep by leaning against each other.  They were held here for a maximum of three months, after that they were weighed - if they weighed less than 60 kilos, they were thrown into the ocean where they were eaten by sharks; if anyone got sick, or no one bought them, they were thrown into the ocean and eaten by sharks.  Approximately 20 million people passed through this island on their way to slavery, and of those, 6 million died."  The number six million feels sickeningly familiar.

"This is where the young girls were kept,"  our guide says as we enter a room marked Jeunes Filles.  "They were picked based on the size of their breasts," he says, cupping his chest with his hands, "if they were big enough, they were sent to this room; if not, they were sent to the children's room.  The girls in this room were raped, became pregnant, and their mixed blood children were sent to live in a house on this island, becoming an elite class of métis who had status higher than their parents.  The slave girls never saw their children after giving birth."

"This is where the children were kept," our guide tells us in the room marked Enfants.  "Families were brought here," he says, pointing to Idy, his wife Fina, and three year-old daughter Mamie, "and separated.  The men were imprisoned in one room," he says, pointing to Idy, "the women in another," he says, gesturing to Fina,"and the children," he says, placing his hand on Mamie's head, "were kept in this room."  If there was ever a moment I am thankful that Mamie doesn't understand French, it's now.  "Families were broken up and sold to different buyers; in one family the father might be sold and shipped Brazil, the mother to a plantation in the American Carolinas, and the child to Cuba, never to see or hear from each other again."

Idy halts in his translation, his voice breaking.  "Oh God," he says quietly, then collects himself and continues.  I'd been anxious to see this place, and had been frustrated that Idy kept putting it off; watching him I wonder how many times he's had to do this, what it must be like for him to have to come here year after year and explain to a new group of people exactly how this building functioned, what it must be like to live so close to this place.  I suppose eventually you'd get used to it - as you might if you lived near a holocaust memorial site.  In some ways, we all live with the ghosts, genocides, and wrongs of the past; in my hometown of Chicago, the streets are mapped out on a grid system - the only streets that run at an angle are ones that were used as Indian trails.  The trails have long since been paved over, and the Indians have long since disappeared.  Chicago is even named for a Potawotami word meaning wild onion or wild garlic, but the Potawotami themselves were forcibly removed from Chicago in 1833.  There are no markers memorializing the Potawotami; coming face-to-face with the Maison Des Esclaves - an actual physical vestige of something that is at once so undeniably central to the story of America, and so completely despicable, is overwhelming.

Finally, our guide shows us La Porte Du Voyage Sans Retour, the gate of the "trip from which no one returned," where slave ships were docked and loaded with human cargo.  "Africans were complicit in the slave trade," our guide says, "they were hired by Europeans to capture other Africans, and were paid in rum."  I stare out at the ocean, my tiny struggles and discomforts dissolved into insignificance.  I imagine seeing a ship on the horizon, I think about all the people who've become part of the ocean I'm looking at, that it's the same ocean that runs along the eastern seaboard of the United States.  I walk into an empty room marked Chambre de Pesage, "weighing room," and quietly lose my composure, snuffling into my hands and hoping no one interrupts me.

I can't bring myself to take any photos of the Maison Des Esclaves, it feels disrespectful.  I take three pictures of the entire island: one of a gnarled tree stump; one of some rooftops; and one of a mother and child tending to their goats and cows.  The scene is so bucolic, you'd never know it was on the same island as the Maison Des Esclaves.


j.cro said...

Thank you for sharing this and the previous post.

JP said...

I'm glad to do so, I've been wanting to write these two posts for a long time now... it had to sit with me for a while before I could get it out in words.

DC said...

you have to read this book: