Doors of Perception?

By Jheri St. James

What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot—
The opening of a door.

Emily Dickenson (1830-1886)

A blue door opens in a photo, and Common Ground 191 attempts to describe the Republic of Senegal, as represented by a small jar of soil. The westernmost country in Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania, on a globe, Senegal looks like a smiling open mouth at the front of the African continent, holding The Gambia, a country which runs 200 miles along the Gambia River, between its teeth. In 1982, Senegal joined with The Gambia to form the nominal confederation of Senegambia. However, the envisioned integration of the two countries was never carried out, and the union was dissolved in 1989. Despite peace talks, a southern separatist group has sporadically clashed with government forces since 1982. Senegal has a long history of participating in international peacekeeping.

Tiny Senegal is flanked on the north by Mauritania, on the east by Mali, and on the south by Guinea/Guinea-Bissau. Parts of Senegal were within the medieval empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. Under French control, and part of French West Africa from 1895, Senegal became part of the Federation of Mali from 1959 to 1960, but declared independence in 1960.

Although Senegal is neither a large nor a strategically located country, it has nonetheless played a prominent role in African politics since its independence. As a black nation that is more than 90% Muslim, Senegal has been a diplomatic and cultural bridge between the Islamic and black African worlds. Senegal has also maintained closer economic, political and cultural ties to France than probably any other former French African colony.

* * *

Entrance to the Senegalese Island of Goreé

“O, it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O, it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.”

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

Cheikh Darou Seck, who lives in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, describes the site of his soil collection. “Goreé is an island where there used to be (and its still there) the house of slaves. It’s one of the main attractions in Senegal. In the house of slaves in Goreé, the chains of the slaves are still there. All tourists visit it.”

A Mural painted by Goreé school children in memory of those taken from Africa as slaves.

Goreé is less than two miles from Dakar. For 300 years, from the beginning of the 16th century to the 19th, huge numbers of men, women and children were herded onto this small piece of land, locked up in cells and shipped away to the New World. Goreé became the first and for a time the most important slave depot in West Africa. From its “Door of No Return” millions of Africans left their homeland and peopled the Americas. Designated by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site, Goreé today retains and preserves all the traces of its terrible past: the main Slaves’ House (Maison des Esclaves), built in 1777 and all its cells and shackles, as well as The Historical Museum, the Maritime Museum, residential homes and forts. Living conditions on Goreé were appalling and terribly destructive. Between December 1728 and April 1729 alone, over 300 slaves died in the “captiveries” awaiting departures. On October 18, 1724, 55 men revolted. In May of 1729, the governor and several Frenchmen were killed.

The Slave House and the “Door of No Return”

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Goreé was possibly sighted by Phoenicians and other navigators in antiquity, but was believed discovered by the Portuguese explorer Dias in 1444. The island was colonized in 1817. As with Manhattan Island, the Dutch bought the island from a local chief for a pittance. Goreé became a way station for Dutch ships plying the route between their forts on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Indies. The Dutch gave the island its name, most probably for Goeree island in Holland, or more fancifully, according to some, for its sheltered harbor—goode reede (good harbor). Goreé changed hands many times. The British took it from the Dutch; the Dutch then recaptured it, but had to give it up again to the French during French maritime expansion under Colbert. In 1802, by the terms of the Amiens peace agreement, the island became French and remained so until Senegalese independence in 1960.

Goreé was the principal entry point off the coast of Africa for slavers and merchantmen flying the French flag. Thousands of Africans were caught up in the jaws of slavery, and passed through this island fortress on the continent’s bulge. When slavery was abolished by the French in 1848, 6000 persons, 5,000 of them former captives, were living on the island, which today counts 1,000 inhabitants.

The thing on the blind side of the heart,
On the wrong side of the door,
The green plant groweth, menacing…

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Smiling Senegalese Girl

Goreé has survived into present time, and today is also a lively little town with sandy lanes shaded by palm trees and purple bougainvillea. Other points of interest there include the Botanical Gardens, the Church of St. Charles, the Castle, William Ponty School, Strickland House—the site of the first American Consulate; Universite des Mutants—established to bring together the best minds of Africa, it is the site of frequent conferences on current cultural and economic issues for developing nations

* * *

The Pink Lake in Senegal

Some 20 miles from Dakar in the middle of the “garden belt” one finds the Pink Lake (Lac Rose in French; Retba in native Wolof language). The Pink Lake is a major attraction for tourists. Shallow, warm and surrounded by white foam, everything floats on it. During the week workers, mostly women, busily crush the bottom of the lake, which consists of a thick crust of salt that they gather to sell. The lake is particularly spectacular at dawn and dusk. Feldspar deposits reflect the sunlight through the salty waters and produce the unique vibrant pink color. The lake is the remains of a fossil sea that once occupied all of Senegal. For a long time, the local Wolof villagers thought that it was a haunted place at night, however, they never seriously thought about moving, because the salt extracted from the lake is a vital source of income. Women are the salters, men the wholesalers and transporters.

Salt Market in Senegal
* * *

Senegal is a young country where half the population is under 20. In 2000, Senegalese rappers, who compare their craft to tasso storytelling, helped end the 20-year rule of President Abdou Diouf and continue their political efforts by organizing rallies against the mass unemployment and corruption that plague their country. The name Senegal is said to come from the Wolof name of the dugout canoe in the land of Teranga. Senegal is the buzz place of West Africa—from its hip music and sophistication to its fantastic capital Dakar, home to 1.3 million people. Dakar is the Wolof name for the tamarind tree, and it gets more visitors than any other country in West Africa. There is a long musical tradition in West Africa that forms an integral part of the cultures of the region and is now being enjoyed through the world—thanks to the recognition of a number of West African musicians such as Salif Keita and the Rail Band, Baaba Maal, Anjelique Kidjo, Youssou N’dour, Mory Kante and Ali Farka Toure. “The base of all music in Senegal is traditional,” sayd Baaba Maal, one of the finest contemporary musical artists in Africa, and Senegalese music may be the foundation for much of the music of the Western world. Aficionados of country blues, calypso, reggae, beguine, and rap, whether or not they recognize it, hear echoes of the musical rhythms of the land of Teranga, the gateway to Africa.

Downtown Dakar

Senegalese fans enjoy soccer and basketball, but two sports considered indigenous or national are canoe racing and wrestling. Canoe racing is among the most colorful events one could watch on various Senegalese shores. The specially designed dugout canoes are painted in bright colors and named after a patron, usually a saint, a local hero, or a notability. In return, the patron provides spiritual protection or money. The races are organized by the size of the rowing team, from six to 36 men, and the rowdy fishermen often fight at the end of the event, enjoying wrestling, which transcends all ethnic groups, and one of the most common games for children.

Senegal is famous for its talented artisans—beautiful gold, silver and bronze jewelry; antique beads and large amber necklaces; baskets, pottery, hand-woven fabrics with incredibly intricate patterns; leather, iguana, crocodile, animal skin and snakeskin handbags, shoes, belts and other accessories are found in the marketplaces. Glass painting is another Senegalese specialty, where the daily life, historical scenes, birds and animals in this complex country are depicted in vivid colors and a naïve style.

* * *
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Neolithic tools found in Senegal indicate that the country has been occupied for 15,000 years or more. Dakar is home to Wolof, Mandinka, Peula, Diora, Soninke and Serer ethnic groups, and the Wolof language is the most widely spoken African language. This small country has “belonged” to many other lands, bought for perhaps beads or mirrors by people from countries far away.

A Wolof Tribal Country Village Scene

Who owns the land, any land? Aren’t political and country boundaries just constructs of man’s imagination? Even more important in Senegal’s history is the question: who owns people? Can anyone really “own” another human being? Sell another human being? The site of this sin must always be marked as a human monument.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates,
And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.

Prayer Book 1662

Reflections on doors form this narrative. Many doors opened and closed in Senegal, the country at the forefront of the African continent: the blue door pictured at the beginning, the Door of No Return at the Slave House, and now doors are opening in Senegal to economic reform. Through organizations like UEMOA, The Omega Plan, Rotary, and Brussels Airlines, Sengal is opening a door to a new future. We at Common Ground 191 cherish the soil and the story of Goreé, Senegal, and its heroic men and women, who belong only to themselves. Asalamu aleikum--peace be with you.

If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything would appear as it is, infinite.
William Blake (1757-1827)

Outside the Door of a Senegalese Mosque






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