Wednesday, 26 February 2014

(93): Tsaraba from an adventurous journalist (V)

Although the necklaces were beautiful, every shop owner wants you to buy from her.  But here is the challenge, I don’t know the actual price of the necklaces, I selected some, but we couldn't agree on the price, at one point they said 5000 CFA, then 3000 CFA, at the end, I purchased about three. The most important thing for me is the memory of the Island, and supporting the businesses there is a form of solidarity to the people who contribute daily on preserving this important historical edifice.

Traditional attires and necklaces in one of the shops in Goree Island  ©MJY

Goree Island looks like a small town at the moment, inside the Island there are several businesses and even some people reside there. Some facilities have been provided like schools, a police station etc., as we passed the house of no return, our next destination was a small shop selling various items including books. Whenever you travel never miss the opportunity to buy books written by the locals. This will give you the opportunity to understand how the local people view the historical events in their land rather than what an outsider writes about them.

As we spoke to the shop attendant she confirmed to us that they sell some books. She brought two copies of a book called Facts About Slavery by Guy Thilmans. It is an interesting treatise about slavery which looks at the history of European slavery, the capture of slaves, the different methods used in capturing the slaves whether through violent or peaceful means, the living condition of the slaves up to the period for the abolishment of slave trade.

“How much is this book?” I asked the shop attendant. “It is 7000 CFA”, as I prepared to pay, our tour guide, Elhadj Gaye insisted that I should not buy the book because it is too expensive. My friend, a banker from Lagos was also interested, yet Elhadj insisted that we should not buy it, he promised to take us to a bookshop at the end of the tour where we could get it at a cheaper price.

The book contains the history of slavery in Goree Island

Reluctantly, we left, but deep in my heart I was hoping I will not regret listening to Elhadj. Never underestimate the value of books, the information they contain is always more precious than their cost. Beyond that you wouldn’t know when you will desperately need them in the future.

We have less than fifteen minutes left to catch the ferry back to Dakar. Elhadj was getting faster, yet the tour was becoming more interesting. We passed through a hostel built for visitors who would like to spend some days in the Island. In fact I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that universities teaching African history especially in neighboring West African states should organize an excursion to Goree Island so that students could see the mark of the real horror Africans went through. As we moved further, there was a school in the heart of the Island. Elhadj stopped briefly, and said, “this is the school of the Island”, it was attended by several African leaders like Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Modibo Keita of Mali, and Felix Houphou√ęt-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire. 

The school attended by various African heads of state in Goree Island ©MJY

As we prepared to finish the tour, Elhadj took us to a small house beneath one of the buildings in the Island; there was a local artist who mixes sand with glue to produce traditional painting. It was creative and beautiful. His little hideout was decorated with various paintings that showcase the artistic heritage of Africa.

traditional artist in the Island  ©MJY

As we finished with the artist, spending two or three minutes in each stop, we managed to visit the mosque in the Island, the memorial built specifically to remember the victims of slavery, the few areas inhabited by some people in the Island. In fact as we were about to cross over to move towards the ferry, we came across the Imam of the Mosque, we quickly posed for a picture, and said goodbye to him.

The Imam of the Mosque in Goree Island ©MJY

I reminded Elhadji Gaye about the bookshop, we ran quickly and got a copy of the book Facts about Slavery at the cost of 5000 CFA, and shortly afterwards we ran to the ferry.  As we boarded on the ferry, it was full of passengers from different parts of the world. But unlike the smiling faces on our way to the Island, people look sympathetic; they have just walked through the land where Africans experienced the worst form of terror from fellow human beings. Thank you Senegal for preserving this historical edifice, the Goree Island.

Goodbye Goree Island ©MJY

Please the correct name of our tour guide is Elhadj Gaye not Adboulaye Gaye as I said in previous editions of this series.  Abdoulaye Ndiaye is another tour guide we met in the ferry who has a professorial grasp of the history of slavery; he was a former officer of the Senegalese Army.



Tuesday, 18 February 2014

(92): Tsaraba from an adventurous journalist (IV)

It was a dream comes true. We are now in Goree Island. As we disembarked from the ferry, supported by the staff of the port to make sure no one slips into the sea, our tour guide, Abdoulaye continued to lead us. It was a bright afternoon. The sky was looking blue and clear. The sea relaxed as various ferries disembarked passengers. There were several food joints at the beginning of the Island. People from various continents, interestingly a lot of them from Europe and North America, part of the two major destinations of the captured ‘slaves’, enjoying the beautiful sunshine.

Abdoulaye led us straight into the streets of the Island. It comprises of houses built with strong bricks and others with a mixture of mud and stones. The houses bear the mark of history as the traditional painting is still maintained. The roads look like those of slums found in urban areas in different countries, untarred, sandy with little rocks infused as you walk through them. But they are well maintained, ensuring that they did not lose their traditional features.

Abdoulaye took us to arguably the most notorious house in the Island, also called the slave house. The slave house is at the heart of transporting fellow Africans either captured forcefully or ‘purchased’ from slave traders.  It is referred to as the ‘house of no return’ because of the exit door inside the house which directly leads to the sea. It is believed that a person who enters the slave house will never return again; from there, the individual will be shipped to either Europe or the Americas.
A view of Goree Island from the sea. ©MJY

There is no accurate figure about the number of people who passed through the slave house, with some claiming as little as twelve thousand and others over a million. But it remains one of the most important symbols of what the captured ‘slaves’ went through.

We spent some minutes out of the one hour available to us just looking at the house. We were unlucky that a tour inside the house starts at 2:30 pm, and with a flight to catch I couldn't wait.

According to Abdoulaye, if  a person falls sick inside the house, or tried to be stubborn because he doesn’t want to be transported along with other ‘slaves’, he is thrown into the sea. According to Abdoulaye, the eloquent tour guide, and many of those we met in the Island, because of the number of people being thrown into the sea by the slave traders, sharks were attracted into the area. Therefore its either the captured individual agrees to be transported, even though he would face hard labour, but remain alive, or  the sharks will turn him into their meal. The exceptions were the few slaves who have been selected to provide services to the slave ‘masters’ or the girls they have impregnated, whom they might decide to free.
A side view of the slave house, which has been turned into a museum inside the Island  ©MJY

So who built the Goree Island? It is important to answer this question as we go round to see the vast land that played such an important role in human history. There are different historical accounts about the origin of the Island and where it derived its name from. One of the historians considered an authority on the Island is Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who was the principal curator of the slave house in Goree Island. Mr Ndiaye who was born in 1922 and died in 2009 stated in  a succinct but rich historical account of  Goree Island that the Island was originally called BER, and the inhabitants of the land lived small meters away, they venture into the area from time to time in order to catch fish for their livelihood. 

Although according to him some Portuguese navigators claimed to discover the Island, their claim was that it was a desert Island “with few wild goats  and the remnants of some Neolithic occupation”. Mr Ndiaye added that “our oral traditional history tells us that these human settlements were done by the merging of several ethnic groups converted to Islam since the XIth century”. By the XVth century according to Ndiaye, the Portuguese Prince Harry sends his vessels across the coast of Africa trying to discover new routes to the Indies, so it was along this line that in 1444 under the command of Denis Diaz that the Portuguese came across the BER Island. Later the Island was taken over by the Netherlands, and gave it its name, GOREE, which originates from Dutch “Goede Reede” which translates as ‘safe haven in Flemish’.  
Door of no return, culled from Boubacar Ndiaye’s phamplet, The Slave House of Goree Island

As we passed the slave house and continued with the tour of the Island, various people with different businesses surrounded us, each of them trying to convince us to buy a little tsaraba from them, and my attention was drawn to some of the necklaces they were promoting especially the one that looks like what in Hausa is called tsakiya, it resembles the one our grandmothers love to wear, it is common tsaraba from pilgrims who went on Hajj some years back.


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

(91): Tsaraba from an adventurous journalist (III)

Even before arriving in Senegal, I heard so much about Goree Island. Every person I met who has visited Senegal, the first question he asked me was whether I have a plan to visit the Island, and my answer was always in the affirmative, even though I wasn’t sure how to create the time to make the visit. 

The perfect opportunity arrived around 11am on January 29th 2014. We have completed the event that took us to Dakar, though my flight will be departing at 4:30 pm the same afternoon. But it is worth the risk. Four of us, a British-Algerian, a Somali-Canadian and of course two Nigerians, including yours sincerely; we took a taxi and headed to the port in order to take a ferry to Goree Island. As the taxi driver cruises through the city one can clearly see the signs of economic growth in Dakar. Buildings are springing up, the roads well tarred, but most importantly the smile on the faces of the people.

“Africa looks the same” said the Canadian, “yes there are lots of similarities” my friend from Lagos said. Sometimes you feel you are in Lagos, in other areas it feels like the outskirts of Kano city, and in other areas you see typical Abuja roofs, not necessarily the red ones, also called jinin talaka “the blood of the poor”,  sarcastically implying that the houses were built with resources stolen from government coffers.

Although we knew where we were heading to, the smile and excitement in all of us tells you that we have not yet seen the Goree Island in order to understand the extent of the inhumanity exhibited by fellow humans. As we arrived at the port, we queued up to purchase the tickets. Here the African spirit was at work again. If you are from Africa you pay half price, while those from other parts of the world, will pay the full fare.

After paying our tickets we headed to the lounge. The ferry arrived every thirty minutes. It was few minutes past 12pm. So we intend to take the one at 12:30 so that we can be there by 1pm. People sat calmly waiting for the ferry. You will think that everyone is a visitor. No some of the people in the lounge have business in the Island, so they come to the lounge to woo customers.  

A guide was allocated to us. His name is Elhadj Gaye. A young, medium height Senegalese, most likely in his late twenties. Before we embark on the journey, Elhadj started the tour through history. “We are going to the Goree Island, where over twenty million slaves were transported from Africa to Europe and North America”. He said. “An additional six million also perished on the road”. Elhadj added. 
Passengers at the lounge waiting for the Ferry

The smiles and the excitement on our faces started fading away. Feelings of remorse, sympathy, agony, disenchantment, begin to emerge. These are people who have committed no crime; their only crime is the colour of their skin.

As Elhadj continued to narrate the story to us, the ferry arrived, and we immediately started boarding.  Just before the boarding, we heard a little voice saying “Assalamu Alaikum”, it was a young lady carrying a bag, and is surely from the local community. “My name is Fatimata, I have a shop in Goree Island, I hope you will visit my shop, I have lots of interesting traditional items that will be of interest to you”, we thanked her and promised if time is available we shall visit her shop. This is one of the marketing strategies used by shop owners in the Island. They come to the port and mix with passengers, and trust them; they have a lot of traditional tsaraba for you to take home.  

As the ferry started sailing, a different kind of feeling welled up in us. Here we are engaged in a journey that thousands of Africans went through. The difference though was that they traveled under coercion, subjugation and in chains simply to serve the ego of other mortals, while we are simply traveling as an adventure.

As the ferry meandered through the sea, I remembered the scholarly contribution of the likes of Walter Rodney, whose classic, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical precedence of African underdevelopment.

Walter Rodney told us that “the massive loss to the African labour force was made more critical because it was composed of able-bodied young men and young women. Slave buyers preferred their victims between the ages of 15 and 35, and preferably in the early twenties; the sex ratio being about two men to one woman. Europeans often accepted younger African children, but rarely any older person”.

Inside the ferry as we headed towards Goree Island
According to him “the zones most notorious for human exports were, firstly, West Africa from Senegal to Angola along a belt extending about 200 miles inland and, secondly, that part of East Central Africa which today covers, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Northern Zambia and Eastern Congo”.

Through this journey I began to understand why Walter Rodney had to write this book but before I finished my meditation we were in Goree Island. It is now my opportunity to travel through history, history of three hundred years of inhumanity. Yet I have got just one hour to do that, as I had to prepare for the airport in order to catch my flight back home.

To be continued


Monday, 3 February 2014

(90): Tsaraba from an adventurous journalist (II)

So I contacted the tailor immediately to make sure she prepares the tsaraba within few days so that I can take it with me; and so she did, but what is important is another tsaraba that I discovered which is common among Senegalese women. Tailoring is very popular among them; in fact you can say it is a global industry mostly patronized by fellow Africans from various parts of the continent and beyond. 

Some of these women actually convert their houses into business centres, dedicating a portion to the tailoring business while playing their role as full time house wives. Once in a while they come and supervise their employees to ensure that everything is on track.

These women have a lot in common with the ones in my society; they are Muslims, Africans, and full time house wives. Yet they have created a successful business in their own houses without having to worry about the horror of working under a ‘boss’, in fact they are the CEOs of their businesses, their children will not be deprived of motherhood because the mother is there for them. 

Beyond that, they are employers of labour, thereby helping the society to be productive.Daga gani ka san babu rigimar kudin cefane tare da maigida” (there is no need for quarrel with the husband over money for maintenance or other household needs), I thought. In fact I even saw one of the women helping her children with their school assignments while keeping an eye on her employees. Indeed I saw a better approach to women empowerment in the tailoring business practiced by some of the Senegalese women, one without tearing the family institution apart.

“Jameel”, said  a fellow colleague who accompanied me for the window shopping in order to get the best tsaraba from the journey, “I am surprised at the price of these clothes”, “I always thought they cost no more than twenty to fourty dollars” he said with his face clearly expressing his astonishment. “Many people will be surprised because the material alone, a ganila or gezna costs around fifteen or even twenty thousand Nigerian Naira, which is around hundred US dollars”,  “wow” he said, “from today I will have a different impression of these clothes, I think there is a difference between West African and Somali culture”, he added.

“In fact if you want to get married in Nigeria, at least in the region I came from, you need to prepare boxes of these expensive clothes as part of the marital gift”, I told him. “Are you serious” he said, “Indeed Iam”, and with the surprise written all over his face, we took a taxi back to our hotel as it was getting dark, and we have a meeting to attend at 9pm as part of the preparation for the event the following morning, and so we returned to the hotel.

The following day, after hours of work we wanted to have a taste of the local restaurants. You see whenever you visit a city, make sure you visit the local restaurants; it will leave an indelible memory of that country. But here is my advice, make sure you learn the names of the best food there as they are written in the local language to avoid the experience I once had in Milan, Italy in 2007. We visited a local restaurant, they neither speak English nor do we understand Italian, after going through the menu the only thing I could understand was spaghetti and something I could not remember. After making the order available, it was indeed spaghetti, but cooked with dodon kodi (snail), and in Hausa culture, that is a no go area for many. What else can you do, just say bismillah (invoking the name of  Allah) and go ahead. We still laugh when we remember this experience especially when we receive visitors who claim they will never eat dodon kodi.
Couscous in a traditional African plate, another tsaraba from Dakar

My friend and I decided to work through the streets; after all it is an exercise, and an opportunity to see the city. “There is a Moroccan restaurant over there”, my friend spotted, and we branched there immediately. After going through the menu we placed an order for couscous with chicken stew.  Couscous was not among my favourite dishes some years back, until I met some friends from North Africa, especially Libya while I was studying in the UK. 

For them Couscous is a ceremonial food, and you wouldn’t like to miss it if it is well prepared. A mild drama happened between my friend and the restaurant attendant. After making the order available, my friend asked the attendant, “is the food halal?”.  “Are you accusing me of selling pork to you?” the attendant replied, I quickly intervened with a brief explanation.  My friend lived most of his life in Canada, and it is common for Muslims especially those living in the West to always verify the food to make sure it is halal (permissible). This could partly explain the rise of the halal industry in the West. Even conventional restaurants like KFC and Burger King put the halal sign in their restaurants to cater for the needs of Muslim customers in some countries. “You see this is a predominantly Muslim country, it is good to verify, but you do not have to worry”. And so we had a nice dinner.

But the most expensive tsaraba I brought from this journey took place on Thursday 29th January, 2014. We visited the Goree Island, the Island that was at the centre of slave trade for 300 years. Where over 20 million able bodied Africans were transported to Europe and North America as slaves. It was a visit that will make your heart bleed with the tears of agony over the atrocities committed against the black people.

To be continued

Sunday, 2 February 2014

(89): Tsaraba from an adventurous journalist (I)

Before you start checking your dictionary let me start by explaining that tsaraba is not an English word. It simply means a present or a gift brought by a person from a journey.  In Hausa culture as with many other cultures, the family looks forward to the tsaraba the head of the family or any adult will bring after a journey. It strengthens relationship among the family; it teaches the younger ones the value of generosity, it also provides an opportunity to have a taste of the valuables produced by other cultures.

As usual, and as a 'self-appointed' journalist, I have to prepare tsaraba for my readers starting with this account of my journey. My trip this time is closer home. I am on my way to Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. I have heard so much about this country, but this is the first time I have the opportunity to set my foot in this beautiful African nation with lots of history behind it.

During a lecture in 2000 by the renowned African scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui, at the Bayero University, Kano, he categorized African countries into two, the coup-prone, and coup-proof countries. The former referring to countries that are regularly prone to military coups and the latter referring to the countries that neither experience military coup and are  unlikely to experience one as far historical evidence is concerned. One country he mentioned among the coup-proof countries is Senegal, one of the few African countries to survive military intervention in politics.

My first glimpse of the country during this journey started at Dubai international airport. As I sat in the lounge waiting for the passengers to be called, two tall passengers dressed in Tazarce (the long traditional dress which became popular during Abacha’s reign), sat next to me. “Comment Ca Va”, one of the gentlemen said in French, “Ca Va”, I replied, the gentleman continued, unknown to him that is where my French ends, even at home that is where I struggle when my daughter asks for my help in her French assignments.

Don’t you speak English? I asked, of course I do, the gentleman replied. This is where I admire fellow brothers from French Speaking Africa, a reasonable percentage of them are bilingual, combing French and English, and some of them with the addition of Arabic. And in this age, especially if you want to work for international organisations, speaking multiple languages is an asset that will always work in your favour.This is also where Anglo-speaking Africa struggles, because many think that it suffices to speak English alone.

It is a ten to eleven hours journey from Dubai to Dakar with a short stop-over in Guinea Conakry. So you sleep, you wake up, you read, you eat, and still the journey is ongoing. As the plane began to descend you get the feeling that Africa is still a natural environment.

I must admit that I am really proud to be African, in fact a West African, and above all a Nigerian. If you travel around with a green passport you will understand what I mean. Since Senegal is a fellow ECOWAS country, I do not need a visa. What a relief. So it is my turn to watch my colleagues going through the grilling of immigration officers, while we enjoy the luxury of smoothly passing through queue.

As we came out of the airport and our travel agents received us with a warm African smile, they directed us to the vehicle that will convey us to the hotel. Here comes the big surprise. It is a kiyakiya, but certainly not like the one that uses a screw driver as a gear-handle. This one is in a better shape.

The following day as I came to the hotel lobby on my way to the small office our team will be using to facilitate the event that brought us to Dakar, another surprise, one of my wife’s friends who works for the United Nations had just finished a meeting and was on her way to the airport. Assalamu Alaikum, I said, Wa alaikumsussalam, “Ina wuni” (Good evening)…

“Great to see you, I have just collected my clothes from a very good tailor here in Dakar, in fact here is her number, you should ask her to make some for your wife”, she said, immediately after  the greeting, I nodded in agreement, after all courtesy demands that I bring tsaraba on my return.

To be continued