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A Look At Slavery Just Off The Coast Of Dakar

Dakar is the capital of Senegal, and is truly its center. The city continues to grow with more than two million residents. An interesting fact: half of the country’s population is 18 and under. 

Students of all ages were everywhere when I decided to head down by the port on the second day of my visit to Senegal.

This is where you catch a ferry to an island that doesn't sit far from Dakar.

It's popular among the Senegalese, students, and tourists -- but not for the reasons you may think.

People visit Goree Island because it's a reminder of the Atlantic slave trade that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries.

My guide on the tour was Papa Abdoulaye Guaye. His family lives on Goree Island now.

Gouye said there are about 1,200 Senegalese who live on the island now. The others who work there commute by ferry from Dakar.

As he told it: at one time, there were 28 slave warehouses at Goree built by the Portuguese, Dutch, and French who all ruled the island at different times. One of the houses that remain is the Maison Des Esclaves -- now a museum.

Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil / WNPR
Tour guide Papa Abdoulaye Guaye.

Inside the Maison, you see the dark cramped rooms where slaves were divided up -- male slaves kept separately from women.

Another room was exclusively for children.

Each is marked now with a sign above the entryway: hommesfemmes, or enfants.

Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil / WNPR
Maison des Esclaves.

Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil / WNPR
"The Door of No Return."

There’s a particular door where many pictures are taken.

My guide said it's known as "The Door of No Return."

It was an opening that looked like it just dropped into the ocean.

Guaye said it's where slaves were put on small boats, and taken to bigger slave ships for the journey to the Americas. 

Guaye has been giving tours for 20 years.

I asked him how he felt the first time he saw the slave house. He said it was very emotional for him when he saw where the slaves were kept, and realized how they must have spent their time inside. He said people often cry.

One time, Guaye admitted, he was overcome with emotion watching a group cry when they came to the Door of No Return.

But he also told me that in Senegal, "people believe in God. They remember the slaves, and they give forgiveness to all."

Goree is a beautiful little island, yet the history the guides detail has been disputed. Some historians have questioned whether slaves actually were sent through the Maison des Esclaves to the slave ships.

But it has still become a symbolic place for many to visit and contemplate the horrors of slavery before they even reached the Americas -- if they didn’t die at sea.

Inside one room at the Maison des Esclaves is a wall with pictures of notable guests of the island, including many U.S. Presidents. President Barack Obama visited in 2013.

There also several pictures of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. There's a picture of the late Pope John Paul II. Even former South African President Nelson Mandela visited Goree.

Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil / WNPR
Photos of some of the notable visitors to Goree Island.

Credit Lucy Nalpathanchil / WNPR
Cheikh specializes in sand painting.

And the island is a UNESCO world heritage site -- meaning it has cultural and historic significance.

On the day I visited, artists and vendors set up in front of brightly-colored residences that officials on the island said were built for wealthy slave traders.

I met one of the vendors, named Cheikh. He specializes in sand painting, a tradition my tour guide, Guaye, said is specific to Goree.

After showing me how he makes the sand paintings -- pointing to different colored sand to represent different parts of Senegal -- I asked him about himself.

He said he’s 23, and has three wives. Cheikh was proud to say he has seven children and is "a very happy man."

This is the second of Lucy Nalpathanchil's updates from Senegal where she is reporting on efforts to expand local radio stations in the country. Catch up with the first one, and the third as well.

Lucy leads Connecticut Public's strategies to deeply connect and build collaborations with community-focused organizations across the state.

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