Road less travelled

February 23, 2020

A memorable trip to Senegal, a country fairly similar to Pakistan in a number of ways

On the western-most point of Africa lies Dakar, the capital of a small yet emerging nation of Senegal. While most here would be hard-pressed to locate Senegal on a map, it is quite uncommon to find a Jeep-racing enthusiast, who hasn’t heard of the Dakar Rally. I remember the quizzical look on the FIA official’s face at the Islamabad airport when I told him about my destination. As if the unfamiliarity with the name wasn’t enough, I also did not have a visa because Senegal offers it on-arrival. Unsure if he was being had, the ASI radioed in for his inspector to come and affix the exit stamp on my passport.

Other than being francophone, Senegal is in a number of ways fairly similar to Pakistan; a young democracy, having a Muslim majority population, hopeful of boosting its tourism, and eyeing significant Chinese investment to boost its infrastructure and the economy.

While touring Dakar, the African Renaissance Monument is hard to miss. Built atop a hill overlooking the city, the 150 metres tall monument is the tallest in Africa. This monument has not one, but several stories to tell, should the onlooker care to explore and ponder. Controversies surrounded the monument as soon as its construction began. People began to question the wisdom in erecting a monument for $27 million when 47 percent of the citizens lived their life below the poverty line.

Some said that the monument featuring an African man with a baby held in one arm, pointing forward, and a woman trailing behind, symbolised the president, his wife and their son, whom he was launching as his potential successor. Others did not like the idea of placing human-like idols in the capital because idol-making was a central aspect of the religion of Arab tribes in the pre-Islamic era. Then there was this issue of the statue of the woman, who was said to be scantily clad and her figure was too curvy. Her skirt, in particular, was too short to be acceptable to the local clerics.

The monument, inaugurated on the day commemorating the 50th year of Senegalese independence from French rule, was supposed to mark the African Renaissance – a transition towards a democratic and prosperous Africa. The contract for the construction of the monument, however, was awarded to a North Korean company. Later on, since the country couldn’t afford to pay the entire sum in cash, it ended up transferring ownership of its state-owned lands to the contractor, in lieu of the payment.

All of these interesting stories notwithstanding, there is a far more historic and monumental tourist attraction, on offer in Dakar. A 30-minute ferry ride in the Atlantic takes you to the small yet infamous Île de Gorée (Gorée Island, in English). The island showcases for tourists a horrendous remnant of its colonial past, known as “Maison des Esclaves” or the House of Slaves. It used to be the largest centre-post in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 15th to the 19th century.

The walls inside the holding cells have an eerie vibe to them. Luckily they haven’t been plastered over. The mighty Atlantic is right outside but its waves cannot be heard. What can be heard though is an altogether different sound – the sound of silence. There’s simply too much to process. The cognitions are overwhelming. It is said that when Mandela visited the slave house, he took a moment to himself to stand inside its low-roofed punishment chamber, to experience what a slave might have gone through, while locked up inside, in a stress-inducing position.

One cannot help but imagine what President Obama and First Lady Michelle might have reflected upon when they stood there, looking out the Door of No Return, on their tour of the island.

Maison des Esclaves was only the beginning point of the ill-fated journey of life for the enslaved. For its Door of No Return led to a long and disease-infested journey ahead through the Atlantic. Those lucky (or unlucky) that would survive the trip would find themselves sold off to the highest bidder. And then life for them went on as per the whims of their masters, who owned not only their bodies but also their souls.

As despicable as it seems today, slave trade was once an accepted part and parcel of life. The church was fine with it, the legislatures were enacting laws to protect this practice, and the courts of law seldom had any objection.

Margaret Mead had said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. This was personified closer to home by Iqbal Masih from Muridke. At the age of six, he was made to labour, shackled by the feet at a carpet weaving workshop, to repay a debt of Rs5,000 which his family owed to his employer.

After escaping from the clutches of bonded labour as a child, his efforts led to the release of around 3,000 Pakistani children from bonded labour.


The writer is a think tank professional. He can be reached at  [email protected]

A trip to Dakar: Similarities between Senegal and Pakistan