Building the Symbols of a Nation

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While in Dakar, a former Senegalese government administrator told me that in post-colonial Africa the primary purposes of government was to create the symbols of a nation. Senegal, like so many other areas of Africa, is largely an artificial creation based on administrative divisions drawn up by European bureaucrats, something that doesn’t jive particularly well in our contemporary era of nation states. However, I would disagree that government is apt at generating symbols. Yes, it can create flags and anthems, but the best symbols emerge organically.

The African Renaissance Monument, a failed attempt to build symbolism

Case in point is the relatively new African Renaissance Monument. At 49 meters high, this North Korean built behemoth was meant to capture the spirit of the Senegalese people. Instead, it has been widely derided for its price tag ($27 million) and lack of artistry. The statue of an almost cartoonish Senegalese man, striding forward, woman in tow, his son romantically pointing to what one can only assume is the future (although the illuminati in me says Havana), is a bit on the nose. If anything, the African Renaissance Monument has become a symbol of government waste and arrogance.

Perhaps a better symbolic representation of Senegal is the House of Slaves on the Île de Gorée, a tiny (45 acre) island just off the coast of Dakar. Constructed in the 1770s, the House of Slaves came under the ownership of Anna Colas Pépin, a woman of African and French heritage. Far from being pulled into the future by their brawny husbands, women like Pépin actually controlled vast trading empires, which in many cases included people in bondage.

The staircase at the House of Slaves

Unsurprisingly, the House of Slaves has become an international symbol of the Atlantic trade. Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, the now deceased curator, passionately claimed that as many as 20 million Africans were shipped overseas directly from the house after awaiting their fate in cramped, dingy cells. Its famous Door of No Return, in which slaves were said to have embarked, is an emotional climax to any visit.

But Pépin’s own role in the slave trade is disputed. While she probably owned several slaves and it is quite possible that a handful passed through her doors on their way to the Americas, there is no historical evidence that the house served as a great holding pen of humanity, as many have insisted. Nor is there much evidence that Gorée itself was a major slave trading port with most historians concurring that the number of slaves sent to the Americas from the island numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the millions.

The Door of No Return

Nevertheless, symbols have a way of transcending historical fact. Gorée continues to be visited by tens of thousands seeking to reconnect with their past. It is a place of pilgrimage for many Afro-descendants. Dignitaries from Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have made it a point to stop here. Even Pope John Paul II chose Gorée to ask forgiveness for the sin of slavery.

In the end, it may be less important the exact number of slaves that embarked from the island than that slavery, both in its more “benign” domestic form and as chattel, was very much a way of life in Senegal. The Atlantic slave trade was one of the greatest horrors of the modern era, and sites similar to Gorée historically did serve as staging grounds for the sale of millions of Africans into bondage. If the House of Slaves serves as a door of return for people seeking to understand this chapter in humanity’s history, so be it.

Today, Gorée is a symbol for the world, a memorial to the horrors of enslavement. It is also a site of unity for a country often struggling to come to terms with their past and mixed identity. Indeed, the House of Slaves is a microcosm of Senegalese society, a representation of amalgamation and subjection, power and impotence, an “origin story” for a newly born multiethnic nation. Revising the historical record does not change any of that.

The harbor at Gorée

In March, Gorée was host to an art exhibition, “Contre Vents et Marées,” a French expression that means “against all odds.” Over the course of a week, the homes of Gorée showcased the works of contemporary artists both domestic and foreign. There is something deeply symbolic about an exhibition where private abodes open to the public to prominently display the nation’s creative wealth and diversity for all to see. At the very least, it beats a Stalinist statue.    

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