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Senegal 'Welcomes' Obama: Sweeping up for the President's Visit

Obama's visit to Senegal elicits a mixture of pride and resentment amongst Goreans and Dakarois.
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Gorean artist Gaston Gnakoi Gnambramou prepares for Obama's visit. Photograph by Juliana Friend.

Goree Island, Senegal:

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama touched down in Dakar, Senegal, the first stop on his eight-day African tour. Today, Obama visits Goree Island’s House of Slaves. Curator Eloi Coly will lead him through the men’s cell, the children’s cell, and to the “door of no return”, through which slaves are said to have boarded ships for the Americas.

"Whoever is in the American seat of power has taken the opportunity to visit Goree and send a message of democracy and human rights”, says Coly, citing the previous visits of Obama’s predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But stringent security measures on Goree Island ahead of Obama’s tour, and a skirmish last week between police and some of the island’s population, reflect mixed feelings in Senegal about the president’s visit. For some Goreans and Dakarois, those security measures overshadow the honour of hosting Obama, and highlight the power imbalance between two countries that, according to presidential rhetoric, are to come together in a spirit of collaboration.

“True slavery”

While the numbers of slaves deported from the site has been contested, Goree Island remains one of the most important symbols of the tragedy of the triangular slave trade.

Overhanging colonial villas, buganvilias drip red petals onto cobblestone streets. The well-preserved walls of the House of Slaves make time slow time down, if not stand still, while the mark of time is laid bare in the crumbling balconies of the old governor’s palace.

But last Wednesday, Goree’s haunting calm was disrupted by a rock-throwing confrontation between a security patrol and residents protesting the arrest of 17 Goreans and one French national. According to police officers at Goree’s police precinct, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorised to speak, the 18 people were arrested on charges ranging from possession of marijuana to the failure to produce an identity card.

Ibou Gueye, a 20 year-old high school student, was one of those 18. Part of a community of artisans living on the old French Fort Castells, Gueye was sitting watching television in the underground bunker he shares with his uncle. It was hot and he had stripped down to his underwear.

When the police knocked on the bunker door, Gueye played it cool. “Welcome,” he said in Arabic.

Gueye does not smoke marijuana, he says, but friends of his uncle do. Luckily he had swept the bunker from top to bottom that morning and claims the police found nothing when they searched the place. Nevertheless, the policemen ordered him to get dressed and marched him out of the bunker to join 15 others in handcuffs.

“They told us to march down to the dock”, says Gueye. “It was true slavery.” The detainees walked single-file down the hill, past the colonial villas, under the dripping buganvilias, and past the crumbling colonial balconies and expensive tourist restaurants onto the dock.

At this point, local residents tried to retaliate. “A crowd of Goreans tried to get on the dock”, recounts Gueye. “Young people. Grandmothers, Grandfathers.”

According to him, it was the police who threw the first rock, and Goreans responded in kind, throwing rocks and stones at the police, who sprinted down the dock and hurried the 18 people in handcuffs onto the ferry.

“The entire population cried”, he says.

That night in Dakar’s central police station, Gueye claims a prison guard cut off three individuals’ dreadlocks with a pair of scissors, though this was denied by police sources.

Gueye was released at 2pm the following day.

The central police could not be reached for comment, but police officers disclosed that seven individuals remain in custody in Reubeuss Prison for possession of marijuana. Police sources also said that the arrests followed protocol for security operations.

The step up in security is unpopular with many on Goree Island, but not all.

“You can’t defend the indefensible,” says Coly, curator at the House of Slaves, referencing the arrests over possession of marijuana.

Gueye himself says he does not blame the Obama administration for his arrest, but notes that Obama’s arrival and his own arrest are no coincidence.

During the visits of French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the police “didn’t even touch us”, says Gueye, “but this time with Obama, we were really mistreated. I know that American presidents require security. America is the number one most powerful nation in the world. But it should have been done differently. This was pure injustice.”

Between resentment and understanding

For some Goreans, this history repeating itself.

During George W. Bush’s visit in 2003, Goreans were barred from circulating in the streets during the president’s hour-long stay. According to Coly and other residents, the police taped off a viewing area for those who wished to see Bush disembark the ferry.

“It was still humiliating”, says one Gorean artisan who declined to give her name for fear of repercussions from the police. “Bush put us in cages. We became slaves on our own island.”

A student at the University of Dakar, who also asked to remain anonymous, concurs. When Bush toured Goree, she says, “it was like in the era of slavery, where the master is surrounded by guards all the time.”

But she sees the security around Obama’s visit as being even a step up from then, perhaps, she speculates, due to ongoing conflict in neighbouring Mali. And the result is that the power imbalance between Senegal and the US is brought into stark relief.

“The two nations are not equal in power, as evidenced by the security force surrounding Obama’s arrival,” she comments.

This perception that it is not just the Senegalese police but Obama’s people that are over-flexing their security muscles extends onto the mainland. Yesterday’s headlines in the Senegalese national press describe a city in lockdown. “Dakar under the rule of Obama”, reads a headline from L’As, while the day before L’Observateur declared in bold type: “The USA takes control of Senegal”.

Eye-catching headlines aside, cars will be barred from parking along the Corniche, Dakar’s Oceanside highway. And middle-school entrance exams have been postponed until Obama’s departure.

For many, life in Senegal has been put on pause while Obama is in town, but some Goreans caution against demonising the American president and his security.

“Americans just want to protect the most powerful president in the world. And they don’t understand teranga,” says Alla Thiam, an artisan resident of Castell, referring to the Senegalese value of hospitality and generosity.

“Goreans won’t give Obama any problems”, he adds.

Something for their trouble

When Bush and Clinton visited, they did not extend any financial assistance to Goree. But this time, Coly says he plans to find a quiet moment during Obama’s tour in the House of Slaves to “suggest some avenues for assistance”.

Buildings besides the House of Slaves need restoring. And Coly envisions a 21st century tourist experience, where American students can go on virtual tours of the house from US classrooms.

Others in Senegal are also trying to make the most of Obama’s visit. On the mainland, vendors at N’Ice Cream ice cream shop have prepared extra batches of their signature Obama flavour (a mixture of chocolate and vanilla). One street vendor for the telecommunications company Orange also hopes to cash in. The sign around his neck reads simply, “100% Obama, 100% Orange.”

In the oceanside Galerie Guiss-Guiss, Goree artists Boubacar Diallo and Gaston Gnakoi Gnambramou dip their fingers into calabashes of red, green and purple sand. Holding up a photo of Obama and Senegalese President Macky Sall in the Oval Office, Gnambramou outlines Obama’s face in the style of traditional Senegalese sand paintings.

Artisans will be able to exhibit their work for Obama, he says, and suggests that Obama might even buy the sandy likeness.

Diallo and Gnambramou’s optimism stems in part from the difference they draw between Obama and Bush. Obama is more open and willing to engage the people, they believe. They hope he will stay longer on the island than Bush did.

“There’s no need to have the FBI around”, Diallo said. “If they’re given the chance, the Gorean people will welcome him.”

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