Two views of Senegal

After studying African Civilizations at the Center in Paris, undergrads put their feet on the ground.


In 2014 students enrolled in the African Civilizations sequence at the University of Chicago’s Center in Paris had a rare opportunity to travel to Africa. Their weeklong trip to Senegal—an optional capstone experience for African Civ students—was fully funded by a grant from the Women’s Board.

The College does not currently offer a study abroad program in Africa. But African Civilizations in diaspora is taught at the Center in Paris. The Senegal trip was intended to “bring substance to things students had learned from afar,” says history professor Emily Osborn, who led the trip along with anthropology professor François Richard.

In Paris during autumn quarter 2014, undergrads studied the complex interactions between France and its African colonies. First came an introduction to the slave trade and French colonialism. Then students learned how contact with Africa infuses French life, from the influence of African art to the contemporary politics of Islam and immigration. “Spending a week in West Africa,” says Osborn, “offered a way to flip the analysis of these processes.”

A highlight of the Senegal trip was a visit to Gorée Island’s Maison des esclaves (House of Slaves), with its famous Door of No Return. “There’s a very long, complex debate around Gorée,” says Richard. Although the house is a powerful monument to slavery, it’s unclear how significant a role it played in the slave trade. Nonetheless the museum “has become a symbol mobilizing a huge amount of attention and emotion in the African diaspora.”

The city of Saint-Louis, the capital of the French colony of Senegal from 1673 to 1902, was another highlight. Students saw colonial architecture in the old city and learned about sustainability at the Djoudj bird sanctuary.

In Dakar students stayed in the homes of Senegalese families, many of whom spoke no English. “The students told me they spoke more French in Dakar than in France, in part because the African families were less exacting,” says Richard. “I think they really enjoyed it.”

Two students on the trip, Jenny Lee and Liam Leddy—both Class of 2016 and regular contributors to the Chicago Maroon —agreed to write travelogues for College Newsletter. Here is what they experienced.

Dancing on the Sun

By Jenny Lee, Class of 2016
Lee is an English major from Lexington, Kentucky.

(Photography by Jenny Lee)

Day 1, December 12, 2014: It’s dark outside, but we can feel the warmth of the Dakar air as though we are dancing on the sun. At the airport we get our temperatures checked; we pass multiple signs of warning about Ebola. From afar, we see our professor—Emily Osborn, lovingly nicknamed ELO—and we run. Hugs for all of us, shrieks of joy, and disbelief that we are here. The University’s provided a Toyota Coaster bus for us. It is turquoise. It is perfect.

We arrive at Casa Mara, our hotel for the night. It’s 11 p.m. and we want to do everything—swim in the pool, talk, explore. Instead, in our fatigue, we eat our lentil burgers and go to sleep.

Day 2, December 13, 2014: There is a breakfast buffet waiting for us in the morning, and I once again feel like dancing. We lounge around the pool and take group photos. I’ve already Instagrammed the beautiful layout of the open hotel. Then we walk a few blocks to the Baobab Center—our University home base in Dakar.

We learn about the norms of the Baobab Center before we dress for lunch. Ceebu jenn, seasoned rice with fish and vegetables, is served in a giant communal bowl. The staff members of the Baobab Center teach us how to eat from our section; they divide up the fish and vegetables and show us how to make balls of rice with our hands. Despite my embarrassment and the amount of rice on my face, I can’t stop eating. It’s delicious.

It is time to meet our host families. My roommate and I arrive at our address, practicing the ten weeks of French we’ve learned in Paris. Our host mother welcomes us with open arms and French we don’t understand. But we nod and we smile and we say “Merci beaucoup” so many times it blurs. We know that we are welcome.

Senegal is simultaneously nothing and everything like we have learned in class. Children are dressed in European football jerseys, speaking French due to the influence of colonization, and eating at Westernized burger-and-ice-cream joints. But the Senegalese people are also more open and communicative than any Western society’s culture. When they host, they feel as though they need to deserve your presence.

(Photography by Jenny Lee)

Day 3, December 14, 2014: I wake up to the screeching of some creature outside my window: a rooster. Our host mother has laid out baguettes and a peanut butter–chocolate spread that Nutella could never touch.

We ferry off to Gorée Island, the former slave-trading center that we’ve read about in so many of our texts. The Senegalese women next to us begin conversations; soon we are having our hair braided and making promises to visit their shops. They call me “sister” and remind me that I must visit.

At the Maison des esclaves, I look through the Door of No Return and see that the harbor is full of rocks. I think back to our reading about slave ships and the multitude of ways that captured men and women were prevented from escaping.

Our classes taught us well to contest the conventional ideas that memorials and monuments—such as the Door and the slave port we visited in Nantes, France—are always accurate and well meaning. I have complex feelings as I hear the tour guide give exaggerated accounts of the slave port’s history while I stand where hundreds of enslaved men and women might have stood.

Day 4, December 15, 2014: Today we are doing the daring: going to Sandaga Market. We arrive at the bustling streets and rows of open shops at noon. We are told that we could spend all day here and not see a fraction of what Sandaga has to offer.

The sun is setting, and we take our turquoise bus to a fishing market. Hundreds of small boats, painted in rich red, yellow, and green, line the shore. The Senegalese flag waves in the near distance, and we take it all in silently.

We scatter to our trusty bus and drive toward the African Renaissance Monument. Huffing and puffing, we climb the stairs to the top. The wind is violent, the statue is mesmerizing, and the view—no adjective would suffice.

(Photography by Jenny Lee)

Day 5, December 16, 2014:

I wake up before the wretched rooster does today, for we are headed to Saint-Louis bright and early. We wish our host families a good day and promise, in broken French, to return safely tomorrow. Four hours later, we arrive. The air is easier on the lungs, and the sea surrounds us. Our turquoise bus pulls up to our rustic hotel, salmon-colored with baby-blue shutters. The Atlantic is feet away. It is 80 degrees of dancing on the sun.

We go to the beach with a palpable eagerness. The waves are high but we jump in, clothes and all. We are soaked in the saltiest ocean water I have ever tasted, and it might be the happiest I have ever been.

Later that night we decide on a Moroccan restaurant for dinner. It is empty. The owners are more than pleased to see us, and I am reminded of the injustice that Ebola has wreaked on all of West Africa. The food is delicious, the owners share their life tales, and I am reminded that Senegal is strong. We leave the restaurant hours of conversation later and look at the stars. Does this all sound like such a cliché? It wasn’t. The feeling of fullness surrounding us that night was anything but.

Door of No Return

By Liam Leddy, Class of 2016
Leddy is an economics major from Austin, Texas.

It’s a fascinating place, Dakar. You can find most everything short of a Learjet for sale just by walking down the street, you can get a taxi anywhere in the city for four dollars or less, and you can bargain for anything. Downtown, people are everywhere, and they’re all selling things, and they’re all giving you a “good price.” They’re all your “friend.”

It’s a bit jarring to begin with, constantly being accosted or grabbed and having jewelry that ranges from beautiful to hideous thrust in your face. One can stand on a street corner and watch the workings of an economy that’s largely underground and undocumented. The saying goes that you can ask a Senegalese street vendor to find you something, and he can return within 20 minutes with it.

(Photography by Carrie Cizauskas, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Away from the chaos of the airport and downtown, Dakar is a city I found to be peaceful and serene. Many of the streets are not concrete or asphalt, but sand. Sand is everywhere in the city, and in a sense, that’s appropriate. When you walk through Dakar the sand is soft under your feet, and Dakar is a soft and kind city. It’s a far more welcoming, open city than Paris or Chicago or even my hometown of Austin.

It seems something of a cliché to return from Africa and say that you “just loved the people.” But in Dakar I saw why that phrase exists and why it’s repeated. There is an emphasis on being welcoming, on opening your arms to guests.

As we were taught on our first day in the country, in Senegal a guest is viewed as doing the host a favor, not the other way around. People take the time and the energy to care for and about each other. Restaurant owners and servers are glad to have you. Host families are warm and welcoming. And people on the street and in stores are open and often quite funny. So if you avoid the busiest areas like the markets and downtown, walking about Dakar may be a sandy experience, but it’s also a relaxing and peaceful one.

A short ferry ride away from mainland Dakar lies the island of Gorée, once a hub of the slave trade, and now merely a reminder of it.

(Photography by stttijn, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While Gorée is as dusty and sandy as Dakar, and has just as many street vendors, it’s also home to the (in)famous House of Slaves. The island of Gorée is remarkably tiny, so it wasn’t long after disembarking that we arrived at the house. It’s small, with low ceilings and doorways I bumped my head on more than once.

At the center of the house is a dirt courtyard with twin staircases leading down from the second floor. The reddish-pink stucco walls of the courtyard are bleached by the sun, while the interior is dark, cold, and cramped. These interior spaces might have been holding areas. We move from one to the next, listening as our tour guide tells us the uses of each room. There are three or four large rooms, as well as two small ones that were used as solitary holding cells. We move through the house quickly, reaching the back room after only a few minutes.

Back in France we’d traveled to Nantes, the 18th-century center of the French slave trade. The city we’d seen was a happy one, full of beautiful buildings and gorgeous parks. Where the slaving ships were once loaded with goods to trade for slaves in Africa now ran a tram line, the river having been diverted and covered in the early 1900s.

(Photography by Christophe Laigle, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The people of Nantes were incredibly friendly, seemingly content and well-off. But having read about how the city had become prosperous, it was hard not to look around and think that all this beauty came at the cost of someone else’s pain. There we viewed a different, strangely contrived memorial, made of stone and glass. The memorial in Nantes failed to acknowledge the city’s culpability in the slave trade. Instead it was littered with tangentially related quotes and boat names.

In Paris we were taught the controversial history of the House of Slaves, about its founder Joseph Ndiaye and the number of slaves alleged to have been held in and shipped from it. Historians disagree about exactly how many slaves were held here; some think none at all. Nonetheless, the house is a memorial and sees visitors from around the world.

As we reach the back of the house, we come to the Door of No Return, the centerpiece of the controversy. Outside there is a sheer drop down to the rocks below. As I stand there looking out at the ocean, what was impressed upon me was not just the horrors of the slave trade but how odd it is that we need to define singular points of pain, that we compartmentalize the damage of the slave trade by assigning it a monument.

The reason the House of Slaves is a tourist destination is that, whether or not it was integral or even involved in the trade, we need an emotional focal point for its horrors. The slave trade was everywhere, but it’s much easier to assign the outrage and the grieving to a few specified locations. Whether or not the Door of No Return actually ever was that, assigning an ocean’s worth of injustice to one doorway is convenient. It’s much easier to visit a doorway than an ocean.

Join The Discussion

Log in with Disqus to automatically enter your contact information.