Re: A. Soul
Hotel La Croix du Sud
Whatever I do it may be impossible for what I write to avoid sounding fantastic. So I might as well relate what is happening as directly as I can.
I called Susannah early this morning. It was late at night for her and she had spent the day with her father moving books as the first step of remodeling my house. I liked that he enjoyed looking at my collection of books on science. We also talked of love and the feasibility of my adopting Amadu, the street child that Alan and I befriended yesterday, but that's another story.
During my run this morning, I took what may be some interesting pictures of a poor, roadside family. Actually, I don't know if they are a family in the formal sense because for the most part they have different last names.
Later my guide Assane and I went for another jaunt running errands through this amazing city and then Alan and I went to by ferry over to La Goree Island.
The boat trip was refreshing and the island itself is a semi-primitive community that gave me the first sense of what the African bush might be like when we get there later in the month.
Alan was anxious for some reason so we didn't hire a guide and we were on our own.
Waiting for the doors to the slave house to open I noticed a small boy, wearing white shirt, with large, expressive eyes and an incredibly sweet smile, also waiting. It was quickly clear that we shared no languages so, avoiding the hot sun, I just waited.
When the doors opened I tried to pay the 350f but there was confusion about the 500f bill I tried to offer. Suddenly the quiet boy was there in front of me and he quickly and efficiently PAID MY ENTRY FEE and I was in with the crowd!
From then on the experience of the slave house had another dimension. Strange as it may sound, that grotesque place became the background of the entrancing story of my day with this boy.
I tried without much success to appreciate the historical weight of where I was but noise of all of the European tourists and African girl scouts jockeying for position to take the best snapshots made that very difficult.
His name I found out is Alune Soul*, perfect it turned out because once again I found myself in a RELATIONSHIP with a silent child who shadowed my every move without prompting or encouragement. He was simply and naturally there the whole time and I loved him. He asked for nothing but seemed to just want to be with me as if I were his father.... or for some other unknowable reason.
So together with him I tried to take in the enormity of a place where slavery was a horrible reality for thousands of Africans on their way to the New World.
La Maison d'Esclavge, the House of Slaves is just that, a small, red painted house in the middle of a narrow street on the waterfront.
The floors of the caves were rough and uneven and there were bars on the small windows facing to central courtyard, apparently to allow the slaves to be seen by their brokers.
The cells for men were small, only 8 or 10 feet square. The signage said that they were intended to punish the rebellious ones and store the others. These were cruel, but in many ways. less so than the longer caves reserved for the children and the adjacent one for young women. These were just as barren and rough but the slots were between them, I guess to allow the women to quiet the children, in many ways the most valuable cargo.
And then of course there's the most dramatic element, the "Door of No Return". This is a short, dark passage way leading to the open sea. When you look out all you can sea are the black rocks below and a square jetty where presumably the guards stood during loading. It's impossible not to try and imagine what this must have felt like to desperate men and women and children stepping off into an unknowable future, but, as soon as you make that attempt, a pushy tourist will insist that you get out of the way so they can have their turn taking a snapshot.
So I went into all of the places and tried to read all of the signs but the presence of Alioune was the thing that captured my imagination. He would not go into the caves, but he waited for me patiently at every step. He would smile beautifully when I tried to talk to him and nod knowingly whenever I said something in my broken French that he understood, "This is very bad yes?" or, "How are you?".
Later, after the crowds had gone we sat waiting for Alan to finish his tour and I noticed that there was a curious scar on his left forearm in the shape of a sign of some kind with straight, crossing lines. From my angle it looked like a horizontal cross with a downward tail, but when I asked him to draw it it turned out to be a French number seven. When Alan arrived he translated for me that in fact Alioune had carved that into his skin at that age. His sweet smile when I asked about it belied the fact of the self-inflicted pain that must have caused him. There was something else happening here but there was nothing I could do but witness it and love him.
Alioune sat with us as we waited for the ferry to take us back to the city. He walked with us, getting lost with us as we tried to make our way to a restaurant to rest and eat. He said that he was not tired or hungry but he didn't want to leave my side. In the restaurant we were able to get the friendly waitress who spoke Wolof to help us understand that, although he looked 10, he in fact was 16, had a father who worked in another country but was in school and well cared for. I was able, with some persuasion to get him to eat a pistachio ice cream but although he smiled shyly and beautifully, all the time he ate it, he in fact never finished it and mainly just sat quietly while Alan and I ate and talked. I began to worry about how he would get home but he seemed utterly unconcerned about that. When it got dark I had what I though was a clever idea. Perhaps I could pay him back for the entry fee by offering to pay his bus fare home. "No" he said patiently so I had to be content with the ice cream evening my score with him. He walked me to the cyber cafe, the one attached to the bar and prostitute hang out on the main street and Alan explained to him in French that he and I were parting ways for the time being. With that Alioune turned and walked off into the night, instantly consumed by the bustling street life.
I have a photograph that I took of him with his arms folded to show the scar, standing patiently in front of one of the cave windows. He never asked or seemed to need anything from me other than my presence. He wore a white, lightly tattered shirt and came and went with and almost unworldly grace. I have to think of him as my Little Prince but the sight of him calmly walking away into the dark, amidst the hustlers and frantic noise, taught me something else about this place: As I walked into the cyberbar, I of course said hello to the prostitute who the night before began our conversation by asking me for a hamburger.
I stepped back into the street and was immediately accosted by the trinket halkers and beggars. Walking the street, just as he had an hour before I finally understood something that has been confusing me since I first arrived here in Dakar. Even with my experience of poverty in Brooklyn, I have never been around this density of filth and human misery. My disgust and sense of being misplaced is one of the reasons that I left there as soon as I could at 17. But here I have been COMPLETELY AT EASE. I step over the piles of rotting trash in my sandals without a thought. The untreated polio victims, the brash young kids who NEED me to buy their stuff, do not bother me at all.
Walking back here to the hotel I realized why: Alioune could calmly walk home because this is in fact one of the safest cities I have ever experienced! The thought of anyone hurting him would never come up in his mind. And why should it. These people, despite their poverty and suffering are caught up in the sacred process of survival and striving for another day of being together in this place. For all of the places in the word I have been, I have never seen how people behave when they are TRULY AT HOME! Everyone else in the world is dealing with being in a land where they at some point arrived from here! When you are at home, you of course have problems but you are relaxed and can internally support the effort to be the best version of yourself. That plus the Unitarian vision of this place probably accounts for why Dakar feels the way it does to me.
With this vision, I entered Independence Square at 10 pm. Boys were playing soccer, a deformed man was making his way slowly forward. The streets were warm and dark. I felt content and tired but at ease. I have something else to thank Alioune for.
More when I can.
*I discovered months later that his name is actually "Alioune Sow"