Gorée Island and the Door of No Return (Île de Gorée et la Porte Sans Retour)

Because of Dakar, Senegal’s location on the western tip of Africa as shown on the map above, it served as one of many ports along West Africa used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1536 through 1848. Just off Dakar’s coast is Gorée Island, one of the locations where captured Africans were kept before loading them onto the ships. Its name in French is Île de Gorée. Academic sources differ in their views of how prominent Dakar and Gorée Island were in the slave trade as compared to other West African locations, but most agree that some level of trafficking did occur here. Today, this UNESCO World Heritage site stands to remind us of the atrocities of the African Holocaust.

Barack and Michelle Obama visited Gorée Island with their family in 2013. Nelson Mandela visited it in 1991.

Getting to Gorée Island

I went to Gorée Island on a Saturday, and found that it wasn’t a optimal day of the week to go. Many tour groups go there on the weekends, and consequently the process of touring the island and its historical sites can be a bit chaotic.  Some of my coworkers opted instead to go on a Wednesday, and they enjoyed much lower crowd levels.

A ferry boat runs several times a day to take visitors to Gorée Island. On a Saturday, it’s important to arrive at the ferry ticket counter at least 45 minutes before the ferry’s departure time, because the lines to purchase tickets are quite long. If you don’t allow enough time, the ferry might leave while you’re still standing in line waiting to buy your ticket.

Gorée Island, as Seen from the Ferry Approaching It
This is the view of Gorée Island from the ferry on the way there.

Reflecting on History

When the ferry docked, one of the first sights we came to was the Statue of Liberation.  France gave this sculpture to Senegal in 2006 as a gift to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.

Gorée Island, the Statue of Liberation
The Statue of Liberation stands on Gorée Island, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal.

The House of Slaves (La Maison des Esclaves)

The primary feature that people visit on Gorée Island is the House of Slaves.  This is a museum that memorializes the African people who were imprisoned there awaiting their passage to the West. Although the first record of slave trading at Gorée Island dates from 1536, the building that is known as the “House of Slaves” was built in 1776.  It is the last remaining such structure on the island.

Some academic sources challenge whether this building was ever actually used for the slave trade. There is also a debate over how many people were shipped out from Gorée Island as opposed to other West African ports.  I am not qualified to judge who is correct. Therefore, for purposes of this blog which is about my travels to Senegal, I will describe what the Senegalese people believe about their own history, which is that the House of Slaves was indeed one of the places used as a place to keep prisoners until they could be loaded on ships bound for the Western Hemisphere.

The building is a two-story structure. Wealthy European slave dealers lived with their families on the upper floor, while the captives lived on the ground floor in misery.

Holding Cells

According to the guides at Gorée Island, men were held in one cell, adult women in one, girls in one, and young children in a fourth.  The photo below shows the room that was used for the men. Its dimensions are approximately 8 feet (2.6 meters) long by 8 feet wide, and up to 30 men would be crammed into it at once.  The men would need to stand or crouch all the time, with not enough room to lie down or sit.  The room contains no toilet facilities, and therefore its occupants were forced to live in their own filth.

Gorée Island's House of Slaves, the Men's Room
This room in Gorée Island’s House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) was used to hold men awaiting their departure on the slave ships.

Parents were separated from their children. Adult women were held in one room, and young children in a separate cell for children.  Young girls were kept in a special room with slightly better conditions than the others.  Men would come to that room to select a girl for an evening of sexual assault.

All of the captives were kept chained and shackled, and fed once a day. The unsanitary conditions led to many problems with disease. The narrow windows allowed in very little light.

When I later read claims by some historians that enslaved people were never kept in the Maison des Esclaves awaiting passage to the West, I remembered gazing at the thick walls and narrow windows, thinking at the time how perfectly constructed they were to prevent escape.  The architecture definitely brought to mind some sort of dungeon. Historians may be correct that this site hosted less trafficking activity than others in West Africa, but I believe there was some.

Prisoners who attempted to escape or rebel were moved to the “room of the recalcitrants” as punishment. This was a small, damp, windowless room that lay beneath a stairwell. The tour guides said that few made it out alive.

Historians estimate that prisoners were typically kept at the House of Slaves about 3 months before being loaded onto ships.

The Door of No Return (La Porte Sans Retour)

Tour guides at Gorée Island state that this door led to a wooden wharf used for loading the captives onto the slave ships.

Gorée Island House of Slaves, Door of No Return

According to tour guides, as prisoners were led through this door and onto the walkway to the slave ships, they were shackled in pairs, each with a 3-pound iron ball attached to his or her leg irons.  Prisoners who tried to leap off the walkway to escape would drag along the companions that were shackled to them.

A rocky beach (shown below) lies beneath the walkway.  According to tour guides, if a prisoner managed to make it to the water, the iron ball would prevent them from swimming to freedom.  Still, guides say some people did make the attempt, often choosing suicide as being preferable to the fate that awaited on distant shores.

Gorée Island, the Rocky Beach Below the Door of No Return

Closing Thoughts

There are many additional things to visit on Île de Gorée besides its House of Slaves museum. There are small beaches, picturesque colonial buildings, restaurants, and more.  However, I did not visit any of these things.

While visiting the House of Slaves, I felt a strong sensation of oppression, of suffering.  The last time I felt something like that was when I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany.   A feeling that great evil had happened there.  I felt a very strong pull to get away, and return to the mainland. Was it lingering spiritual energy of those who suffered there in the past, or simply an overactive imagination?  I can’t say.  Whichever it was, it was strong enough to draw me to the ferry, without exploring the rest of the island.

Despite the debate by historians on this island’s history and role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I highly recommend it as a place to visit if you are visiting Senegal.  I recommend walking through the House of Slaves, looking at the holding cells with their narrow slits for windows, listening to the tour guides, and gazing out through the Door of No Return. Doing these things brings a strong awareness to the history of the African diaspora that simply reading a textbook does not. It’s a place to reflect, and to honor the memory of those who suffered.

I hope someday to return to Senegal for another visit, and if I do perhaps I’ll return to Gorée Island to see the parts I didn’t visit on this trip.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

A Terror Threat Warning

In my travels over the years, I’ve visited many places that had experienced issues with terrorism, including London and Paris. I live in a country, the U.S., which has experienced many terror incidents as well.

When I received word that my IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment would be in Senegal, my husband immediately jumped online to investigate safety and security issues. He found that in Senegal, petty crime such as pickpocketing provided reason to be cautious, but violent crime was not a serious problem there.

I felt comfortable with the idea of going to Senegal.  I expected it to be a wonderful adventure.  (And it was!) Still, it was somewhat disconcerting when a terror threat warning was issued while I was there.

Our First Inkling of a Possible Issue

Logo for U.S. Department of State

On October 19, the U.S. government issued a travel warning for citizens visiting Senegal:

The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to be vigilant when visiting establishments and staying at hotels frequented by Westerners due to a credible threat related to potential terrorist activity in Dakar.

U.S. Embassy personnel are not permitted to stay at seaside hotels in Dakar until the first week of December. U.S. citizens should expect to encounter increased levels of security screening while traveling around Dakar.

Review your personal security plans, remain aware of your surroundings, including local events, and monitor local news stations for updates. Be vigilant and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.

The warning was issued while our group was at dinner, and at the time we didn’t have any way of knowing about it.  When we returned to our hotel, we noticed that the security measures for entering the hotel compound had been heightened, and we thought it odd, but we didn’t know why.  Once we were inside with wi-fi access and checked email,  those of us from the U.S.  received the above email notification from the U.S. Department of State.  Okay, now we understood why hotel security had tightened.

I was concerned, of course, but not frightened.  The tone of the alert suggested people should exercise a practical level of caution, but didn’t sound alarming.

Receiving Additional Detail

The next day, we learned a little more. There were unconfirmed reports that security forces had thwarted an alleged extremist plot to target a seafront hotel in the city of Dakar. The reports alleged that three suspects linked to this plot with ties to Al-Qaeda had been arrested in an unnamed country near the Senegalese border, and were being held at an undisclosed location.

These new details did not appear on the U.S. Department of State’s web site, nor was I able to find anything about it in web searches of English-language media. The only articles I could find in web searches of English media were reports saying the U.S. government had issued the ambiguous warning I quoted above and the Canadians had shared it.

It was a bit concerning to learn that the thwarted terrorists had planned to target a seafront hotel, considering the fact that we were staying at a seafront hotel!  We sent a note to IBM’s program manager for Corporate Service Corps to ask for an opinion about this, and waited for a response.

What We Did About It

The next day, IBM assembled us for a meeting.  IBM Security told us that they had assessed the situation, and had determined that we were not in immediate danger. We would be allowed to stay in Senegal and continue working on our projects.  However, we were required to move from our seafront hotel to a different place that was more inland and offered tighter security.  We were given only an hour to pack.

IBM Security told us that we could not go to restaurants along the beach, nor could we go shopping at the Sea Plaza mall, which is seafront.

At the time, we were forbidden to tell anyone outside of our group that we were moving, not even the staff at our original hotel.  For security reasons, we were also told not to disclose what the contents of our briefing were.

The Lost Weekend

A couple of outings we had planned for the weekend of October 21-22 were canceled for security reasons.  I now think of this as The Lost Weekend.

This did affect our morale.  We felt kind of imprisoned at our new hotel, since our weekend plans had been canceled.  We still had each other, and we tried to make the best of it by hanging out together and working on our job assignments.   We enjoyed each other’s company, but we would have preferred to enjoy it having adventures together!  We started to explore the neighborhood near our new hotel, and found some restaurants with good food.

Some of us told our families about the terror threat, while others didn’t want to worry them.  I did tell my husband.  I felt it would be best that he hear about it from me, rather than stumbling across the articles in the international news media. It seemed best to let him know that I was aware, and that IBM Security was involved.

Hotel Stuff

Our original hotel had been a beautiful seafront property with its own private beach.  The new one was a dump. The hallways of the new one smelled bad, and the carpets were old. In my room, there was a stain on the floor about two feet long and one foot wide.

The new place’s conference rooms were already fully booked for another group’s meetings, so there were no conference rooms available for our use to work on our projects.  We tried working in the hotel bar, which was very noisy and distracting. We tried working in the hotel’s “gold club” lounge, which was not air conditioned, and was noisy. All in all, this new hotel provided a poor environment for doing the work we were in Senegal to do.

And After That…

After a week, IBM Security decided to let us go on outings that met their safety criteria.

I was so happy we received the approval to visit Pink Lake, Gorée Island, and Bandia Reserve.  Read about our trip to amazing Pink Lake and our photo safari at Bandia Reserve elsewhere here on my blog.  I’ll post about Gorée Island soon….

A nearby, nicer hotel became available after a large event finished and its attendees left. IBM Security approved moving us to this place, which also greatly improved our morale.  I appreciated having a guest room that smelled clean and didn’t have a large stain on the floor.  It was much easier to work on our project in the new place’s well-equipped, air-conditioned conference room after dealing with the second hotel’s problems. The third hotel’s security provisions were similar to the second place, but it was a much better environment, both to work and to live in for the remainder of our trip.

Although this newer hotel was not seafront, it was close enough to the ocean to provide this beautiful view of the sunrise.

The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal.

Closing Thoughts

It was strange finding ourselves in the midst of a terror alert.  I was concerned, which I think was a sensible response, but I was not fearful. I felt that if the threat was truly serious, IBM Security would have decided to send us home immediately. IBM Security conducts  reviews of Corporate Service Corps locations before approving an assignment, and they tend to be very cautious about our safety while we’re deployed.

Of course, Dakar is a large city, and it’s always important to  be mindful of personal safety when in a large, unfamiliar city.  I took the same precautions there that I would take in San Francisco or Chicago.  I felt safer in Dakar than I have in certain U.S. cities.

Would I consider going back to Senegal for a visit in the future? Absolutely. And yes, I would consider staying at a seafront hotel again.  According to a November 2017 article in The Telegraph, Senegal still is considered to have a low level of risk compared to the United States and many European countries.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here:  http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Photo Safari at Bandia Reserve in Senegal

The Bandia Reserve is a wildlife park about 65 kilometers from Dakar, Senegal which features a variety of animals from throughout Africa. Although some of Bandia’s animals are native to Senegal, others were transported in from South Africa and elsewhere.   The park isn’t big enough to accommodate the hunting needs of large predators such as lions; therefore, it features only herbivores such as giraffes, antelope, zebras, etc. The exception is that there is a hyena in a fenced area, and some crocodiles in a stream that’s some distance from where the rest of the animals live.

The Bandia Reserve offers trucks that can be rented, with drivers and guides. Our guide had been with Bandia ever since it opened 20 years ago, so he was able to share with us a large amount of information about the park’s origins and history.  The backs of the trucks are open-air and outfitted with benches which can accommodate up to 9 passengers. It was the perfect size for our group.

A network of gravel roads runs throughout the park. The drivers and guides are quite familiar with all the routes.  They use phones to stay in touch with other colleagues who are taking other trucks through the park, which is how they know where to find the various types of animals on any given day.

Dirt roads such as this one run throughout Bandia Reserve in Senegal.

Throughout the park are a variety of trees that are native to West Africa.  These acacia trees have vivid reddish bark, which contrasts beautifully with the surrounding vegetation.  Senegal lies just south of the Sahara desert with a dry climate whose rainy season runs about 3 months.  The acacia trees and other local vegetation are adapted to these dry conditions.

The acacia trees inside Bandia Reserve have a vivid reddish bark.

When Bandia Reserve was first started 20 years ago, the owners brought in 4 giraffes from South Africa to start their herd: two male, two female. Today, the herd contains about 50 giraffes.  The guide told us they occasionally bring in males from the outside for breeding, to add some diversity to the gene pool. The giraffes are surprisingly comfortable with the truckloads of camera-toting tourists that pass through. Our truck was able to get rather close to them.

There were several mother giraffes in the park with their babies.  I found myself wishing that my late college roommate, Tammy Dudley, could be alive to see those with me.  She had always loved giraffes, and owned a collection of over 100 giraffe figurines.

This mother giraffe and her calf brought a taste of family life to Bandia Reserve.

Many of the giraffes stayed together in a herd as they moved through the trees, snacking on the leaves.

There are a variety of species of gazelles in Bandia Reserve.  We didn’t get close enough for me to snap good photos of all of them, but here are the ones I was able to capture.

The giant eland living in the park were rather spectacular to look at!
This is one of the species of gazelle that lives inside Bandia Reserve.

There are a few small monkeys living inside of Bandia. I only saw this one.

This small monkey near the entrance of Bandia Reserve is near a giant baobab tree.

We saw a group of about 3 ostriches near the herd of giraffes.

The day we visited Bandia Reserve, the ostriches were gathered near the giraffe herd.

It was surprising to see how close these zebras allowed our truck to get to them.

A family of zebras lives inside the park.

When Bandia Reserve first started 20 years ago, a pair of white rhinocerous (one male, one female) were brought in from elsewhere in Africa to populate it.  However, they never produced any young, so today they remain the only two rhinos in the park.  The guides and truck drivers use their mobile phones to keep each other informed of where in the park the rhinos are relaxing on any given day.  It took some time for us to find the corner of the park where they were the day we visited.

A pair of white rhinocerous live in the park.

Bandia Reserve contains many large baobab trees.  These and the acacias are both very representative of the African landscape.  Near the end of the tour we saw this massive baobab tree. It is estimated to be 1,000 years old.

Mauricio Andrade and Marcel Furumoto explore the area around the base of the baobab tree’s trunk. Note how small these full-grown adult men look compared to the tree’s trunk.

The insides of baobab trees are hollow, and this one has been used for many years as a graveyard for the griots (storytellers).  The tree is known as the tombeau de griots. The griots were the elders of a tribe, the keepers of its oral history.  When they died, their bones were carefully placed inside this large baobab tree.

These skulls are actual human remains. They were griots (storytellers), and were honored as the keepers of the oral histories of their tribes.

This photo, taken from a bit of a distance, shows the large size of the baobab tree.

This 1,000-year-old baobab tree serves as the tomb of the griots (storytellers). Look carefully, and you’ll see the skulls under the tree to the left.

At the end of the tour is a restaurant and a gift shop.  In the water next to the restaurant lives a family of Nile crocodiles.  They were shy the day we visited, but we did manage to catch a glimpse of one.

The crocodiles at Bandia Reserve were brought from Egypt.

We visited Senegal in October, which is typically a very hot time of year.  The day we visited Bandia Reserve, temperatures hovered around 93 F (34 C). By the end of the trip, we all wanted to take a siesta.  Our friend Mario Villalobos decided to go ahead and do so while others shopped or picked up snacks at the restaurant!

Mario Villalobos has the right idea.

All in all, I was very enthusiastic about our visit to Bandia Reserve. I’ve been told by people who went on photo safaris in South Africa and Kenya that Bandia is smaller and less impressive.  However, I have never been to these other countries, and Bandia impressed me a great deal!  I’m very glad I went.  For me, it was well worth the time, money, and effort!

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

African Sunrises and Sunsets

Traveling offers many opportunities to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  In this blog post, I’d like to share my photos taken in Egypt, Morocco, and Senegal.  These are all my original photos, and my property.  Please do not steal them.

Sunrises and Sunsets in Egypt

I have traveled to Egypt 12 times, so naturally I’ve had many opportunities over the years to photograph sunrises and sunsets there.  Here are my favorites.

At the Pyramids of Giza Near Cairo, Egypt

Any post celebrating sunsets in Egypt clearly needs to start with the sun setting behind the Pyramids of Giza!

This sunset photo was taken in February, 2017 when I went to Egypt as part of Sahra Kent’s “Journey Through Egypt 3” tour.  We stayed at the Sphinx Guest House, which is a bed & breakfast place in Giza, Egypt (near Cairo).  This was the view from our window! If you look closely, you can see the Sphinx in front of the middle pyramid.

Sunset over the Pyramids of Giza
The sun sets behind the pyramids of Giza, Egypt on February 6, 2017. Look closely, and you’ll see the Sphinx hiding in front of the middle pyramid!

And because I love Egypt and its pyramids so much, here’s a sunset photo I took in February 2016.  This year, too, I accompanied Sahra’s “Journey Through Egypt” tour, and I took this photo from my room at the Sphinx Guest House.

Sunset over the pyramids of Giza
The sun sets behind the pyramids of Giza, Egypt on February 10, 2016.

I caught the sunset at a different point in February, 2015.  This year was the first time I accompanied Sahra on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour, but it wasn’t my first time in Egypt. This photo offers more light, and therefore a clearer view of the Sphinx.

Sunset over the Pyramids of Giza
The sun sets behind the Pyramids and Sphinx in February, 2015.

One of my favorite photos that I have taken in my travels is one of the moon rising over the Great Pyramid. I sat with friends in the garden cafe at the Mena House hotel, and this was our view.  I had accompanied my friend Morocco to the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, which was held at Mena House.

Moonrise over the Great Pyramid
The moon rises over the Great Pyramid in June, 2004.

The Overnight Train from Cairo to Luxor

It’s about 400 miles from Cairo, Egypt to Luxor.  An affordable way to make the trip is via an overnight train with sleeper cars.  The train leaves Cairo late in the afternoon, which allows an opportunity to watch the sun set while you’re making the journey.  I took this photo in February, 2016.

I saw this sunset on the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor, Egypt in February 14, 2016.

At Lake Nasser, at the Abu Simbel Temple in Southern Egypt

Twice a year, on February 22 and October 22, the rays of the rising sun pierce the inner chamber of the Temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel, Egypt.  On this date, the light shines on Amun-Ra of Karnak, Ra-Horakhti of Heliopolis and Ramses II, but the fourth god in the sanctuary, Ptah of Memphis, remains always in shadow.  I was there for this event on February 22, 2015, when I accompanied Sahra Kent on her “Journey Through Egypt” tour.

False Dawn Over Lake Nasser Just before Sunrise at Abu Simbel
The glow of false dawn appears just before sunrise over Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel, Egypt on February 22, 2015.
Sunrise over Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel
The sun rises over Lake Nasser at the Abu Simbel temple in southern Egypt on February 22, 2015.

The Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria, Egypt

These photos are from my visit to Alexandria, Egypt in June, 2008. My friend Saqra and I went to a family-oriented beach one beautiful afternoon.  Alexandria is a popular place for families from Cairo to spend vacation time during the summer, due to the fact that the sea air gives it cooler temperatures than Cairo. We stayed to watch the sun set, then went to the theater at the Alexandria Library to watch the show titled “The World Dances with Mahmoud Reda”.

Sunset over the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria
The sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria Egypt on June 30, 2008.

Later in the sunset, as the light begins to fade, the sky remains beautiful and the sea takes on a range of colors.

Sunset in Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira is a seaside community in Morocco, facing onto the Atlantic Ocean. It offers beautiful views of the ocean, and also of sunsets.  I was there for Funoon Dance Camp, which was organized by my friend Nawarra.

Sunset in Essaouira, Morocco
The sun sets over Essaouira, Morocco, on September 10, 2017.

 

Sunset over Essaouira, Morocco
The sun sets over Essaouira, Morocco on September 10, 2017.

Sunrises in Dakar, Senegal

These two photos were both taken at sunrise (approximately 7:30 a.m.) in November, 2017, from the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal.

Sunrise in Dakar, Senegal
The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal on November 1, 2017.

 

Sunrise in Dakar, Senegal
The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean at Dakar, Senegal on November 2, 2017.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Gratuitous Sunsets in My Own Community!

Although the primary theme of this post is African sunrises and sunsets, I can’t resist sharing some beautiful sunsets from my own neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa.  After all, it’s my blog, and I can include non-African sunsets if I want to!

I don’t have to travel far to see beautiful sunsets.  These two photos were taken from my front door, looking across the street at my neighbors’ houses.

The sun sets over Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, Iowa on July 6, 2014.
The sun sets over Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, Iowa on July 15, 2016.
Sunset in Iowa City, Iowa November 2017
The sun sets over Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, Iowa in November, 2017.

And this photo was taken about a half hour’s drive from our house, at Coralville Lake.

The sun sets over Coralville Lake on October 21, 2016.

Exploring Senegal’s Pink Lake (Lac Rose, or Lake Retba)

A fascinating site to visit in Senegal is Lac Rose, which is French for “Pink Lake”.  Its actual name is Lake Retba, but because of its pink color, it picked up the nickname.

Pink Lake in Senegal
The waters of Lake Retba in Senegal can look pink under the right conditions, due to microalgae in the salty lake that produce beta carotene.

Interestingly, this lake doesn’t always look pink.  The color depends on variables such as weather conditions, time of year, and the state of the algae that give the lake its pink appearance.  Two weeks before I went to Lac Rose with some of my IBM colleagues, a few other people from our group went.  They were disappointed because it wasn’t pink the day they saw it.  However, lucky for us, it was pink the day we went!

The conditions required to make the pink color include a combination of dry weather, high salt content in the lake (higher concentration than sea water), warm temperatures, and bright light.  This is because the lake acquires its pink color from beta carotene manufactured by a type of microalgae called Dunaliella salina, and these weather conditions help the algae to thrive.  One of our local friends also told us that the pink color is more apparent when there’s a bit of wind to cause ripples in the lake’s surface.  Weather can vary, so that’s why some visitors see the pink color and others do not.

At times, the lake can look orange, again because of the beta carotene.  It seemed as though the shallow water near the shore was more likely to look orange, whereas the deeper water out in the lake looked pink.

Mauricio Andrade after a swim in Pink Lake
My friend Mauricio Andrade from Brazil emerges from Pink Lake after taking a swim. He was part of our group for IBM Corporate Service Corps.

The day we went, temperatures had recently been in the 90’s (Fahrenheit) or low 30’s (Celsius).  There had been several days in a row of bright sunlight, and dry weather.  There was a breeze stirring the surface of the water a bit.

Orange waters of Lake Retba near the shore.
The waters of Pink Lake in Senegal can look orange in the shallows near the shore, but pink in the deeper waters out in the lake.

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Visiting the Children at L’Empire des Enfants

As part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, we try to arrange at least one “community service” activity.  Our local facilitator, Tidiane Gueye, offered us a couple of options, and we decided to do BOTH.  The first one that we did was a visit to L’Empire des Enfants.

L’Empire Des Enfants

About L’Empire des Enfants

L’Empire des Enfants is a rehabilitation and transition center in Dakar, Senegal for boys ages 6-14 who have been street children.  The primary goal is to reunite these children with their parents, while providing them with a safe place to live until that can happen.  There are various reasons these boys end up on the streets.  The most common is that a devious adult visits a village and persuades the parents to send their child to the big city of Dakar with him.  Sometimes the promise is that the child will be taken to a madrasa (Quranic school) to be educated, other times the promise is that the child will be taught a trade and become wealthy in the big city.  Either way, these are lies.  Once the child arrives in Dakar, he is sent out on the streets to beg for money.  If he fails to bring in enough on a given day, he is beaten.

L’Empire des Enfants accepts children who come to their door 24×7.  If the child is a boy in the age groups that L’Empire is equipped to work with, they’ll take him in.  If it’s a girl, or if it’s a boy outside their age ranges, they do what they can to find help for the child elsewhere.

As of our visit, L’Empire housed about 30 boys. The number varies greatly from day to day. In this photo, the boys pose with the woman who founded the home and serves as its director.

At first when children arrive at L’Empire des Enfants, they are suspicious of the adults because of the bad treatment they have already received from adults in their young lives.  For that reason, the boys who already live at L’Empire take charge of teaching the newcomers how things work there and how to fit in.  By mentoring newcomers, the boys learn how to take on leadership roles, and how to guide other people.

When a child arrives at L’Empire, he receives food, clothing, and shelter.  There are certain rules, such as “you must attend the classes”.  The boys learn these rules from their peers, and their peers are the ones who urge them to comply.

One of the classrooms at L’Empire Des Enfants.

The boys are taught to read and write (if they don’t already know how).  They also attend classes in life skills such as Tae Kwon Do.  The aim is to teach them to take care of themselves, so that when they return to their families they can help make a living and help take care of the rest of the family.

Often, boys who come to L’Empire are unwilling at first to provide information about who their parents are, or where they come from.  The adults who manage the facility realize that it can take time to build trust, and they exercise the necessary patience.  Eventually, when a child is willing to open up, they’ll work with him to learn who his family is.  They try to discern through the interviews whether returning to the family would be a safe thing for the boy to do.   They won’t knowingly send him back to a situation where he’d be abused.

About 90% of the boys are eventually reunited with their families.  Very few of those return to the streets or to L’Empire des Enfants.  If they do return, L’Empire recognizes that it may have missed something important about their home situation in the interview process, and will allow them to stay.

L’Empire can accommodate up to 60 boys.  The day we visited, there were about 30.  It changes from day to day.  They hope to build a new, larger facility in the not-so-distant future that will allow them to help more children, including girls.

About Our Visit

The primary purpose of our visit was to provide the boys with exposure to foreigners.  There were 14 of us representing 7 different countries – Brazil, Mexico, India, Japan, China, the U.S., and Canada.  My colleague Gopal from India brought his guitar, and my colleague Marcel from Brazil brought his soccer ball.

Tidiane timed our visit to have us arrive in the afternoon at the time the children were praying, so we could see them do that.  Afterward, it was time to eat, and we were served supper after the children received theirs.  We ate the same thing as the children, and it was a nutritious meal.  While the children ate, the director gave us a talk about the facility and the work they do there.

After that, it was time for us to interact with the children.  Our Brazilian team members, Mauricio and Marcel, organized a soccer game.

L’Empire’s boys play soccer with the Brazilian men from our group.

After that, Gopal played some Bollywood songs that involved yodeling – I had no idea that there was an Indian artist who yodeled!  While he played, some members of our group got the children started dancing.  There was much laughter and smiles all around.  We had an opportunity to tour the place and see the classrooms.

Children at L'Empire des Enfants
Several of the children stick out their tongues for the camera. I guess kids all over the world love to do silly poses for photos! In the back, Gopal shows his guitar to some boys and lets them pluck at the strings.

After a couple of hours, it was time for us to head out.  Those who wished to donate funds to the operation gave them to Tidiane, who consolidated all the donations and give the lump sum to L’Empire’s director.

I was glad to see the work that L’Empire was doing to offer boys hope for a better life, and I hope they’ll achieve their dream of building a new, bigger place that can help more children.

Why I Was in Senegal

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal

One of the more spectacular landmarks in Dakar, Senegal is the African Renaissance Monument, known in French as Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine.  It shows a man, woman, and child emerging from a volcano.  It sits high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  At 160 feet (45 meters) tall, it’s the tallest statue in Africa, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty.

At the time this status was unveiled in 2010, marking 50 years of independence from France, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade said, “It brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”.  The event featured hundreds of drummers and dancers.  I would have loved to have seen that!

Many people in Senegal were not supportive of the statue, criticizing it for various reasons.  For example:

  • Local Senegalese artists criticized the fact that the contract to design it was awarded to a Romanian architect and the contract to build it was awarded to a North Korean company. Why not use local talent?
  • Some have pointed out that the facial features don’t look particularly African.
  • It cost $27 million dollars, which was a big concern in a country where many live below the poverty line.
  • The skimpy clothing of the family does not represent the more modest preferences of the country’s Muslim majority. (95% of Senegalese people are Muslim.)

We had a chance to see this statue up close during our city tour on October 7, 2017, which is when I took this photo.  At night, lighting effects give it a beautiful glow.

It’s possible to pay an entrance fee and go inside it.  I did not do this during my visit.  There are stairs you can take to the top, and look out of windows in the man’s crown.

Why I Was in Senegal

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/

Why I Went to Senegal: IBM Corporate Service Corps (CSC)

Many people have asked me questions about my trip to Senegal – why I went, what I did there, etc.  Here are my answers to those frequently-asked questions!

I work for IBM, which sponsors a program called the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). It’s a corporate responsibility initiative, in which IBM sends teams of its employees on 4-week assignments to perform pro bono (no-charge) consulting engagements.  Every spring, IBM invites its employees to submit applications to be part of such a team.  Those chosen take a 4-week hiatus from their “real” jobs to do one of these assignments.   Upon completion of the assignment, we return to our normal jobs.

Q:  How many people are chosen to participate in CSC?

A:  Each year, about 5,000 people apply, and about 1,500 are selected.  Each year IBM deploys a total of about 100 teams, each consisting of 12-15 people.  I applied in May 2016, and received my acceptance notice in July 2016.  However, I did not actually get assigned to a team until October 2017. So there can be a lag between acceptance and deployment.

Q: How does IBM decide whom to accept?

A:  There are several criteria.  Our managers need to write a recommendation saying they support our candidacy and are willing to let us be away from our jobs for 4 weeks. We need to show a history of favorable performance evaluations. We need to have been employed by IBM at least 2 years.  The application process requires us to respond to several essay questions.  Our volunteerism in our local communities is also considered.  IBM welcomes applications from all over the world, but all participants must be fluent enough with English to use it in performing the assignment.

Q: Did your husband go with you?

A:  No, this is not a vacation.  It is a business trip.  We are expected to leave our families at home, to avoid being distracted by their presence.

Of course, if we use vacation time at the end of our engagement to do some touring, the families could come for that.  But during the 4-week assignment, IBM expects us to stay focused on completing our assigned projects.

Q:  How many people did IBM send to Senegal?

A:  I was part of a team of 14 IBM employees, from 7 different countries.  Our group included people from Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, India, and the U.S.  We were the 4th team to be assigned to an engagement in Senegal; others had been there in previous years.

Q: Where is Senegal?

A: Senegal lies at the westernmost tip of Africa. See the map at the top of this page. I went to its capital city of Dakar.

Q:  What did you do there?

A:  We were divided into 4 smaller sub-teams.  Two of those consisted of three people each, and the other two consisted of 4 people each.   Each of us was assigned our own project. In addition, we were encouraged to assist each other with advice/input as needed.  Our groups’ assignments included:

  1. A non-governmental organization called African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) that was looking for technology solutions to use in training midwives.
  2. A non-governmental organization called Plan International which was seeking assistance in using technology to help youth groups throughout the country share ideas, best practices, and schedules with one another.
  3. Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE), which was needing assistance with collecting environmental data from many diverse sources and gathering it all into a format that could be used for analysis.
  4. A team that worked with a Senegal government agency to help with a project to build a technology park.  This is the team I was assigned to.

Q: How did you know what to do when you got there?

A:  For each country where CSC is doing a project, IBM works with a non-governmental organization to identify appropriate clients for our team to work with, and to coordinate all the logistics.  The one that our team worked with in Senegal was PYXERA Global.  I found the PYXERA team to be very professional, a real pleasure to work with.

Each of our four sub-groups was given a draft statement of work a week or so before we left our home countries.  Then, once we arrived in Senegal, we worked with our local sponsoring organizations to interview stakeholders, refine our understanding of the needs, and revise the document to create a final version that both parties agreed on.  We then spent the balance of our engagements doing the work.  We often worked evenings and weekends.  With only 4 weeks to complete a project, it was important to stay focused.

Q: Where Can I Learn More About IBM’s Corporate Service Corps?

A:  Here are some interesting links with more information:

Mosque of Divinity in Dakar, Senegal

The Mosque of Divinity is a beautiful structure located in Dakar, Senegal.  Its members personally built it, entirely on a volunteer work. No money was paid to anybody involved in constructing it.  All work was done by hand, without the help of cranes or other construction equipment.  The project took 5 1/2 years to complete, from Spring of 1992 to October of 1997.

We visited it because Tidiane Gueye, our local contact for our stay in Senegal, was a member of the mosque and wanted to share this part of his life with us.  It was a landmark near our hotel, which we drove past every day, and it was great to learn something of the history, as well as feel the personal connection to it.

The day I visited this mosque, October 7, the congregation was gearing up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of completing construction. The women had set up a fire with a cooking kettle to cook the meal they intended to serve for the celebration.

Behind the Mosque of Divinity is a beach that lies on the Atlantic Ocean.  There are fishing boats parked along this beach, that people take out on the water to fish.

Fishing boats
Fishing boats along the beach behind the Mosque of Divinity.

This beach is also a place where young people enjoy playing football (soccer).

Playing soccer on the beach.

I felt so inspired, visiting the Mosque of Divinity, because it clearly was a place created from the love that the members of the community feel for not only their faith, but also their relationship with each other.

Why I Was in Senegal

In case you’re wondering why I was in Senegal for a month, I was there as part of the IBM Corporate Service Corps.   You can read more about that here: http://roaming-jewel.com/2017/10/17/ibmcsc/