Benin: the slave trade in Ouidah

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Well. We have reached the point in my trip when it turns abruptly from the (mostly) life-affirming wonders of Vodoun culture to the despair-inducing horrors of human trafficking. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, as many as 12.5 million people were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World between 1501 and 1866. Almost 2 million of those people embarked from the area around Ouidah called the Bight of Benin, and Ouidah itself was one of the busiest slave ports on the African continent. An estimated 12-13 percent of those who boarded the slave ships did not survive the Middle Passage. Continue reading

A new museum – side by side with an old, beautiful station

IMG_6838When I flew into Dakar three years ago, the city held so much mystique. I had spent almost 25 years imagining what the sights and sounds and feeling of Dakar might be without having any clue how close my ideas were to reality.

Then I spent a year living here and exploring the city’s ins and outs. One of the things I love most about Dakar is its scale – in just over thirteen months I was able to visit practically every neighborhood and knock off almost every item on my list of interesting places to see and things to do.

When I flew back into the city at the beginning of this year, aside from the fact that there was a whole new airport (!), everything felt very familiar. All of my old favorite places were still there, standing the test of time. Another thing I love about Dakar is its creeping pace of change in comparison to New York. There is sprawl and gentrification and crazy over-construction for sure, and it brings upheaval, displacement, and inequality with it. But – again, only as compared to New York, where every time you blink another community institution disappears – it feels much slower and more manageable.

And… some of the development is very welcome.

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Case in point: the new Museum of Black Civilizations, which opened in January. I visited last week and it has some stunning art and artifacts inside.

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Smithsonian Magazine writes:

A little over half a century ago, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of post-independence Senegal, announced his plans to build a major museum of African culture in the country’s capital of Dakar. Senghor, who died in 2001, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Now, at long last, his vision is coming to fruition… Senegal has opened a sprawling museum that celebrates black civilizations from across the globe—and experts are hailing the institution as an important step forward in the effort to reclaim African artifacts plundered during the colonial period.

It both saddens and infuriates me to know that I have had better access in New York (and London, and Paris) to West African artwork and cultural objects than most West Africans do in their home countries. So, it was heartening to visit the new museum last week and to see the beautiful exhibits of ancient and contemporary work – as well as all of the as-of-yet unoccupied space that can be used for, among other things, items returned from abroad. (Restitution efforts were kicked up a notch in November with publication of a French-commissioned report recommending full repatriation of looted cultural heritage to any African nation that requests it.)

It was also the most amazing surprise to pass my favorite place in town – the old colonial railroad station just next door to the museum – and see that rather than being torn down and reconstructed over the past two years, it has instead been given new life in the form of a cleaning, a paint job, and some new glass.IMG_6808

It is now even more stunning than it used to be. I took these photos from the car as we drove past, and I’ll try to get down there to check out the space on foot soon.

IMG_6809The station serves as the terminus of the just-finished rail line between the new airport and Dakar. I haven’t really kept up on those developments so I have no idea if the line is considered a good thing, a bad thing, or a little of both. But the rehabilitation of a gorgeous decaying train station seems 100% wonderful.

 

my tapis

I was visiting a friend at her AirBnB and noticed really beautiful tapestries on the wall. The owner of the apartment told me that they were done with a traditional Senegalese design, which surprised me. I didn’t even know that weaving is a Senegalese handicraft, let alone that there is a specific style. I’ve not once seen tapestries in the artisan shops around town.

Anyway, I was so taken by the tapestries that I went to the guy who wove them to order my own. I chose a design from among the images on his iPad, but I asked him to change the color scheme and make it mostly greens and pinkish reds.

Partway through the weaving process, I came to watch him work. (There is a weaving class in Brooklyn that I wanted to take for years but never got around to. I have a theory that my anxious self is meant not to be a filmmaker but rather a weaver. You still get to use your hands to create art, but instead of it being a stressful process, it’s meditative.)

Even watching the process was mesmerizing. I sat there and stared at Lamin the weaver’s hands moving the thread and his feet moving the pedal until I was in something of a trance. I half-jokingly asked him if he would make me his apprentice, and he promised that if I came back before the tapestry was finished, he would set aside a little bit of loom for me and show me how to weave, and we could work side by side until he was done with my order. I tried so hard to make it back to his atelier on time, but I had a (stressful) edit deadline that I wouldn’t have been able to meet if I spent even the smallest amount of time on new hobbies.

Now it’s too late, since Lamin is done my tapestry and he’s using all the available loom space for a large-scale portrait.

Here’s the finished piece. I love how it turned out. (Please disregard my blue and green sheets peeking out underneath. The tapestry is completely rectangular but I photographed it badly.)

If you are ever in Dakar and want a tapestry and/or to learn how to weave, hit up Lamin! He is in Point E in an atelier at the back of the Centre Socio Culturel, which is very close to the round-point with the Total gas station. (That’s the Dakarois way of giving directions. The non-human-friendly, Google Maps way to say it is Rue G between Allees and Rue 110.)