Poet Mildred Barya reflects on the experience of visiting Gorée Island and bearing witness to ancestral trauma. Barya’s poem “Cast Over Gorée Island” appears in Volume 71.2.
My journey to Gorée island began in 2006 when I left my native Uganda and moved to Senegal to write. I had a great opportunity to study with esteemed African novelist Ayi Kwei Armah who had started a nine-month Writers-in-Residence mentoring program in Popenguine. I was selected along with three other participants. Our first stop on the island was the House of Slaves—Maison des Esclaves—now a museum. Its horrid condition contrasted sharply with the colorful colonial buildings belonging to former slave holders. Aida, one of our peers from Senegal, said that the museum had in fact gone through some renovations—the outside was painted a bright, yet still depressing, peach, and the inner cells had been retouched a bit after some Africans from the diaspora experienced nervous breakdowns when they saw the wretched building or walked into the low-ceilinged, dingy cells, and none of us could escape looking at the monstrosities of heavy iron shackles and five kg metal balls that were fastened to the necks or feet of the captured Africans. Nothing could be done to the Door of No Return—a narrow exit point through which millions passed. I had no words.
After my residency ended, I lived and worked in Dakar for two years. During that period, I returned to the island several times. Whenever I sat down to write what should have been “Cast Over Gorée Island,” pieces of my homeland in Uganda emerged instead. I had intense feelings of collective grief trapped inside me without expression on the page. I didn’t realize then that the silence was itself a sign of grief. I’d sit by the shore and stare into the blue water. Under the influence of a different history, it would have looked beautiful, inviting, calming, and peaceful. But in this instance, I felt a lot of sadness. Scholars are still squabbling about the exact number of enslaved Africans who passed through Gorée’s Door of No Return. The island is one of the nearest points on the Atlantic shore to the Americas, making it a critical site in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The first slave traders on the island were Portuguese, then Dutch, followed by English and finally French, altogether occupying Gorée from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Through the years, the island served as a market, storage, and transition center. Its small size made it easy to control. Traders and middlemen bought and sold Africans who were then separated from their families and kept in the dungeons while waiting for ships to arrive. The museum guide told us that if some of the raped women got pregnant, they’d stay shackled in the dank cells or work on the island until they gave birth. The men, women, and children who fell sick were thrown into the ocean. The guide said that Gorée became known as the Island of Sharks. Where could I find the language to honor these noble people suffering and dying in such a cruel, gruesome manner?
A few years later, I was in Syracuse working on a collection of short stories for my MFA thesis, and that’s when the poem came to me. It was winter—cold, and gloomy. I longed for Senegal’s sultry weather, something I’d thought I would never miss. Childhood memories of Uganda’s tropical sunshine were on my mind. I couldn’t stand watching the dripping icicles, so I turned to the internet for sunny images—Caribbean islands! How lovely and cheerful they looked, especially in December. My mind was going everywhere warm; that’s how Saint Kitts showed up in the poem. But let me take a few steps back: in the summer of 2011, my Syracuse mentor, Arthur Flowers, took me to Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY, to pay my respects to Harriet Tubman. I thought of the bounty on her head, which did not stop her from rescuing hundreds Underground. I thought of those who didn’t escape lynching. I remember looking at Arthur as I was trying to connect the dots… the wheel turning full circle. In my mind, I saw Harriet’s and Arthur’s and my ancestors loaded on the ships via the Door at Gorée. I don’t remember what we talked about when we returned to the car.
The dreariness of winter poured ice, water, death, and sky into one entangled heaviness weighing on my tropical spirit. “Cast Over Gorée Island” is the opening work in my unpublished collection, These Pieces Belong. The poem’s placement marks the beginning of African diaspora and the entry of ancestral trauma into the waters of the world as well as the various liminal spaces, passages, and departures alluded to in the rest of the collection. I find it a bit strange that I was only able to write about the island many years after I’d left. I’d not realized that my perspective wouldn’t be complete until I’d journeyed to the States and cast my mind back.