It took some effort to wake up the woman in the ticket kiosk at the Museum of Black Civilisations, in Dakar, Senegal. It was a very hot Wednesday afternoon and there was barely a soul in the place.
Maybe there was some special reason for this on that particular day.
I hope so, because it’s a hugely interesting exhibition and should be a must-see for any visitor to Dakar.
The 14,000 square foot museum, which opened in December 2018, aims to tell a positive story of black civilisation’s contribution to human history.
The first exhibition in the complex presents Africa as the “cradle of humanity”, the place where the human species has its origin.
One of the first advocates of this now fairly uncontested view was Chiekh Anta Diop, a Senegalese historian and anthropologist. The idea gained most ground initially in Francophone Africa and much of the commentary presents Dakar as the natural location for the new museum.
Interestingly, however, the museum was not funded by France. The museum was built by China, a fact lauded by many of the museum’s advocates as a rupture with the old colonialists.
It’s hard not to see China as the new colonialists, however, and hard to take at face value the Chinese Ambassador to Senegal’s claim that this 830 million USD investment was made because “We understand the suffering of our African friends.”
China has invested $2 trillion in Africa since 2005 and is Africa’s biggest trading partner.
It is impossible to say if Chinese aims are much more philanthropic than those of the colonial powers which carved up Africa between them between the 18th and 20th century, plundering at least 90 percent of Africa’s historical artefacts.
For this reason the Museum of Black Civilisations is as defined by what it doesn’t have as by what it does.
There are 90,000 precious African artefacts in France alone, according to the Saar-Savoy report commissioned by French President, Emmanuel Macron. He has pledged to return to Africa what is Africa’s.
Restoring artefacts is one thing. Restoring to Africans their stolen history is, of course, impossible.
While it will never really be known how many African slaves were trafficked between 1441 and 1888, we know there were millions, and that is this negative history against which the Museum of Black Civilisations pits itself.
It’s the negative history that draws the crowds, however.
Just across from the port of Dakar lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Goree Island, which is visited as a memorial to these millions of stolen lives.
This is largely due to the work of a certain Boubacar Joseph Ndiye, who promoted a house owned by a former slave owner as the “House of Slaves” through which, he said, 15 million Africans were transported.
Later scholars have put the real figure as low as 26,000. It is agreed, however, that the House of Slaves is an important symbol of the horrors of the slave trade.
It was in this spirit that I took the ferry to Goree Island only to find myself in a tourist trap, complete with souvenir hawkers and “I’ve Been to Goree Island” t-shirts.
It was only in the few seconds when I found myself alone at the famous “Door of No Return” that I heard the sound of the sea and was transported into the minds of those who must have heard the same sound, and must have known it spelled their doom.