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Gambia: Jufureh Slave Museum

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Jufureh Slave Museum | Gambia | Africa

[Visited: October 2013]

Since I knew that visiting the slave museum of Jufureh, and James Island, is best done by taking an organized tour from Banjul, I asked around on the day of my arrival, to discover that the boat had left early that morning, and the next one would leave after my departure. I had to do it alone, and after an early start, getting to the ferry at Banjul turned out to be easier than I had thought. I bought a ticket for the ferry for only 15 dalasi, and it was only when I arrived at a closed gate that I realized things might not be going so smooth after all. There was a ferry; cars were getting off, but I did not see any vehicle getting on the boat. After a while, I went back to the ticket counter, and asked if there was a specific time the ferry was supposed to leave. The lady looked at me with surprised eyes. Timetable? No, she had no clue when the ferry would leave. I waited a little longer, and when I spotted a foreigner on the other side, asked him about it. A smile appeared on his face; the ferry had a technical problem and would not sail today. But I could wait for the other ferry to arrive; he guessed it might take hours before it would leave. Behind me, people were patiently waiting, and I wondered if they knew. After all, no one had informed us. At the same time, perhaps no one cared. They would just take things as they happened. Or not.

Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Drawing showing the most efficient way to transport slaves from Africa to the New World

The expat advised me to use one of the small boats on the beach. Selling my ticket was easy, even though I told the gentleman that the ferry would not run any time soon. When I arrived at the big pirogues docked on the beach, a friendly Burkinabé lifted me and my bag on his strong shoulders, and carried me to the pirogue. There were scores of strong lads making a living by carrying people to the pirogues for a fee; it was indeed difficult to get to the boats, and climb them, without. I was directed to a spot on one of the planks. On the bottom of the boat were the women, who could not see outside the boat, and all around them, men. I was not sure who was better off, or why the women were forced to sit in the middle. The boat filled quite quickly; apparently, most did not even consider the ferry as an alternative. The guys on the boat started handing out life vests; I would learn later that an accident had occurred on these boats, killing more than 100. But there were not enough lifevests; I had been stupid enough to give the one I was handed to my neighbour, thinking I would get one, too. I counted around 130 people on the boat, out of which around 30 did not have a vest. Two guys refused to wear a life vest: one was reading the koran while balancing on the outside the boat, while the other was frantically moving the beads of his prayer ring while murmuring prayers. No matter what, they would see their belief proven: either they would survive without the life vest, in which case they would say Allah had protected them. Or, they would die, in which case it was God's will for them to do so. I also started to notice that from several holes in the hull, water was coming in, and coming in fast. So fast, in fact, that two guys were bailing water constantly. No matter how hard they worked, though, the water filled faster than they could bail it out. We were now starting our crossing of the Gambia river, and I started to feel a tad unsafe. No one said a word, and I only noticed that the look on the faces of the women was getting always more worried. When we were halfway, the two guys stopped bailing water, and I saw the water level below me, inside the pirogue, increase by the minute. The guy with the praying beads now had his eyes closed, which was probably not even a bad idea. But I wondered if it would not be better to try to do something about the situation - like demanding that boats be fixed before departure. Being the only white person on the boat, I certainly felt it was not my turn to speak up. We hit some higher waves, with sea water coming in from both sides as well. Most of the women were now throwing up, adding vomit to the oily water in the bottom of the boat. When we finally arrived, I was relieved, even though madness broke out for people struggling to get a guy to get us ashore. I could just imagine the chaos that would ensue in case one of the pirogues capsized. The old rickety van to Jufureh filled pretty fast, but by now, I had already lost a lot of time.

Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Couple of enchained slaves depicted in a sculpture outside the slave museum

We arrived after a good hour drive, during which I sat on a row with a mother and baby on one side, and a guy with a TV that was on my right leg on the other. I calculated I could still make it to the island, and perhaps also see the small museum. The small village mosque was busy; it was Friday, and I now understood why the streets of the village were all but empty. I was followed by a woman who continued demanding money for "the village", but kept on walking. When I arrived at the beach, I saw a few small pirogues, but no one around to ask. James Island turned out to be further away than I had imagined, and I quickly concluded that a visit would be impossible, unless I wanted to stay overnight in Jufureh. Moreover, I was told that the island is eroding and badly maintained, and not the interesting historical place it could be. So, I opted for the small museum - after seeing some of the other historical buildings. I was again followed by people who demanded money, who wanted to sell souvenirs, or offered for me to stay in their guesthouse. Travelling in Gambia off-season is just not a good idea: people were desperately waiting for the tourist money to flow in, and I was not willing to spend it on things I did not need, no matter how much I felt for them. Plus, their persistent approach was getting on my nerves: getting no for an answer seemed not acceptable to them. The museum holds claim to fame: it was here that Alex Haley found his origins, upon which he based his novel Roots, a bestseller about the origin of Afro-Americans in the 1970s. As with all slave museums I had seen in Africa, this one felt depressing, too. Drawings of white masters beating up their slaves, selling them, accounts of the journeys on the Atlantic to the New World where they would spend the rest of their lives working on the fields, the posters offering slaves for sale... A truly sad page of history. The maps of the ships, showing how people were put on the ship in such a way that it could carry the maximum number of people: I had seen it before, too. I could not help but think about my boat trip that morning: dangerously overloaded, with little respect for humanity. A separate room had the pictures of famous black Americans who had made it to the top; to my big surprise, President Obama was not there. There is a small replica of a slave ship on the grounds of the museum, but as it was not possible to enter, it did not really enlighten me much. And now - getting back to the other side of the river. I went back to where I got off before, and people assured me the bus would arrive "very soon". I walked around a little, and ended up sitting with some sweet school girls under a tree, one of them teaching me some words and phrases in Mandinka. I returned the favour by teaching her my own language, which gave her and her friends plenty of reason for laughter. After waiting for more than an hour without a sign of a bus, and without a sign of any vehicle of any kind for that matter, I started to worry. It would take time for the bus to fill, and then another hour to arrive in Barra. I did not know until what time the boats were running, but decided I did not want to take it in darkness. The ferry seemed a hopeless alternative anyway. And walking back 35k was not possible anymore. I cursed myself for not having rented a taxi in Barra - but it was too late for that. I walked around a bit more, and ended up meeting a friendly guy who understood what I needed. He took me to someone with a motorbike, who turned out to be sleeping outside his house, with his family. He was ruthlessly woken, and in a matter of minutes, had dressed in a sports jacket of a Danish football team. He did not want to miss this opportunity to make some money, and I felt he totally deserved it, too. I tipped the guy who had helped me, and the ride back to Barra was a beautiful one in the warm afternoon light. I bought some water before a guy carried me to a pirogue, while the ferry just docked. But it would not leave anymore; I had just arrived in time; according to the passengers, the boats stop running at nightfall. This time, I could see more people with fear, also because we were lying dangerously low on the water, and waves were coming in almost constantly from both sides; on the plus side, I did not see any big leaks. Dusk was enveloping our pirogue when we finally came ashore. I had learned that the first ferry would leave at 7am, which I wanted to take two days later on my way north - not knowing that would end up being a bad experience to be told elsewhere.

Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Carrying passengers to the pirogue for the Gambia river crossing
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Chained slaves on a relief on the wall of the slave museum
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Slave depicted on a drawing
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Trade house on the banks of the river Gambia at Jufureh
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): The closest I got to James island, with a stranded pirogue
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Copy of an announcement of the sale of slaves in the museum
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): The claim to fame for Jufureh: the book Roots by Alex Haley
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Slaves tied to a slave ship on a drawing in the museum
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): A replica of a small slave ship can be found on the museum grounds
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Ferry docking while boy watches on a pirogue
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): On the pirogue to Banjul: handing out lifevests and instructions
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): Castle of James island in the slave museum
Picture of Jufureh Slave Museum (Gambia): One of the historical places of Jufureh: the cannon at the banks of the river Gambia

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