Looking at the bright colors of this portico and hearing the sound of laughter of a family that was standing nearby, it was somehow hard for me to believe that I was one floor above rooms where African men, women, and children were purportedly enslaved before being boarded onto ships and sent off to lands unknown. This is the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), located on Gorée Island, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. Whether or not the house actually played a role in the Atlantic slave trade is a matter of controversy - a dispute between historians whose fact finding efforts have led them to conclude that the house was the home of a wealthy trader and nothing more and those who assert that millions of slaves spent time here. Whatever the truth is, the House of Slaves remains a popular destination for tourists.
I was there with an African American colleague of mine; I'm of Asian heritage. As you might expect, our visit affected us in very different ways. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes as she listened to our guide speak about the place. It was a deeply profound experience for her, less so for me. I left her in our guide’s tender care and headed up to the portico to wait for her.
Even if it is all just a myth - that the House of Slaves never really held any slaves - it does serve as a powerful symbol of a very painful time in human history, one that should never be re-lived. For that reason alone, I encourage others to go and visit it.