Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 15 News List

Tourists retrace the steps of slaves toward abolition

AFP , Saint Louis, Senegal

"There are lots of people who are descended from slaves here, but no one dares to say anything," fisherman Birahime Beye said sadly, tending his nets in a public park at the heart of Senegal's historic capital Saint Louis.

A key transit point for the untold numbers of Africans ripped from their homes and sold into slavery from the 15th century, Saint Louis these days seems blanketed by a collective amnesia, its inhabitants leery of resurrecting -- or even acknowledging -- its horrible history.

Similar legacies burden much of coastal west Africa, from massive Mauritania to the tiny archipelago of Cape Verde -- all of them collecting points for innocents sent in chains to a watery death or an uncertain future in servitude as they made their way to Europe.

These days, however, the migration is going in the opposite direction as the coastal towns, with their bucolic beaches and tranquil ambiance, attracting tourists. And increasingly, those tourists are seeking out the shameful past that locals would just as soon forget.

Cape Verde has seized on the opportunity to turn a page on its slave-trading culture by embracing it, turning the Cidade Velha into a world heritage site with a little help from Spain and Portugal -- two countries with equally painful ties to slave trading from west Africa.

"One cannot understand Cidade Velha unless one sees its roots -- a colony founded by Portugal to traffic slaves," said Cape Verde historian Antonio Correia e Silva.

Since the late 1990s, Cape Verde authorities have been painstakingly rebuilding Cidade Velha, the first town claimed by Portugal south of the Tropic of Cancer, into a living museum, rehabilitating 15th-century outposts such as the Saint Filipe fort, its cathedral and its

monastery.

The restoration is modeled along the lines of Senegal's Goree Island, which traces the slave-trading routes that stretched from Africa across the Atlantic.

But while Senegal celebrates the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery on Saturday, northern neighbor Mauritania continues to grapple with the repression by one population of another.

Though slavery was officially abolished twice, first in 1981 and then by law last year, it continues in one form or another with the tacit approval of local authorities in many parts of the massive northwest African country, human rights advocates say.

"Ever since the [2003] law was passed, we have seen that any disputes are resolved in favor of the privileged, protecting criminals against any judicial consequences," said Abdul Aziz Niang, vice president of the group SOS-Esclaves.

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