Governor General joins anti-slavery battle in Africa

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Michaelle Jean has been drawing attention in Africa for declaring that slavery still exists, and on Friday she visited a dungeon with a dark past to illustrate her point.

The Governor General's statement about the plight of children in Senegal was being widely reported in the country's media. Her visit made the front page of several newspapers Friday.

GOREE ISLAND, Senegal -

Michaelle Jean has been drawing attention in Africa for declaring that slavery still exists, and on Friday she visited a dungeon with a dark past to illustrate her point.

The Governor General's statement about the plight of children in Senegal was being widely reported in the country's media. Her visit made the front page of several newspapers Friday.

Jean's sentiments are echoed in a new report by the Human Rights Watch organization, which describes as slavery the common Senegalese practice of religious schools sending children out to beg for money, often beating them when they don't come back with enough.

"Exploitation of Children In Senegal: Michaelle Jean Calls It Slavery," was one headline in Le Quotidien newspaper, the day after she surprised some journalists at the presidential palace with her blunt assessment while standing next to the country's president.

An estimated 27 million people today live in modern-day slavery, as unpaid labourers, forced sex workers, and exploited children, and some suggest there are more slaves in the world now than at any point in human history.

Jean used a visit to the former slave-trading centre of Goree Island to illustrate her point for the second day in a row.

She was received jubilantly by dancing and singing locals on the pastel-coloured island, now a tourist destination and UN World Heritage Site, where the French established a slave trading post in 1776.

Jean toured a former prison where slaves were once chained to walls by their necks; where children were crammed, in the words of her tour guide, "like fish in a sardine can," with 150 of them stuck in a separate dungeon half the size of a bowling alley; where men were sold for the price of a barrel of rum, while women fetched four times less if they didn't have attractive physical endowments.

At the end of the tour, a teary-eyed Jean said the tragedy of slavery persists. But she said descendents of former slaves and slave-owners can work together to help stop modern-day exploitation.

"This place is not about the history of black peoples. It's about us all," Jean told Canadian and Senegalese journalists afterward.

"Whether we are of European descent, and probably related to those who committed that crime of slavery and slave trade, or whether we are of African descent, we all belong to that history."

She delivered a similarly contemporary message four years ago during a visit to Ghana. During a visit to a similar prison there, she first knelt to the ground and broke into sobs, then waved off a question about what special meaning the place carried for someone like her, the descendant of African slaves.

Jean repeated Friday that it would be a mistake to view slavery uniquely through the prism of African history.

"It's about us all. And it's about how life can triumph over barbarism. And we must stand together today, to really fight every situation that denies rights, dignity and humanity to people in the world today. Slavery is still a fact today, in so many different ways," she said.

"Human-trafficking, injustices, are still a reality today. But we are together - and we can say no to it. It's a responsibility."

On Friday, Jean also addressed a school where Canadian aid money has helped train young Senegalese journalists over the years and, on the second full day of her 10-day trip to Africa, she met with a women's group after touring Goree's House of Slaves.

Just outside that old prison, young Amadou Guisse works 10 hours a day. He began working three years ago, when he was only 10. Guisse follows tourists onto a ferry boat, and works for a few dollars on the ride back and forth from the capital, Dakar, asking people if they need their shoes shined.

He shook his head when asked whether he keeps any of the money.

"It's for my family," he said. "Everything."

Organizations: Human Rights Watch organization, House of Slaves

Geographic location: Africa, Goree, Senegal Ghana Dakar

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