In 1992, 1993 and 1998, I traveled to the West Coast of Africa as a tour guide with Haley Travel and Bill Haley. Bill Haley is the son of author Alex Haley who wrote “Roots,” a book discussing America’s history of slavery. At the time, these trips were probably the highlight of my travel life.
The Middle Passage was the crossing of the waterway from Africa to America, on which ships carried their cargo: Africans awaiting enslavement. It was called the Middle Passage because it was the middle section of the Atlantic trade route taken by many of the European ships. This was the transatlantic route: 1) outward passage – Europe to Africa, 2) middle passage Africa to America, 3) return passage America to Europe. During this era, the length of travel in good weather was seven to 11 weeks, and in bad weather 13 weeks.
In comparison, I flew from Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri, to JFK Airport in New York City. From there, I went to Yoff International Airport in Dakar, Senegal. The flight from JFK Airport to Yoff International was six hours. As the flight was in the landing pattern for Dakar International, many passengers – including my travelers and me – changed into African fashions to get ready for our destination.
Once we arrived at the airport in Dakar, I reminded travelers in my group that the airport was not the place to exchange their American dollars. Rather, they should only make that exchange at a bank or at the hotel in Dakar. Of course a few took the risk and exchanged money at the airport – which cost them.
We traveled from the airport to the Novotel Hotel. The rooms and the surroundings of this hotel were fabulous. Las Vegas hotels couldn’t hold a candle to this hotel at the time. In fact, hotels in Dakar were more than 5 star, in my opinion. In the rooms, les toilette was in a water closet, separate from the main bathroom, as is French culture. We felt very pampered at the Novotel. We were waited on hand and foot and treated like royalty. Senegalese locals were glad to see American tourists.
The first language in Senegal is French, and English is the second language. I got along pretty good for only knowing a few French conversational phrases. Islam was the main faith in West Africa. At the time of my travels, I was an active Muslim, well versed in the traditional ways of Islam. My knowledge of Arabic was more helpful than the little conversational French I knew.
On our first morning after breakfast in Dakar, Senegal, we gathered and boarded a tourist bus to go to the “market” to shop for everything from fabric to handmade stools to native Senegal art. At about noon on that first day, as we were boarding the tour bus, I could hear in the distance the Muslim call for prayer. I was so excited to be able to pray in an Islamic country. Once we arrived at the market, I made prayer with the locals, and after prayer I was surprisingly gifted with bolts of kente cloth, a wrist full of brass bangles, and a gold-edged Koran. I had a tailor make several outfits from the fabrics, which I later wore in America. Many of my friends adored my outfits so I gifted them.
I hosted the group to the island of Goree which lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th century, Goree was the largest slave-trading center on the African coast. This was a very emotional and sad experience for us. There were tears from everybody as we toured the slave prison, especially the Black tourists in the group. During the time of slave-trading Goree was a rainforest. Nothing was developed on this island except the prison for holding Africans for slave-trading. We were able to tour this prison, which is believed to be the doorway of no return. The quarters, or cells, forcibly held as many as 200 Africans. They were held in these tight quarters until the northern ships came, which could take many months.
After about nine more days of excitement, shopping, and making new friends, we were bound for The Gambia and the Atlantic Hotel. This took about six hours by tour bus, traveling during the late afternoon. The Atlantic Hotel was right next door to the palatial palace of the President of The Gambia.
Wouldn’t you know it, the next morning there was a coup going on at the same time we were leaving the Hotel for sightseeing. The military leader approached the lobby and instructed me to escort all Americans back into the hotel in case there was any shooting by the Gambian protestors. This was definitely not an easy task to accomplish. Everybody wanted to see what was happening. These folks were more interested in witnessing drama than their own safety. The stay in The Gambia was eventful.
Our next stay in West Africa was in Ghana, the final leg of our West African travels. The flight from Dakar, Senegal, to our final destination Accra, Ghana, meant we had to change planes in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) on our way to Accra. But there were three travelers in my group who were not going to make the flight to Accra, because the wife of one couple was very sick, and another traveler had an emergency back home in America.
Arriving in Abidjan airport, I first had to get everybody to the gate in time to make the flight to Accra. Second, I had to negotiate three tickets for emergency ticket-exchanges. The wife of this senior married couple had become very ill the day we left Dakar, so I had to get her back home to America, too. The Ticket Agents were very helpful in making the exchanges easy for me. The rest of the group and I made it to Accra on time.
We checked in at the Savanah Lodge in Accra, Ghana, an inn, not a hotel, small but nice. There were no televisions, or phones, or radios in the rooms. But when traveling, nobody stays cooped up in their room anyway. We did more shopping, and sightseeing. Around the third day in the country, we traveled from Accra to Elmina by tour bus to visit the slave prison there. That prison was much larger than the prison in Goree Island.
The curator led us through the dark and dismal tunnels where Africans were held waiting for the ships to take them to be enslaved in America. This was as emotional a tour as the one in Goree Island, maybe even more so. The curator told us about how Africans were brought out of the tunnels every morning to be hosed down, and how female Africans were sexually abused during the night. This was appalling to us all. After touring the prison, we returned to Accra to finish our visit.
After about 10 days in Accra, Ghana, we were on our way back home to America. The flight took us from Accra, Ghana to Abidjan, The Ivory Coast, to Dakar, Senegal and finally back to JFK Airport in New York to fly back to our respective home cities. I repeated this entire tour two more times in 1993 and 1998, and each trip was even more eventful every time.
I can’t believe I still remember many of the details of these travels. It must have made quite an impression on me, especially since this was my job. I hope this essay piques the interest of readers to start their own journeys, whether domestic or international. There is so much to learn in traveling. Travel is an education in itself.