Saturday, 12 November 2011

Bunce Island

Yesterday we went on a trip to Bunce Island.  I'd been talking with some friends about it being on my list of places I wanted to see before I left Sierra Leone, and there were quite a few people who agreed with me.  So myself and three friends poured over the nursing schedule and realized... we had none of the same days off.  Luckily, trading shifts is not too hard, and so we found a day that looked to be easiest for all of us to get a day off, and somehow I was organizing this trip.  Got the number of "a guy with a boat" who could take us to the island from a spot a short walk from the ship, negotiated briefly for a decent price, and sent out the word that we could fit up to 15 people in the boat. 
Less than a week later, at 8:45am, we were meeting in the cafe with our packed lunches, water bottles, sunscreen, bugspray, hats, sunglasses and reading material for the long ride.  Myself and twelve others (11 nurses!  Yes, we left a few on the ship.), all geared up for a day in the sun. 
Now, I knew basically where the boat would be, but as we went out the main gates of the port and walked off to the side in the direction of the closest slum, I paused a second.  Have you ever been to the dump?  In sandals, on a hot day?  Add the fact that the area is also used as an outdoor toilet, and as a place to take a bath or wash your clothes and you're beginning to get the picture.  Careful steps down a dirt embankment to the shore.  Walking on piles of hard plastic bits, random bits of unusable garbage and rotting things, and trying to avoid anything that squishes.  I accidently stepped in a bit of..uh.. I mentioned it's used as a bathroom, right?... 'nuf said! 
Down at the water line, we met Mohammed.  A local man who speaks fairly good english, and was the one I had called about the boat ride.  He met us with a smile and a handshake and was eager to begin the day.  The trash didn't end on the shore line, and was gently floating in the first few feet of the gently lapping waves.  I had been warned ahead of time that the way they get you onto the local boats is carrying you. I looked at how... gross! the water was, and even though I considered refusing, when he motioned to me to come closer so he could pick me up... I stepped forward and allowed myself to be the first deposited into the boat. 
Let me say: It is a humbling experience.  To walk through trash, knowing people live and work in this daily. To allow someone to carry you when you are perfectly capable of walking.  I am priviledged.  And yet I am no more deserving than the man who was carrying me. 
Our boat was a timber canoe, with spaces left between the floorboards specifically for bailing purposes. And they did bail out water a couple of times during the ride.  The boat was wide and deep enough we could have crammed 40 or 50 people on it if we wanted to sink it down close to the water line, but for our purposes, it was a great size.  Motor at the back revved up, and we were off on our adventure, saying goodbye to our mother ship for the day!

 Almost 3 hours in the boat going up a massively wide river, we had plenty of time for goofy pictures...
 And time to fall asleep in the middle of the boat
 We swung by a few small docks where they grabbed cooking oil and fuel for the motor, waving at the villagers as they called out "apato, apato" which means foreigner.  Nothing quite like the whole village running along the shore waving and yelling out to you!
Finally, after almost 3 hours, we arrived at Bunce Island.  Where only a couple of security guards were there to greet us.
 Once again, we were carried, though this time the waters were only muddy, and not garbage filled.
 We were then shown the rules of the island.  A little hard to read, and slightly humerous.  The guest book that everyone "has to" sign was taken by the man who used to run the tours (he quit a little while ago).  So there was no book, and they were trying to find a new one or get the old one back.  The bathroom facilities you are required to use... don't exist.  And half the rules are written in such light paint that you can barely read them.  Oh well, good to know what the rules are!
 Our boat driver, Mohammed, then proceeded to start the tour, telling us stories and guiding us around the island as though he himself was the tour guide.  Not sure if he had all of his info correct, but it was interesting none-the-less, and definitely thought provoking.  Here's a well beside possibly the biggest tree on the island.  One of the tree roots goes straight down the well like a rope hanging into the depths!
 In the hundreds of years since the island fortress has been used, nature has taken over.  One of my friends commented on how any place with so many negative emotions was bound to crumble and fall apart.  It is amazing how nature takes over!

 What is Bunce Island?  Well you can look it up on the internet, but the basics is, it was an old slave castle.  The local people who had captured slaves in wars or other means and wanted to trade them for goods would bring them to this isolated island and sell them there.  After a while of "processing" they were ready to be negotiated over and sold to slave ships bound for the southern states.  Apparently, the people from this area were really good at growing rice, and were specifically chosen to be sent to rice growing areas in the states to help the plantations grow mass amounts.  Of course, a place like this provided lots of potential profits and so was guarded with canons, which are one of the few objects still left other than the stone walls of buildings.

The first place the slaves were taken was a holding room, meant to see if they were healthy enough to make it all the way to America.  The small wooden opening you see half hidden behind a portion of tree root is about 3 feet high.  When you duck in there, there's a steep dirt slope down into a cave-like room.  We called it the bat cave, because that's what it now is... see girls all ducking to avoid having a bat fly into them!  This room is where slaves were kept for 3 days without food or water.  The ones that were alive at the end of this time were ready to be branded and seperated by gender, waiting to be selected and sold to slave traders for goods such as fabric, guns, salt, beads.

 At the end of our tour, we were taken to see the graveyard.  It was surprisingly small, knowing how they allowed so many to die in their first three days here.  The graveyard has a row of stones seperating the "white side" from the "black side".  Engraved stones mark the graves of white men, telling of what great men they were.  Except for one marked grave of a tribal chief on the black side, it is a blank slate.  Unmarked.  These are the forgotten.  
 I spent my first Rememberance day outside of Canada at a Slave trading castle.  Instead of fallen soldiers, we all took time to remember those whose lives were lost or forever changed by slavery.  It was definitely a different kind of day, lots to think about.  I'm glad I took the opportunity.

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