Awakening to Africa's Brilliance

By Anita Gaul

The Museum of Black Civilizations, which showcases black historical and cultural contributions across the world, opened in Dakar in December 2018. Photo courtesy Cinder Cooper Barnes.

In this essay, Anita Gaul, a 2020 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, conveys how the experience transformed her understanding of West Africa and its incredible history, vitality, and brilliance. All images are courtesy of the author unless noted.


When people learned I was traveling to Senegal, their perception of Africa as dark, dangerous, unhealthy, unsafe, needy, and backwards could be seen in their comments and questions to me.


“Be careful over there, I hear it’s pretty dangerous,” people would caution.

The litany of diseases there, recited by my doctor during my pre-travel consultation.

“Do they have electricity?”

“Are you going to do mission work?” The most-often asked question, as if there were no other reason to go to Africa other than to help those poor, needy souls.


To the contrary, Africa is not some hopeless heart of darkness. It is the Cradle of Humanity.


When I answered the application question posed by CAORC about how participation in this seminar was essential for my professional development, I was honest. I wrote that my knowledge of West African and Senegalese history was weak. In all of my undergraduate and graduate schooling, I had never taken an African history course. Africa was mentioned only in passing in the courses I had taken. I intend to return World History classes to my institution’s regular rotation of course offerings—they are in the catalog, but haven’t been offered for years—but first I needed to learn more history myself.


Senegal was an eye-opener for me and an incredibly educational experience. I gained new insight, new knowledge, new perspectives. I tried new foods, heard new music, met new people, saw new sites, experienced new things. I asked questions—lots of questions—and the group leaders and tour guides patiently answered them all.


I learned about Senegal’s economy and government, and how the legacy of colonialism has affected both. I learned that colonialism is, in many ways, not over. I learned about the vibrancy of the arts in Senegal. I learned about the nation’s religious diversity and its unique form of Islam. I witnessed the beauty of its different landscapes. I learned more about the Atlantic Slave Trade.

What I learned benefited me, and in turn, will benefit my students as well.


Entrance to Maison des Esclaves ("House of Slaves") on Goree Island.

Touring the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) on Gorée Island was an impactful and emotionally wrenching experience. It is one thing to teach about the Atlantic Slave Trade in the abstract, but it is an entirely different experience to see the actual cells that held enslaved Africans and walk down the passage leading to the Door of No Return.

My American history textbook speaks of the slave trade, but uses tepid terms like “ominous” and “terrible” to describe it. These words cannot begin to capture to absolute horror that took place here. Seeing the slave house first-hand, standing on that ground, feeling those walls and almost hearing the cries of its former occupants can help me better understand and imagine its devastating impact. This I can share with my students, through photographs and telling about my personal experience.


The "Door of No Return" at Goree Island, looking out towards the Atlantic.

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar also provided a fresh perspective on history that will be incorporated into the World History courses I develop. It changed my thinking, altered my perspective, and re-oriented my gaze. Instead of looking at Africa from the West, it centered my gaze in Africa and looked outward from there.


An exhibit demonstrating Africa as the Cradle of Humanity helped me recognize Africa’s central role in the development of humankind. Africa is life-giving and vibrant. It is foundational. It is an integral part of our world, both past and present, and its importance will not be forgotten or overlooked in my curriculum.


The author wishes to thank Cinder Cooper Barnes for her insightful comments and suggestions on early versions of this article.

CAORC’s 2020 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.

About the Author

Anita Gaul is an instructor in history at Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington, Minnesota. She was one of 16 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2020.


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