Monday, May 15, 2006

Dreams of Africa

Some of you may have read last week about a man named Victor Mooney, a Brooklynite with a dream of rowing from Goree Island (Dakar) to New York. He built his own boat out of a converted pirogue, trained for three years, and secured sponsorship from a Catholic church in NYC. Victor then spent nearly a month living on Goree, a beautiful island reputed to be the point of departure for slave ships bound for the Americas. He had to get his boat repaired, he didn't speak French or Wolof, and he was followed around by two crazy African American women from the church who ranted about the glory of God and the suffering of the African people. One of them called herself the Queen Mother. He was doing it for AIDS; he was doing it for slavery; he was doing it for God. All the Goree islanders knew was that he was doing something difficult and a bit crazy, and that he wasn't likely to make it. So on the morning of May 7th Victor Mooney set off on a trip that fewer than 50 people have ever successfully completed.

AP sent me out to Goree early that morning to see him off, take pictures and gauge local reactions. As the ferry pulled up to the island I could see the colorful little hand-made vessel bobbing around next to the dock. Two women dressed all in white were waving at each boat that went past, and when I approached and greeted one in French she said "Good morning!" slowly and purposefully as though she were speaking to a child. I could only imagine how she had been speaking to the Senegalese. Victor was there, puttering about his boat and looking like a man about to be executed.

At 9:00 the New Yorkers set off for the old slave house, followed by a handful of curious islanders and nearly as many press photographers. As we snapped pictures, Victor visited each room in the building, covered his face in dust from the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to the "door of no return" -- supposedly the door through which the slaves were loaded onto the ships. His religious companions were weeping and wailing, and as Victor stood on the threshold tears streaked his cheeks. The Queen Mother cried "God is the greatest!" as he leapt down onto the rocks, climbed into the water, and swam to his little boat. It was high drama for a Sunday morning. The Senegalese audience looked supportive but bemused, and within minutes after Victor left everyone had scattered.

What I later learned is that there was more to this story, and that philanthropy is a complex thing. Mass, a friend of Victor's, explained to me that the Americans had angered a lot of people on the island by assuming that, because Victor was rowing for a charitable cause, everyone who helped him should do so for free. "He insisted that people do things for him out of charity," Mass said. "I didn't like that." After all, who was Victor Mooney but a rich American with a bizarre dream?

The ideological basis of the operation also confused people. Victor had tried to make his voyage into an expression of pan-Africanism, trying to breach religious and cultural divides by allying himself with Catholics, Muslims and mystics alike. He had been to speak with the marabout Touba, whose image had been placed in a prominent position on the boat. As a result, the Catholic church on Goree would have nothing to do with him. "That's just not the way we do things here," Mass sniffed. I couldn't help but wonder what the women in white thought about that.

So Victor rowed into the Atlantic for Africa, leaving behind him an island of people who didn't understand his motives, didn't approve of his ideology and would rather have been paid for their work than have someone kill himself on their behalf. He didn't last long. Later that evening, I was walking through Dakar when a man ran up to me sputtering that he had seen me on Goree and knew I was writing a story on the American rower. There was news. Victor Mooney had only made it a couple of hours into international waters when his boat sprung a leak (he later blamed Senegalese carpenters) and was overcome by waves. Victor himself was rescued by the Senegalese navy, taken back to Goree and flown home to New York. After three years of training, his dream had been cut short in less than a day. Back on the island he was quoted as saying he would never attempt the crossing again. "It's finished!" he exclaimed. And so it was.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.