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Marcia DeSanctis Headshot

In Senegal too, a Day of Change

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There was no dancing in the street, but there was rapt attention, and high-fives with big grins for me, one of the few Americans on Gorée Island today. Obama tee-shirts were everywhere, the one with the President in Ray-Bans. The scene in Washington was playing out in real time on CNN, even here, on this tiny drop of land shaped like the human heart, which sits in the Atlantic a mile and a half from Dakar, Senegal. Gorée doesn't have bragging rights to Barack Obama, like Kenya does, but it does have other, older roots to the New World. Two hundred years ago it was a center of the African slave trade.

The island is a pristine colonial town lined with baobab trees and low-slung pastel buildings, one of which, a small walk from the ferry, is the House of Slaves. There is a long dispute about how many Senegalese actually passed through this stone prison, a holding pen where men and women were weighed, kept and boarded onto ships. Sitting here on this of all days, it hardly matters. One slave was too many, and as a symbol, this museum carved the deepest scars in America's past. They are embodied in the oversized door that sits without a grate right on the edge of the ocean, waves tossing below, intact for all these years. One step, and you were crossing the Atlantic, leaving your home forever, in chains. Today, people were looking through that opening towards America with genuine trust, laughing and weeping with joy.

It was breathtaking, not only because of the region's history, so tragically intertwined with America's. Senegal is ninety five percent Muslim, and today, with conflicts lurching towards intractability in two Muslim countries, they loved us. One businessman, Edouard, seemed ready as I was to leave the last eight years behind, to move on. "No hard feelings!" he said, as if - poof - George Bush hadn't even happened.

The people here shared in our story watching the inauguration today. It looked like a fairy tale, the American kind. We got it together and by electing Obama, laid out the terms of our own redemption. In the process, maybe we became slightly better people. The bloodlust for the Bushies seems gone to the dustbin already, just the beginning of the massive clean-up awaiting us, President Obama most of all. Maybe this is part of the duty he spoke of today - to start to move forward as a civilization again. The nation -- all of us -- has important business. People in Senegal seem ready to get on with it, too.

I would have liked to be in Washington today, but in Senegal, as around the world, it was a great day to be a US citizen. One man in my travels to Gorée was chanting the President's name with wide-open vowels. "Ohh-baaa-maaa," he said slowly.

I asked him what he liked about Obama and he answered, "He's one of us."

"Do you mean a black man? An African?" I asked. I meant, the shared experience that darkened every stone on Gorée Island.

"No. One of us. A man!" he said, "Just," he waved his hand at the restaurant crowd, as we sat waiting for the ferry, "A real human being."

One man, and a world of hope.

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