Has anyone read Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family or seen the TV mini-series based on the book?
In the seventies, both the book and the TV series were a huge success. Roots sold over one million copies in its first year and won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The mini-series was watched by 130 million people.
In case you wouldn’t know, Roots tells the dramatized story of slavery in The Gambia. It follows author Alex Haley’s family line, starting with his famous ancestor Kunta Kinteh’s enslavement in 1767 to his descendants’ liberation.
Kunta Kinteh Island
Last week, I did an excursion in The Gambia which was entirely dedicated to Kunta Kinteh and his life as it was portrayed in Roots.
In the morning, we took a small cruise ship from Banjul to the North bank of the Gambia River. We first disembarked on Kunta Kinteh Island, formerly known as St. Andrew’s Island (named after a Portuguese sailor who died there of malaria). This used to be the last bit of African soil that many slaves saw before being transported in ships to the Americas.
Before exploring the ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage site, our guide told us about its history, about how the Germans built the fortifications, and how the island becomes smaller due to erosion and might be gone one hundred years from now.
He also told us stories about slavery in connection with Kunta Kinteh Island. We learned that prisoners were given mandatory names and that the slave trackers raped female slaves so that their children could serve them as well. The women then strangled their own babies to protect them from misery. What makes Kunta Kinteh’s story unique is that he fought to preserve his cultural heritage (like refusing to take the English name that the slave drivers gave him).
Kunta Kinteh Island is now uninhabited apart from a large colony of Golden Silk Spiders.
Slavery museum in Albreda
Next, we left by boat to go to Albreda and Juffureh.
As soon as we disembarked in Albreda, we were welcomed by a group of waving children and women who performed little tricks while crushing herbs. Poverty reigns in the village. A steady income is as good as non-existent and the inhabitants largely depend on small donations from passing tourists. Many of the villagers begged for money and were unwilling to take no for an answer. Most of them, however, just sat around talking and putting vegetables from one basket into another, while their dogs and goats slept next to them, numbed by the heat. Life is slow in Albreda.
Our first stop was the Albreda Slavery Museum, which mainly consisted of drawings, pictures, and informational panels. Outside the museum is an exact replica of a slave ship. The museum wasn’t anything special, but I think it’s worth visiting the area as it’s one of the poorest parts of The Gambia and really opens your eyes on poverty and different ways of life.
We then walked to Kunta Kinteh’s home village Juffereh. Once more, we were struck by the poverty of the place. Juffureh may be a historically important community with a famous ancestor, but life is not treating the people well here. The begging, which now involved tugging at our clothes, made us feel uncomfortable.
In Juffureh, we also met one of Kunta Kinteh’s descendants. She offered a certificate for sale as proof of our visit.
After the Roots Experience Tour, we thought the day’s adventure would be over. Actually, it had only just started.
While we were heading back to the south bank our boat’s motor broke down in the middle of the river. We had to be rescued. That meant waiting for a little canoe to row us to the mainland.
Back to where we started, we waited for a bus to pick us up at the entrance of Albreda. It was here that we learned that time in The Gambia had an entirely different meaning. Everything in The Gambia lasts twenty minutes, even if it’s two hours or forty minutes. "That’s how the term GMT was invented," our cruise coordinator joked. "You mean Greenwich Mean Time?" "Here it means Gambia Maybe Time. You can never be sure when someone or something will arrive."
After about an hour, a ramshackle little bus took us for an hour and a half drive to the ferry port. During the trip, one of my fellow travelers wanted to open the window but accidentally took out the glass instead. The air smelled of fresh herbs.
The ferry was a different story. I felt as if we were being transported inside a garbage container. The passengers were mainly locals. Some had their goats on a leash; some carried a coffin. An authentic experience, to say the least.
Back on shore, we immediately went to Poco Loco to enjoy our evening meals. There was singing on stage and the atmosphere was jolly. The crowd consisted mainly of white, older ladies and their young, black lovers. It was yet another part of this country - the part in which fun, comfort, and money took center stage. A small ginger cat found its way inside and perched itself on my lap - one of the many starving inhabitants of The Gambia.
Disclaimer: The Roots cruise was sponsored by The Gambia Tourism Board, Bamboo Garden Hotel, and SN Brussels Airlines. The opinions are my own.