The 2013 International Roots Festival is returning this spring to the Gambia. It’s a biennial event in which the West African nation reaches out to Africans in the Diaspora with a simple two-worded message:
The festival itself is built around the work of American author Alex Haley, who traced his familial heritage to the Gambia in his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The fishing village where Kunta Kinteh was born (and where his descendants remain) is still where, as is the island fort where he and other African captives were held before being shipped to America as slaves.
It’s also where a select number of festivalgoers will symbolically embrace their own African roots in a symbolic initiation ceremony called the futampaf.
I attended the festival in 2011, my first time on African soil. Those will forever be ten special days in my life. The YouTube slideshow above is the product of those ten days.
For more about my Gambian experience, look on the AFRICA page under West Africa, where you’ll find a series of articles titled WEST AFRICA JOURNAL.
And check IBIT in the days to come for more detailed information on this year’s RootsFest, and how you can be there yourself.
Some folks bring home T-shirts from their travels. I came home from West Africa with a new identity and two new names.
Of all the unexpected things that happened to me on my West Africa trip, this was perhaps the most remarkable.
I was part of a group from the United States attending the International Roots Festival in the Gambia. We expected to see and experience a lot, and we did:
A symposium on pan-Africanism, which is actually more of the driving force behind the Roots festival than the legacy of African slavery.
A parade — literally a parade — of West African cultures, which marked the festival’s opening.
A reception where we were treated to traditional Gambian dishes.
A bangin’ nightspot in the beachside tourist zone known as Senegambia.
The Tanjie Village Museum, a re-creation of traditional Gambian life and culture — and the only museum I’ve ever seen that included its own hostel.
A commercial fishing village, where men in long wooden boats called pirogues go out into the Atlantic to harvest multiple species of fish.
What we didn’t know was that our Gambian hosts had committed us to the futampaf, a rite of passage in the village of Kanilai, some 80 miles from the capital city of Banjul, which would culminate with each of us being adopted by a Gambian family.
You can read all about that experience in a three-part series entitled WEST AFRICA JOURNAL, My name is Yaya Colley. You’ll find it listed under “Africa” on the DESTINATIONS page of this blog.
That was a long, hard, bittersweet day for me in Kanilai. I wish I could’ve spent more time with my adoptive family, gotten to know them all a little better. We’d only just met, and yet it was truly hard for me to leave them.
It’s not just about what they gave me, but also what they took from me.
All the pessimism, all the self-doubt, all the second-guessing and negativity that goes with living all your life as a black man in America, never knowing or truly believing that it was possible to feel, to live, any other way. Gone.
I don’t know when or even if I’ll ever see them again, but I know I’ll be grateful to them for the rest of my life.
I did manage at least to shake the hand of the family patriarch whose name I was given, to let him know how proud I was to carry it.
I’d arrived in Kanilai as Greg Gross. I returned to Banjul two days later as Yaya Colley.
And it seemed as if all of the Gambia knew it.
The futampaf — indeed, all of the formal events of the Roots festival — had been shown across the country on the nation’s only television channel. The futampaf, presided over by President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh himself, had been broadcast live across the Gambia.
Now that we were back in Banjul, we could hardly go anywhere on the street without people waving to us and calling to us by our new Gambian names. Especially mine. Shouts of “Yaya Colley!” dogged us almost wherever we went.
This whole celebrity thing was going to take some getting used to, but I was already comfortable enough with my new identity to introduce myself to the folks in our hotel as “Yaya Colley.”
Not that it was really necessary. They already seemed to know.
So I was getting comfortable in my new African skin when I went to the Africell office to get a cell phone. At the urging of the festival aide who’d brought me there, I gave the young clerk my new Gambian name.
The clerk looked as if me might barely have been out of high school. Tall and lean, flawless skin the color of one of those very expensive dark chocolate bars they sell in those expensive specialty grocery stores (chocolate which most likely comes from another West African country, the Ivory Coast).
He hears the name. He doesn’t look as if he approves. Have i just unknowingly stepped on my first cultural landmine in Africa?
“I’m going to give you a name,” he says. “When someone in the Gambia asks you your name, you give them this name.”
The name he gives me is Bubacarr Jallow. His name.
The name Bubacarr, I learn later, is an Africanized spelling of the Arabic name Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam and the prophet Mohammad’s closest friend. He knows I’m not a Muslim. It doesn’t matter.
I am flattered beyond belief.
Then, my companion from the festival throws in the kicker: His name is Bubacarr, too.
“So instead of the Three Musketeers,” I tell them, “we’re now the Three Bubacarrs!”
Whenever you go in the world, there are people who want to sell you something. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, someone wants to give you something.
But when was the last time you met folks who wanted to give you their names?
I leave feeling extremely grateful and humble, but also a little nervous. I mean, what do I say if someone else here wants to give me their name?
“Thanks, but I already have three and I’m trying to cut down?”
“Sorry, but my doctor has me on a low-identity diet?”
Eventually, we left the Gambia and caught our return flight from Dakar in Senegal to Washington DC. According to my passport, I am still the man who had left from Washington Dulles International eight days earlier.
But my soul knows better. Way down in there, I am now equal parts of Greg Gross, Yaya Colley and Bubacarr jallow.
How do you explain to Customs and Immigration that you left home as one person, and returned as three? And filling out job applications could be a lot more time-consuming in the future.
But that’s what happened.
These are the kinds of souvenirs that never end up collecting dust on a shelf or disappearing in a drawer. These, to the last day of your life, never leave you.
If you’ve never been to Africa before, especially if you’re a black American, West Africa may be the best region to get your introduction to the Mother Continent. That’s what I did, in the Gambia.
And if you’ve been keeping up with the West Africa Journal I posted after my trip, you know I’ll never be the same.
The pretext for my visit was the International Roots Festival, a biennial commemoration of the Gambia’s legacy in the African slave trade, as documented by author Alex Haley in his book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
We visited the village of Juffureh, where Haley located the descendants of his African ancestor, Kunta Kinteh. They’re still there and we met them. We saw the Slavery Museum there, which exhibits the iron “implements” used to bind and shackle the captives.
We also cruised up the Gambia River to James Island, where Kinteh and perhaps as many as 1 million Africans were warehoused before being loaded onto slave ships for the long cruise across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and a life of forced servitude.
And we were there when it was renamed Kunta Kinteh Island.
We met a British woman who has been compiling records on hundreds of European slave ships. Thanks to her, I now have the names of three “slavers” that sailed into Louisiana in the 1700s — the Betsey and Hennie, the Ruby and the Prince de Conty. The odds are pretty good that my own ancestors arrived from Africa on one of those three ships.
And of course, there was the futampaf, the rite of passage through which i was adopted by a Gambian family and given the name ofYaya Colley. In all, 38 African descendants from the United States, the UK and the Caribbean (including Jamaican reggae star Luciano), went through it.
The country describes itself as “the smiling coast of Africa.” It sounds like a lame bit of marketing, until you start meeting Gambians and realize:
They take it seriously, and
They do everything they can trying to live up to it.
Like the family in the village of Kanilai who adopted me.
Like the parking lot attendant who invites you to the naming ceremony for his newborn child, after meeting you the day before.
Like the Tourism Ministry aide who stayed with us long after his working hours were over, helping us out, so long that he lost the use of his government car and had to take a cab home. We practically had to waterboard him before he’d let us pick up his cab fare.
Like the hotel maid who, seeing me washing out shirts in the bathroom sink, took them without being asked, washed them, ironed them and left them neatly folded in the middle of my bed — along with the $20 bill she found in my shirt pocket.
And if you’re a black American visiting the Gambia, what you may see as a vacation, they treat as a homecoming. They aren’t merely happy to see you. They’re overjoyed. And they can’t do enough for you.
Gambian Muslims speak of celebrating Christmas with their Christian neighbors, while their Christian counterparts celebrate Muslim holy days with them. The country is 95 percent Muslim and 5 percent Christian, but if there are any tensions or conflicts between the two, they’re extremely well hidden.
There’s tremendous poverty in the Gambia, especially in the countryside, where electricity and running water are exotic luxuries or simply unknown for many. Like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, the country is battling malaria, which kills about 1 million Africans a year.
But the people’s spirit remains warm, upbeat, irrepressible.
By themselves, without the great beaches, five-star hotels or rich cultural heritage, they make the Gambia a place worth coming to, or in my case, coming back to.
The futampaf will be a day of dust, dance and sacrifice. The man who leaves here will be far different from the one who came.
The heat of the Gambian dry season is in full force in the village of Kanilai as we wait for the arrival of President Yahya Y.J.J. Jammeh in Kanilai to officially begin the futampaf. Everyone seeks the shade of the nearest tree.
The crowd surrounding us grows steadily through the morning, until everyone seems to merge together, the initiates with their families and people who’ve come just to watch.
The president is due here at 10 a.m. But this is Africa, not Germany. Timetables are treated more like theories, schedules more like suggestions. There is nothing to do but roll with it.
Our newly adoptive families surround us, find chairs for us, keep us supplied with a steady stream of bottled water, some of it frozen, and fresh fruit, peeled oranges and incredibly sweet limes. We stand and sit and get to know one another a little bit.
The arrival of a long black armored Hummer limo signals the arrival of President Jammeh, accompanied by squads of soldiers and a truck sporting a Dshk heavy machine gun, nicknamed “Dushka” or “dear” by their Russian manufacturers.
(Know any vets from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan? Ask them about Dushka, especially if they’re helicopter pilots. They can tell you all about her…)
With the president’s arrival, we troop over to the small pavilion where he and his entourage will be sitting.
Now, it begins.
WATER AND BLOOD
The president walks down the line, pouring water into our hands for us to wash our faces. A very humble gesture for a head of state, I think.
Our eldest adoptive sister sitting in front of us, between our knees. throughout, men with microphones are making speeches in English and Wolof, the main indigenous language in the Gambia.
Small amounts of explosives are set off, simulating cannon fire, to ward off evil. With each blast, the concussions spread across the ground like waves. Each wave feels like a giant hand, trying to push you off your feet and into the next life.
The speeches continue. The president fires blasts into the air from an over-under shotgun. I’m thinking these are blanks, until leaves and branches begin falling on our heads. But I am unconcerned.
Again, the president pours water into our hands, and I’m grateful. The dust is almost oppressive now.
Here come the chickens. I see knives. Now, I am concerned.
One by one, each of us initiates has a chicken circled three times around his head. Then, it begins. The sacrifice.
I can tell that it is meant to be quick. It is not quick. It is awful. In front of me, my adoptive sister recoils. I do my best to shield her eyes.
In turn, she uses her own dress to wipe off the blood that has splattered the length of my arms.
More speeches, then the sacrifice is over. We gratefully troop off toward the shade of a baobab tree, where we will be dressed in more garments for the next phase of the futampaf.
Some member of our new family is supposed to carry us on his shoulders. Pa looks at me. I shake my head.
“Today,” I tell him, “you carry me in your heart. Shoulders, next time.”
Pa smiles. I may have just saved a life.
LEARNING TO DANCE
The male and female initiates are led away to separate compounds, out of sight of one another. We spend the next several hours being prepared for the culmination of the ceremony, the dance that each of us must do, alone, in front of the president.
There are other things that happen, but these are the parts I’m not allowed to talk about.
Night is falling as we finally troop into a small soccer stadium for the culmination of this day. the cloud of dust raised by our approach is so thick, we can barely breathe. We lift a portion of our ceremonial garments to cover our noses and mouths. It’s a bit undignified, but it’s either that or asphyxiate in a blinding cloud of beige dust.
The bleachers are packed with spectators. Photographers and cameramen are everywhere. This part of the futampaf is being broadcast live throughout the country.
One last time, our trainers show us what we’re supposed to do — but what they’re showing us now is not what we just spent the last several hours trying to learn. We’ve been had.
But it’s too late now.
One by one, we’re led to the red-carpet runway to dance our way up to the president and bow at the foot of the steps. Some of us are good, a few very good.
Me? The president didn’t even wait for me to reach the steps. He came down to get me. That’s how bad I was. All I can say is that I tried.
Then, it was the turn of the women. As a group, they definitely did a better job than we did.
As each of us finished our dance, we shook hands with the president and were presented with two new garments, brocaded caftans known as boubous. No two are the same. Mine is a thing of beauty, trimmed in silver and black. The president helps slip this over my head.
I return to my seat on the grass.
It’s over. The futampaf is done.
We say good-bye to our new Gambian families. They tell me I am not just a Colley now, but an elder. They promise to send me email, and when they do, they will sit together and do it as a family.
I shake the hand of the grandfather whose name I have been given. I thank him for his gift and tell him I will do my best to honor his name.
I’m sure he thinks I’m just being polite. He has no idea what he’s done for me. None of them do. And for all the words in the English language, I have no way to tell them.
Dinner at the Sindola Safari Lodge, then back to Social Security housing for one last night before returning to Banjul in the morning.
The true futampaf lasts for two months. This highly condensed version serves to give us a taste of Gambian culture and a feeling of re-connection to our heritage as Africans.
But it has done something far more than that to me.
In the dim moonlight filtering into the tour bus, I look at my reflection in the window. I do not recognize the man I see there. He is spent, inside and out, covered in dust, streaked with sweat, splattered in blood.
He also looks more dignified, more proud and self-assured than anyone I have ever seen wearing that face.
The face of an elder.
Whose name is Yaya Colley.
FOOTNOTE: Conversation with a chicken
Sacrifices are common in many cultures around the world, but no longer in the West. I am horrified that chickens are now going to be killed on our behalf as part of this ceremony.
But why? I’m no vegan, and let’s face it, those aren’t tofu wings they’re serving at KFC.
The truth is that live animals are killed on my behalf every day. I’m just not there to see it. But on this day, I will be. And I feel terribly unworthy of this.
That is why, privately, silently, I had a conversation with the chicken the younger Colley is holding for me.
Mostly, it was just a long, semi-coherent plea for forgiveness.
Through its unblinking eyes, the chicken broke it down for me.
In my world, my artificial, unreal Western world, we don’t dirty our hands with the realities of life. We pre-package life, sanitize and sterilize life. We distance ourselves from death, cringe, shrink and recoil from death. Squeamish and afraid.
We willingly send our young people off to war to shield us from our enemies, and even more from our fears. That’s fine, that’s all good.
Just don’t show us their coffins when you bring them home. That, we find too upsetting.
In doing this, perhaps we give death more power over us than we realize, and definitely more than it deserves.
In the world that most people live in, life and death come together, part of the same package. To be worthy of one, you must deal with the other. Face to face. Hands on.
Be worthy of this, that look said to me. Be worthy of this life you’re being given. Be worthy of this blood of mine.
Two neighbors — Senegal and the Gambia — offer travelers this winter a choice of festivals devoted to the culture and history of Africa and the African diaspora.
In the process, they also show how African neighbors can beat the legacy of colonialism to peacefully co-exist — and give the traveler two worthwhile destinations in a single trip.
These are the times that try men’s overcoats, the season when folks north of the Equator — and my friends east of the Mississippi — start looking for any justifiable reason to flee the icy grip of winter.
Senegal and the Gambia are teaming up to offer two, a pair of major festivals celebrating black heritage in art, culture and history.
It’s only the third time in 54 years that this gathering of Afrocentric art, music and culture has ever been held. The first was held in Senegal in 1966, a mere six years after the country had gained its independence. Nigeria hosted the second one in 1977. Now, it returns to Dakar, with its original title and trans-Atlantic focus, courtesy of the nation invited as the festival’s guest of honor: Brazil.
Indeed, the festival plans to turn the streets of the Senegalese capital into a kind of Rio East — street parades, concerts, dance performances, Brazilian dishes from restaurant and street vendors.
But even that is just a small part of the total festival package. Virtually all the Mother Continent will be represented.
There will be exhibits on African art, music, dance, fashion, architecture, sports, as well as the contributions of Africans and Africans in the diaspora to science and technology. Goree Island, infamous as one of the departure points for slave ships to the Americas, will host a book fair devoted to the African renaissance. Black films and filmmakers will be on hand, along with prominent black chefs showcasing the cuisines of Africa and black cultures around the world.
A special forum of artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, journalists and scientists will take on theme of African resistance, focusing on the contributions of the black people to global civilization, from the rediscovery of the ancient Black-African civilizations in the Nile region to Africa’s current place in global affairs.
Short form: Expect to leave tired but happy.
INTERNATIONAL ROOTS FESTIVAL
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Alex Haley’s ground-breaking book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” and the even more ground-breaking TV mini-series based on it.
It made Haley an icon of black culture, made stars of Ben Vereen, LeVar Burton, John Amos and Louis Gossett Jr. It launched countless numbers of black Americans on a quest to trace their own family heritage, a quest that turned ancestral research, complete with DNA comparisons, into a national industry.
And it sent thousands of black Americans on their own personal journeys to the Mother Continent.
All of that brings you back to one place, the Gambia, the focus of Haley’s writing.
The International Roots Festival, set for 4-8 Feb in the capital city of Banjul, is now an annual event in the Gambia, and it will take you where Haley’s story took the world, to his ancestral home in Juffureh, to James Island, another of those slave ports, and to the culture, music, history and tastes of the Gambia.
You also will see festival guests undergoing the rite of passage known as futampaf, in which they will be formally inducted int a Gambian family in Kanilai.
But perhaps the coolest thing about either of these festivals is that, for you the traveler, the geography and colonial history of both Senegal and the Gambia work out to your advantage.
How? By giving you the chance to visit two vibrant and tranquil West African countries in a single trip.
The English-speaking Gambia is the smallest nation in Africa, a sliver of a country whose borders barely seem to extend beyond the river that gives the country its name. Even more odd to your eye: The entire country is encompassed within the territory of French-speaking Senegal.
In fact, a look at a map would suggest that Senegal more or less swallowed the Gambia. But theirs is a relationship that much of Africa — indeed, much of the world — could learn from. Each maintains its own sovereignty and its own identity, but their relationship is one of neighbors and friends.
To put it another way: They don’t call this “the smiling coast of Africa” for nothing.
Which means that, if you plan it right, a trip to either country for either festival could well include a side trip to its neighbor. Two West African countries for the cost of one vacation.
Something to think about while you turn up the thermostat. Again.