Plans for the biennial festival honoring those caught up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and honoring their descendants in the African Diaspora have unraveled. Why? Who knows?
It seems there will be no International Roots Festival this year in the Gambia.
Held every two years to commemorate the trans-Atlantic slave, the festival is based on the writings of Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” which began in the Gambia. It was held in early February, during the dry season.
Organizers made a special point of inviting visitors from across the African Diaspora — especially from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean and the United States — to attend.
IBIT was there in 2011 and made some wonderful new friends. Among them was Aadam Muhammad from London, who had bought a travel package to return to the Gambia for this year’s festival.
It was from Aadam that I learned that the festival had been cancelled. He had confirmed it first through the London travel company through which he had bought his Gambia package, then through the national tourism board in the Gambia itself.
Disappointing as this cancellation is, the circumstances surrounding it are, in their own way, even more disturbing. Why? Because no one knows what those circumstances are.
Well, someone knows what they are. They just aren’t sharing that information with the public.
To date, the only public word on the cancellation I’ve been able to find is this terse announcement on the festival’s Web site:
“The Ministry of Tourism and Culture regrets to announce that the International ROOTS festival slated for May 2013 has been postponed till further notice. Any inconvience(sp) caused is deeply regreted.(sp)”
The announcement uses the word “postponed” instead of “cancelled,” but with the less tourist-friendly wet season fast approaching, the likelihood of this event being held any time in 2013 would seem pretty slim.
So what happened? So far, it’s all a big mystery. Not a word about it anywhere in Gambian news media. Nothing from the tourism ministry’s own site. Nothing from the home pages of the Gambian embassies in the US or the UK.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Aadam wasn’t having any more luck than I was, even after personally contacting the GTA’s marketing director in the Gambia:
“I asked why it was cancelled and he seemed as if he didn’t want to fully disclose the reason. When I asked him if this cancellation has been officially stated on the primary Roots homecoming festival website, he once again chose not to respond clearly. For all we know, people may still be planning to attend; purchase tickets make other arrangements.”
I sent an email to the Gambian Tourism Authority, asking what happened, using the email link the GTA provides on its Web site. The email bounced back to me moments later, almost certainly unseen by anyone.
In hindsight, perhaps I should’ve seen this coming.
You know how certain things, when they happen, cause the little hairs on the back of your neck to stand up? I had that sensation when I first heard that the festival, initially scheduled for February per usual, had been reset for March. March then became May, which then became June, then back to May.
When a festival date becomes a moving target, for whatever reason, that will make you nervous.
The next clue came when friends who work in Gambian hotels told me they had been furloughed, right around the time that the festival was due to take place. As red flags go, that’s a big one.
When Aadam told me of hearing of the festival’s cancellation, it confirmed my worst fears.
I don’t know what happened in the Gambia to bring this about. So far, that information seems to be a big, tightly held secret. But winning back the trust of prospective visitors to “the smiling coast of Africa” will be a daunting task, indeed.
What a letdown.
It also points to the need to cover yourself with some form of travel insurance that offers you a chance to recover all your expenses when things go wrong.