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.
When it comes to travel and tourism, West Africa is sitting on a potential gold mine. Much work needs to be done, but the opportunity is clearly there, waiting.
There once was a British colony in West Africa called the Gold Coast. Built on trade, slavery and dedicated to the proposition that Africa existed solely to make Europe rich.
Look at West Africa today and you see the potential for a different kind of Gold Coast, a new mecca for international travel.
Thousands of miles of coastline. Unspoiled habitats. People with international reputations for welcoming visitors. How much more does one region need to succeed?
Resort tourism. Eco-tourism. Adventure tourism. Cultural tourism. Heritage tourism. Sport fishing. Surfing. Food. Music. Even high fashion. The nations of West Africa contain elements that lend themselves to any or all of this. And the region is perfectly positioned to take advantage.
Start with the geography.
Being close to the Equator gives it a warm tropical climate within an easy flight of Europeans ever eager to escape their brutal winters.
But the real surprise comes when you look to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. West Africa is closer to the United States than any other part of the Mother Continent.
That’s critical, because that geography also plays a key role in creating what may be the most powerful lure for West African travel: heritage tourism from the Americas.
The West African region was Ground Zero for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a triangular route in the northern and mid-Atlantic.
At the height of its 400-year run, Europeans were taking captive Africans from eight principal regions on the Mother Continent; coastal West Africa covers six of them.
If you’re black and were born anywhere on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a good chance that your DNA can be found somewhere here.
The success of Alex Haley’s book “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” and the wildly successful TV series that followed it, showed clearly the interest that black Americans have in learning about and reclaiming their African heritage. In West Africa, you can see that heritage for yourself, hear it, taste it, hold it in your hands.
From New York City or Washington DC, your flight to Dakar, the capital of Senegal, will last a shade over seven and a half hours. From Atlanta, about eight and a half.
If you’ve ever flown from the West Coast of the United States to virtually anywhere in Europe or Asia, you know that any flight under ten hours is a snap.
From South America, where the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is at least as strong — and the memory at least as painful — as it is here in the States, the flight times are even better:
Rio de Janeiro-DKR: 6 hrs, 14 min.
Caracas-DKR: 6 hrs, 41 min.
Montevideo-DKR: 8 hrs, 30 min.
But while Africa may be our heritage,black Americans — indeed, Americans of all races — generally lack the cultural familiarity with Africa that Europeans, with their colonial backgrounds, take for granted.
No part of the Mother Continent is better positioned to introduce Americans to Africa, and introduce black Americans to their African heritage, than West Africa.
Several West African countries are English-speaking while others are francophone. Americans who can culturally navigate London and Paris wouldn’t have much trouble finding their way around Banjul or Accra or Dakar or Abidjan.
Indeed, there already are travel agencies in the United States that sell tour packages to West Africa, many of them focusing on the history of the slave trade. But the possibilities are so much greater.
None of this will happen easily or overnight. Infrastructure is a huge need throughout the region. Some West African countries are still trying to escape the shadow of political violence. And there are health concerns to be conquered, not the least of which is malaria.
And for some, the mere act of trying to build a tourism industry will be a giant leap into unknown territory, for some have never really made a serious attempt to market themselves to travelers.
But if the nations of West Africa can stabilize themselves, attract the investment they need, focus their energies on building a tourism offering that makes use of their best attractions — and most of all, if they can cooperate with one another, West Africa could become one of the world’s greatest travel destinations.
A lot of big “ifs,” I know. But the way I see it, small dreams are a waste of sleep.
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.
The first actual leg of our West African rail fantasy will take us from French-speaking Senegal into English-speaking Gambia, Africa’s smallest country — and living proof that size isn’t everything. The end of this leg will put us in Guinea.
Second of three parts.
The last hues of sunset are burning brightly behind the Atlantic Ocean as our train pulls into Banjul, capital of The Gambia. Now, it feels as if our West African journey truly has begun.
This is but the first of the national borders we’ll be crossing on this trip, and in the relatively short time we have to make the journey — two weeks for 11 countries — it wouldn’t be practical, or even possible, without this high-speed train. We’d be forced instead to choose a single West African country to visit, and hope we could return someday to see another.
A FLEXIBLE JOURNEY
Now, we don’t have to make that choice. The train gives us great flexibility. We can make day trips at some destinations and overnight or even multiple-night stops in others. And the ease of changing reservations makes adjusting our plans “on the fly” no problem at all.
This evening, we arrive aboard a Velaro high-speed train, designed in Germany by Siemens. Some in our group have ridden Velaros before, in Germany or in Spain. It looks like the streak that a bullet makes as it travel through water.
The Gambia is the smallest nation on the Mother Continent, with an area of barely 4,000 square miles and a population of about 1.7 million people. That makes it roughly the same size in both categories as the city of San Diego. The country takes its name from the river that defines it, and its territory is basically two narrow strips along its banks.
Theoretically, we could cover this country from end to end in a day, but we won’t test that theory on this trip.
Our hotel in Banjul is so close to the station that we decide to walk — some of us rolling our bags along, others of us slinging our cases on our backs with backpack straps, the better to keep our hands free for our digital and video cameras to capture that glorious sunset.
But we can’t spend too much time shooting. We’ve been told that Banjul shuts off its street lights after 8 p.m.
The next morning, we’re up with the sun and hit the streets. First stop, the Albert Market. Your prototypical ramshackle collection of vendors’ stalls found across most of the world. From fruit to fish to fabrics, if they don’t have it, you may want it.
GETTING IN RHYTHM
We have this thing about markets. We like to hit them early, when you’re likely to be their first customers of the day, or late, when they’re trying to make their last sales before going home. We learned that in Thailand.
We make a brief photo and video stop at the ferry terminal, then it’s off to the National Museum to learn a bit about The Gambia and its history. Later, we check out the Tanbi Wetland Preserve.
In between, we check out shops, sample local street food and drinks, chat with locals we meet along the way. We stop to admire the poetic performances of griots and the music of the kora.
It may not seem like it, but we’re taking our time today. We want to get into the rhythm of life here. When you fight the pace of a place, you feel as if you’re constantly swimming upstream. We will not be salmon on this trip.
As if to remind us of our resolve, periodic bursts of heavy tropical rain force us to take shelter in the nearest cafe, shop or covered stall, waiting out downpours with cold drinks and conversation.
The next day, we rent a couple of SUVs and take the ferry across the river to Barra on the north side, but we’re not staying here. We want to pay homage to Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book “Roots.” The village to which he traced his ancestry is Jufureh, about 20 miles away. This, along with the nearby village of Albreda, were a part of the West African slave trade.
Our stay here is brief, but long enough to make me wonder if my own ancestral home, wherever it is in Africa, looks anything like this.
It’s been a full, busy and utterly enjoyable two days. We sit down to a leisurely dinner to review the words we’ve learned in Wolof and plot travel strategy. If I have any energy left, I may spend a little time in a club, listening to some mbalax music — and possibly make a total fool of myself trying to dance to it.
On second thought, I’ll just listen!
The sun has barely risen when we check out of our hotel and head for the train station, with a quick side strip to the Albert Market to buy some food and bottled water for the day’s travel. Our first destination today is Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau.
Even more quickly than the train entered Gambian territory two days earlier, it heads back into Senegal, making a very quick stop in Ziguinchor in the region known as the Casamance.
We leave the train at Bissau. This is basically a day trip for us. We will explore a bit, check out the ruins of the Guinea-Bissau presidential palace and find some lunch.
After that, it’s back to the train to continue on to Conakry, capital of Guinea. It should take us about 2.5 hours, passing through Boke along the way.
We cross many bridges along the way, over the streams, rivers and inlets that flow east to west to the Atlantic. Others are single-track, barely wide enough to hold the rails we’re riding on. At times, when you look down, the train seems to be gliding on air, or water.
One last bridge and we are in Conakry. Three cities and three countries in three days.
To cross the oceans without the glitz and the hype, that’s for me.
A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a couple’s cruise aboard a Polish freighter re-kindled a long-held dream of mine.
I’ve done my share of cruises. They’re fun, comfortable and a true bargain. What’s more, the major cruise lines seem hell-bent on cramming as many pleasurable distractions into them as possible.
Whole “neighborhoods” of arcades, promenades. Theaters. Casinos. Climbing walls. Zip lines. Bowling alleys. The Oasis of the Seas, has an entire bar that goes up and down between decks.
It’s Las Vegas, Disneyland. Just add water and it’s all good.
Or is it? The Godfather of Travel, Arthur Frommer, says this about the current trend in cruising:
“The cheaper of the ships are all being converted into amusement parks. Imagine yourself lying on a chaise lounge on the top deck of a cruise ship, trying to read a novel, trying to enjoy the expanse of the seas…and above your head are screaming, yelling children going on the zip line from the stern to the bow of the ship.”
Freighters offer no glitzy shows; the sea is the star. No all-night buffets (like I need one of those!). Also, no crowds. On a modern container ship, the officers, crew and passengers altogether might not total 50 people.
It’s all about the cargo, which officially includes you.
There’s nothing wrong with all that other “stuff.” Some of us just don’t need it.
My first time at sea was a five-day reporting assignment aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk.
The first morning, I wandered up to the hangar deck. People had gathered at one of those huge openings in the side of the ship for the aircraft elevators. They were staring out over the whitecaps toward a horizon that slowly changed from black to blue to a thin ribbon of red and then gold, and finally a morning sky.
They stood there, or sat on folding chairs, mesmerized, transfixed. No one moved. No one felt the need to say how beautiful it was. The only sounds were those of the wind, the steel hull slicing through the waves and your own beating heart.
Right then and there, I fell in love with two-thirds of the Earth.
Alex Haley, 1921-1992 got hooked on the sea as a cook in the U.S. Coast Guard. Years later, as the author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots,” he was a big fan of freighter travel. This is how he described the experience in a 1986 piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times:
“It is easy to get hooked by the sea. It starts the very first time you find yourself up there on any big, deep-water ship’s deck as it is arriving or leaving, tugboats whistling, their propellers boiling, forward or backward, pushing or pulling, to aid the great ship’s movement through the tugs’ incredible power.
Gradually, then, the big ship starts inching clear of the pier. It is sheerly majestic. You are high over the crowd and you study their faces. No matter if they are grade school kids in Peru or corporate executives in Germany, you can recognize their yearning–that “I wish I could go, too” expression.
And purely instinctively, involuntarily, you sort of languidly, lazily wave down there toward those wistful, pier-bound faces–and they instantly, eagerly wave back to you. Standing up there, feeling proud and tall, if you’ve got any heart and any sense whatever, you’re feeling grateful that He has let you be at least a little facet of this wonderful experience.”
You lose track of days. Simple things become magnified — a deck of cards, a friendly conversation, close-up looks at the way a ship really works.
(Compare that with cruise ships, which take great pains to keep you from “fraternizing” with the crew and seeing how they live aboard ship).
“The days tend to become identified by their characteristics of weather and sea, or by some special event, such as “The day after we saw the giant school of green turtles–”
Clearly, this isn’t for everyone, but if you go to sea for the sea itself, then the relative handful of freighter cruises that still ply the world’s oceans are worth considering.
And since I feel so much as he did, I’ll let Alex Haley have the last word:
“My bag is always packed; I’m always ready to go…anywhere.”
Text by G. Gross | Photos courtesy of Dreamstime.com