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 of Yaya 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.
And God willing, I will.